Between the Buried and Me - Automata I
An expertly crafted record, full of kitchen-sink insanity and some of their best clean songs to date that is let down by business interfering with its art
Words: Ben Armstrong
2018 is finally shifting through the gears in regards to new releases and a new Between the Buried and Me record is always a cause for celebration. Well, apart from this one, almost.
Let’s address the big, fat corporate elephant in the room first: Sumerian Records. Even though 2015’s Coma Ecliptic wasn’t exactly to my tastes, it was the third of an excellent series of releases from the band through Metal Blade, consisting of that, Parallax I: Hypersleep Dialogues and Parallax II: Future Sequence. Metal Blade are a proper record label and its CEO, Brian Slagel, is one of the very best guys metal has, has had, and likely will ever have. I’m not sure what I think about Sumerian, however. I like a lot of records they’ve put out but I’ve never been sold on their business ethics. Not that long ago, Sumerian released Alpha/Omega by Periphery; a good album split needlessly across two discs. The two sides offered no useful parallel or contrast, as I’d hoped. This was a cold cash grab, plain and simple. A way to stretch out one release across two physical copies, two iTunes purchases or two pre-order bundles.
Automata I is, unfortunately, the less cultured younger sibling of Sumerian’s cash grab saga thus far. This time, even the thin veil of marketing is missing which convinced us that Periphery’s record definitely was two records and that we should buy into that concept. Nope, here we’re given a clunky ‘Part I’ of a two-part record we all knew (source: leaked tracklisting) that was conceptualised, written and recorded as a single piece. Since I’ll be listening on Spotify and not buying the physical CDs (Mind you, I imagine the record label will target me with a ‘complete’ edition in a year or so), at least I won’t be getting ripped off financially. Though, the real issue here is a label interfering with the integrity of a band that is built so much on creative license, freedom of expression and long-form ideas.
In my opinion, Sumerian really screwed up. I remain open to the idea that it could be the band’s decision to split Automata, but I think this highly unlikely. It’s a shame and a blemish on an otherwise exciting time to be a fan of heavy music.
But what about the music?
Opener Condemned to the Gallows kicks things off in trademark BTBAM style. After Coma Ecliptic’s stroll into the wonderful world of classic prog rock, we find ourselves back in familiar territory once again. It feels as if Coma never really happened as Rogers’ raspy, hoarse screams dominate entire sections of the track and guitars once again roar with gain. There’s an arpeggiated section in the bridge reminiscent of Colors and the entire atmosphere of the piece harks back to the grand scope of Parallax II. It feels almost too familiar, though, like a person who, after falling over in public, glances around hoping that no-one noticed and, in the act of glancing itself, reveals themselves as afraid. This may be too large a criticism. After all, it’s a good song from a band who specialise in writing good songs. Nonetheless, some fans did consider Coma a misstep, and Automata’s opener does a lot to restore the status quo.
House Organ feels to me like the real start of this record. Where Gallows felt like a song written with the MO of being an accessible album opener, Organ begins with the pent up energy and urgency I’ve been waiting for from this band for a long time. Although definitively BTBAM, this track eschews tradition with less dramatic shifts in rhythm and tempo, opting for the Occam’s Razor, the groove, throughout its brief 3:41 run-time. Split into thirds like theatre, the song moves through its acts fluidly, introducing new colours and textures as it goes. The middle section is phenomenal, leaving just the piano and Roger’s earworm vocal melody behind, before the inevitable and climactic build into a grand conclusion. It’s clear even this early in the record that writing Coma Ecliptic was, as I’d hoped, a stepping stone into writing even better heavy material. House Organ does more in less than 4 minutes than some of their songs do in 10.
Bursting out of the ashes of the previous track, Yellow Eyes reinstates another BTBAM trademark in developing one movement across multiple songs. This one is more substantial at nearly 9 minutes and uses Organ as its overture, seeking to develop those previously fleeting moments into longer, more complex arrangements. This is the real deal - with blast beats, jagged rhythms, clean sung sections, moments of melodic clarity and others of sheer rage - here’s the sound of the band firing on all cylinders which I’ve been after. This is kitchen-sink progressive metal at its very best.
"Millions is laced with beautiful lead guitar flourishes and hypnotic rhythm work, whilst Yellow Eyes is the real deal - with blast beats, jagged rhythms, clean sung sections, moments of melodic clarity and others of sheer rage."
Millions is another short one, comparatively speaking. It’s down-tempo and laced with beautiful lead guitar flourishes and hypnotic rhythm work; a much needed breather after that assault on the senses. They off a softer, rounder, less garish sound here but one every bit as interesting and engaging as the brain-melting tunes of old. The main vocal melody is an absolute winner here and everything works to complement it during the song’s first half. In the second, the instrumental takes over and the vocals meld into the background, a texture all their own. Gold Distance then extends this harmonious expanse for an additional minute, a separate track for reasons I’m not certain of, but it’s hard to care. That extra minute works even if it doesn’t warrant its own track. For my money, this is one of the very best clean songs the band has ever written, and it might just be the best.
And now for Blot, the song pulling double duty on Automata as both centrepiece and, for the moment, album closer. At over 10 minutes, it is the second time the band get a chance to hit us with everything in their arsenal on this disc and they deliver. Whereas Yellow Eyes was more informed by the heaviness of the Parallax records, this epic combines the sounds heard on The Great Misdirect and Colors, but with less meandering detours and a more direct approach. Although still very progressive in the grand scheme of things, Blot feels different to the classics but most importantly, it radiates quality. Yet it’s hard to go into the details - it’s a journey I need to take many more times. All I can say is that it’s a trip worth taking.
The track ends abruptly: leaving me wanting more, shouting ‘I’m not an album closer!’. It’s a shame that a business decision had to interfere with the art on this level, and with a record which shines this brightly. That said, Automata I is a success, if not as its own entity, then as a 35 minute burst of brilliance before 6 months of needless silence. Although Condemned to the Gallows threatens a false start, the rest of the album is expertly crafted and shows real progression in the band’s songwriting abilities.
See you in 6 months.