Review Summary: Yes, a 5. It's that good.
Take a seat and listen for a bit. Between the Buried and Me are a strange band. They’ve always been. Everyone who listens to metal knows about them, and either loves them or hates their guitar-sweeping and polka-ing guts. They are controversial. They had the popular disadvantage coming from hardcore and metalcore roots into the realm of progressive music, where arguably the most critical and scrutinizing fanatics dwell. Some think they urinate on the graves of late metal idols with their goofy and blasphemous interludes that seem to come out of nowhere.
While Colors is often hailed as their magnum opus, it and The Great Misdirect suffered from a critical flaw that has plagued them up until recently. When the band decided to write a new record, they had a few jam sessions, came up with hundreds of cool-sounding riffs, and just strung them together. It was just good fortune that big folks in the prog metal scene (namely, Mike Portnoy) noticed their technically impressive yet disjointed music. As such, they got to jump on the tour bus in Prog Nation 2008 with heavyweights like Dream Theater
. On that tour, they impressed with their technicality and precision. Between the Buried and Me got a much larger following as such, and felt they had to go balls-to-the-wall weird in order to impress their new audience further. They lost their way with The Great Misdirect. The searing passion and emotion found in their earlier efforts was lost. Everyone wanted a new Colors.
In retrospect, I believe that the band have never found out quite why Colors was so well received, and The Great Misdirect was created with the style they believed led to their success. They wanted to top their surprise runaway hit with something created out of conscious effort for perfection. However, Colors became well-known not because it was perfect, as many seem to believe, but because people heard about it through word of mouth. The album was propelled solely by its own praise, and it became a trend. Everyone who wants to be taken seriously as a musician wants to be associated with music that is considered deep, technical, and slightly pretentious.
Now, I’m not saying Colors is a bad album. Far from it. There was something bewitchingly final and desperate in the midsection of White Walls (“Step back. Evaluate. Recognize.”). It was one of those rare moments in music that stays with you. However, I don’t believe that was intentional. It just happened. That’s music. I can’t say I was the first person to listen to Colors first, having never heard of Between the Buried and me, and only liked the first track, finding the rest of the album to be a boring string of riffs. It had to grow on me, and that isn’t always a good sign.
As we all know, for better or worse, progheads love their odd time signatures and highly intricate guitar solos. I was one of those progheads. I loved whatever blew my mind as an instrumentalist. That was high school. Years later, it’s no longer about those things to me. Music has to have a soul. If you’re going to use odd time signatures, take a leaf out of the libraries of Tool or Meshuggah, who have mastered the creation of the elusive groove in this way. You can’t dump your favorite colors of paint all over your canvas and call it art. Likewise, you can’t just string random riffs together and call it a song. BTBAM have drawn a lot of heat for this, but things have taken a turn in 2012.
This takes us to Future Sequence. In the 2010’s, it seems more people are clamoring for better, more powerful songwriting, if I’m correctly feeling the pulse of the music community today. That trait was featured on Specular Reflection, a song that ended up being a prophetic expression of things to come. Goodbye to Everything first starts with a surprisingly gentle acoustic introduction reminiscent of Tommy’s solo work, and then balloons into an adrenaline-fueled launch that introduces the galactic scope of the record. Themes are reprised and repeated to great effect. The key-shifted echo from Extremophile Elite that hearkens back to the midsection of Specular Reflection is frission-inducing (“Walking into a certain state of -”). The intense and calm parts ebb and flow. There is breathing room given to the heavier bits through softer, shorter ambient passages, so as not to suffocate the listener. Future Sequence is never so furious to the point of being an impenetrable mass that Colors could be at times (“Is this song over yet"”). There is even a monologue on Parallax ala 90’s Dream Theater, which leads into The Black Box, beginning with a spacey piano that wouldn’t sound out of place on Opeth’s Damnation. This track serves as a buildup to Telos, which is definitely a song worthy of extended introduction, especially finally presented in context and not surgically removed and posted as a teaser. Telos, the track we’ve all heard, is the most aggressive of all of them. Breaking the album down into smaller, more digestible bits was a much needed reprieve from their past strategy of creating colossal tracks that discouraged anyone from listening to them the whole way through. Sorry BTBAM, we’re not that focused, and we’re glad you listened.
