Review Summary: Alaska is an aural roller coaster through the cold and punishing, yet also startlingly beautiful, landscape that the album is named for.
Between the Buried and Me (BTBAM from here on) is somewhat of an oddball in the music industry. They progress so much with each successive release that it is hard to compare any two of their albums to each other. That progression started with the album that solidified their prominence within the progressive metal scene, Alaska. Don’t get me wrong, their first two albums weren’t bad, but no one anticipated such a stellar release as Alaska after hearing either their S/T or The Silent Circus. The aforementioned albums are great in their own way, but BTBAM’s following releases are simply on another level.
This change is due in a large part to the sudden departure of the previous rhythm guitarist, bassist, and drummer of the band. The new members complement the music BTBAM plays far greater than the previous members. Overall, with the addition of the new members, BTBAM’s musicianship gained direction and maturity. Their technical prowess is unmatched, as just one listen of Alaska will evidence. With the departure of drummer Will Goodyear, Tommy took over clean vocal duties as well, and in turn, his clean singing began to mature. One complaint that many people have with BTBAM is the lack of uniqueness in Tommy’s clean vocals and screams. While this is true of earlier BTBAM albums, his vocals have found an integral place in the music since Alaska.
On Alaska, the bass flows like a stream beneath the crunching drums and rhythm guitar. The serpentine lead guitar, played by Paul Waggoner, winds through the music, giving it a manic soul. Tommy’s screams get the job done, and they are never out of place. He can masterfully switch between growls, screams, shrieks (A howling speed metal passage in “Roboturner” comes to mind), and wonderful clean singing. Tommy’s vocal flexibility is matched only by that of Greg Puciato of Dillinger Escape Plan, but that’s for another discussion.
Each song on Alaska has standout sections that keep the repeat listener waiting for their appearance with bated breath. The occasional breakdowns, bizarre clean sections, and masterful guitar solos spice up each song and make the new listener wonder what will be thrown at them next. The album is surprisingly cohesive, with each section flowing into the next almost effortlessly. There are no passages that seem forcibly stitched together, which was a major problem with Colors.
The heavier segments of Alaska are crushingly heavy, but BTBAM draws less of a Metalcore influence on Alaska than previous albums. But when the breakdowns come, they are quite satisfying, likely due to how sparse they are as a whole in recent BTBAM albums. Just when the heaviness has you yearning to punch senior citizens in the face, BTBAM cleverly works subtle melodies into the music that leave you wondering what’s going on, and then they suddenly pull the rug out from under you and slow the album down for an acoustic break. A standout example occurs on the track “Autodidact”, which is probably my favorite song on the album. A strange talking segment is accompanied by meandering fretwork from Paul, eventually building to a crashing crescendo. This is followed by an exceedingly eerie and foreboding piano driven section, accompanied only by drums and bass. The breakdown at the end of the song only further emphasizes the fact that BTBAM can splice so many different and impressive musical influences into one song and produce a work of art.
Another strong point Alaska has is the crisp production, which is a big step up from BTBAM’s previous albums. The wonderfully formidable sound that Dustie’s rhythm guitar playing adds is an element that should not be overlooked. Throughout the album, the sometimes pummeling, sometimes shuffling drums add an important dynamic to the music. They don’t click or thud too much, which is thanks to the impressive production. During softer sections, like those of “Backwards Marathon” or the song “Medicine Wheel”, the bass is clearly audible, adding an underbelly to the sound that further distinguishes BTBAM from most metal bands.
Lyrically, BTBAM is usually rather “out there”. The title track is a stream of consciousness type narrative about an insomniac living through his worst fear, a night in Alaksa, where there can sometimes be as few as 6 hours of light in a day. However, BTBAM also infuses their songs with social commentary. Such lyrics usually deal with society’s materialism and addiction to money, as well as our dependence on drugs and mass media to get through life without feeling anything. Compared to later BTBAM lyrics, Alaska’s are mostly rather straightforward, but still proclaim a powerful message.
I see Alaska as a sort of midpoint between The Great Misdirect and the Metalcore roots evident on their S/T debut. It has a different sort of appeal than any of BTBAM’s other albums. It is uncompromisingly heavy, but still retains enough wacky and experimental sections to keep any prog nerd interested. This balance of aggression and musical aptitude represents a unique progression in the musical journey that BTBAM puts a listener on. BTBAM is a flagship in the emerging fleet of progressive metal bands, and with Alaska, they have journeyed into uncharted waters. As BTBAM continues to push the boundaries of heavy music, no one knows where this musical evolution will take them. I think Alaska is the highlight of this forward-thinking band’s career, and an album that will be hard for any band to eclipse.