Between The Buried & Me always seem to be on a persistent grind, don’t they? In the past several months, the prog-metal titans completed the 10th anniversary tour of their landmark release Colors, finished recording a new 2-part conceptual album suite which also accompanies the band switching labels from Metal Blade to Sumerian, and are now busy touring behind the first part of that suite, the recently released Automata I. It’s hard not to admire the work ethic of these guys, especially when the musical output remains damn good from album to album. This new conceptual release won’t be completed until summer, which gives us a good amount of time to digest the setup that is Automata I.
The album opens proper with “Condemned To The Gallows,” giving us a dream-like acoustic intro mixed with ambient synths and computerized vocals. The off-kilter nature of the melody is some quintessential BTBAM material, especially once the full band kicks in to reinforce the vibe. As the song progresses, things get quite heavy with plenty of thick chugging guitars, wonky lead guitar noodling, and some hard-hitting technical drum performances, including a particularly heavy passage with some breakneck drumming that alternates rapidly between toms and the bass drum in a rather impressively dense display of Blake Richardson’s virtuosity. It sets a rather impressive stage for the following 5 tracks to build on, especially with Tommy Rogers’ persistent snarling vocal delivery coating much of it.
As the album continues, there’s one recurring songwriting tick that comes to mind. While Coma Ecliptic dived heavily into classic prog-rock territory and Parallax II contained some rather over-the-top theatricality, Automata I sees the band returning to a more metalcore-influenced style on par with their late-2000s output. “House Organ” opens with a menacing drum/guitar groove with some distinct rhythmic accentuations that call to mind The Great Misdirect, especially with some of the double bass work and organs/piano breaks worked in, including one that reiterates the underlying melody of the previous track. While the track closes out with plenty of prog-rock flair with its vocal harmonies and layered guitar melodies, “Yellow Eyes” picks up the heaviness even more. The opening sections have a rhythmically off-kilter tom groove punctuated by a similarly grooving riff and heavy synth accentuations. To drive home the heaviness further, not only does the song have a few fast, driving d-beat passages mixed with intricate guitar melodies, but the song also works in a few blastbeat segments that evoke memories of Colors.
The biggest strength of Automata I is that while the album may not be as wonky and out there as prior releases, the trade-off is that we get what is easily the most well-balanced release that BTBAM’s recorded in a long time. With the multiple vibes that tracks like “Yellow Eyes” go through, from heavy metalcore grooves, prog-rock acoustic segments, and heavy incorporation of organ/glitchy synths, the songwriting manages to hold everything together in a satisfyingly cohesive fashion. This can also be said of the album closer, the 10-minute epic “Blot.” The opening incorporates sitar and exotic percussion with a distinct rhythmic progression, with things shifting rapidly throughout from mid-tempo metalcore bits to sinister synthesizer melodies and disorienting guitar/drum interplay. The clean break offers a soothing reprieve akin to a dream (appropriate, given the album’s subject matter) before the heaviness picks back up for the explosive closing moments.
There’s still the matter of the album’s concept to be discussed, and this gets somewhat difficult to decipher, primarily because we’re only given the first half of the whole picture here. As far as the pacing so far, seeing things divided into two discs leaves us on a cliffhanger that won’t be resolved until the summer, and this can be a bit frustrating, especially given the album’s 6 tracks and runs at a relatively lean 35 minutes. As for the narrative itself, the album deals with a narrator whose dreams of attempting to find his lost family are being broadcast to an unspecific audience as a form of entertainment. The issue here is that this concept tends to get muddied a bit when looking through the lyrics, as they’re not as clear-cut as previous conceptual releases like Parallax II. There are moments here and there, like in “Blot” and “House Organ” where the narrator at least makes it clear they know they’re being watched, and the music video for the prog ballad “Millions” helps easily visualize the concept, but things are pretty hard to decipher most of the time, and will likely not fully come into focus until Automata II.
It’s going to take another few months before we see the conclusion to this cycle and we can get the full scope of what BTBAM is attempting here. For now though, I can safely say that Automata I sets a pretty solid starting point, delivering some of the group’s most cohesive material in a while. The musicianship on display is as tight as ever and the interplay between the band is still on-point. With how solid the material on this first disc is, if disc 2 sticks the landing, this could wind up being some of the band’s strongest material since The Great Misdirect.
Final verdict: Buy it. Fingers crossed that the band closes this suite as strong as they started it.