Ah, and there’s the subject of the goofiness they’re known for. It’s still in there, and Bloom features some of the strangest vocals I’ve ever heard come out of Tommy’s mouth this side of Pulse. If you’ve ever wondered what surf metal would sound like, it’s yet another quirk that cements Bloom as possibly the strangest song they’ve ever written. But these sections are not shoved directly in the middle and there is sublime transition in and out of them. The interludes help to keep the album intensely compelling. In the past, they could leave the listener lost in the woods with how fleeting and alienating they could be. An example of this is the xylophone section on Extremophile elite. Whereas a less mature BTBAM would have kept this section quarantined to a few bars in the middle of the song, it instead serves to introduce a haunting passage that continues for quite a while, before leading back into themes expressed earlier in the song, bringing the listener back to familiar territory. Yes, even the surf metal section does this, introducing a heart-pumping lyrical verse that evokes an image of riding a board across spacetime itself. There are more cleans than growls on this record, which might come as a relief to some. Or it may be that the cleans are much more memorable than they’ve been in the past.
Nearing the closing of the album, we reach the domain of the two epics, “Melting City,” and “Silent Flight Parliament.” These two names will command respect from both fans and the band alike for the future of the BAM’s live show. They are independent masterpieces all their own, yet still part of a larger picture. Melting City is blended perfectly with the happy and fun tone Bloom started, before leading off into a Sun of Nothing-style section with a flute solo evoking images of cool nights on the beach. It is through repetition of this section that the song emulates a recurring bothering thought that tempers a temporary happiness, leading to the representation of frustration through an oddly heavy riff accentuated with the timbre of a harpsichord. A lead bass section, extremely pleasant to listen to, builds in the stylistic crescendo of White Walls to an exhalation of relief through the verse “Faceless in a sea of space!” From here, the song ends with a grunt from Rogers and a few seconds of breathing room.
In contrast to how its predecessor got going, Silent Flight Parliament begins over a slow, ponderous and rolling riff similar to the one introducing White Walls, without the urgency and much more foreboding, with a tone of slowing down after a warp-speed journey through space, and signaling the closure of Parallax. It is in the middle of this song that the band seems to lose control of their discretion as they’ve done on previous records, though for just a moment. It’s like when you’re driving a Civic down a blustery highway at 90 miles an hour. Thankfully, they don’t end up on the side of the road and recover to continue onward with a soft passage with some more Damnation-esque acoustic chords. These lead into yet another of Parallax II’s musical apexes, though this time it’s to end the journey through yet another colossal section recalling White Walls’ intense heaviness with a headbangingly awesome riff with a guitar battle of sorts. This band knows how to end a record for sure. I can’t wait to experience this song live. A small orchestral section, perhaps a bit more depressing than intended arrives, with the verse: “Jet propulsion disengage. Dancing towards our future. A future of nothing.” Finally, we have the reprise of the opening track, a John Petrucci style mid-tempo jazzy solo over cymbal taps. It is a crucial element that increases the album’s re-listenability tenfold. It begs you to give it another spin, and you comply because it’s such a damn, damn, damn good record that won’t have me reaching for the skip button anytime soon.
The guys have pushed themselves even farther with this record. I daresay the most improved out of the bunch is Tommy, once dismissed as solely the conceptual and lyrical director of the band, is now a formidable clean singer with a plethora of styles under his belt. His screams, another intensely polarizing aspect of the band, are much better produced and exercised with more control, and are never in excess as they could be in the past. Paul and Dustie trade off incredible solos that are never out of place and always unique (at least I think they both get equal room for performance). One of the things I always liked about BTBAM is the musical strength of their guitar solos, technicality taking a backseat when it was time to make a meaningful statement. These men speak through their instruments. I can’t ever recall a solo of theirs that was just showing off their speed or finesse as guitarists. Briggs, possibly the greatest modern metal bassist, is mixed in extremely well, even if he follows the lead more than usual, and doesn’t get a moment to show off as he did in Colors’ Veridian. Blake Richardson, yet another technically impressive musician finding new territory to exploit in this album, has incredible moments when his drumset seems to speak the notes of the guitars through percussion as if the complete difference in instrument classification is merely a mild foreign accent.
A notable and commendable trait of the album seems to be that I didn’t have to look in the booklet to get a vague understanding of the concept. The music expresses the kinetic and psychedelic concepts of the lyrics extremely well. It helped to have a picture of two asteroids on the front cover to seed such understanding, but this synesthesia of sorts is an indicator of acute attention to detail.
Between the Buried and Me have created one of the first truly surprising records in the genre this late in the year. Truly, The Parallax II: Future Sequence makes their past work look like 4th grade art projects. The sheer ferocity and feeling this music represents blew me away on my first listen, and still continues to do so. At over 72 minutes, it’s their longest album to date, and not a single second is wasted. They have come far, and improved much, pushing both themselves and the genre to this point. To me, that's what progressive metal is all about. I am not left with the bad aftertaste that The Great Misdirect’s false endings evoked. Years down the road, this is the album I will remember them for. You can have Colors. This is the culmination of their efforts, their masterpiece, the one thing they will spend the rest of their careers trying to improve upon, and I don’t even know if that’s possible. What a compelling and enjoyable experience it was, and continues to be, to listen to Parallax II.