[16 October 2012]
PopMatters Assistant Editor
Many have accused prog for being the genre equivalent of a Catholic wedding: it just goes on and on without any end in sight. Tell a prog fan that a seven minute song is long and she’d probably laugh at you. Between Dream Theater’s “Octavarium” and anything in Neal Morse has ever written, the mean length of a given song on her iPod is probably somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes. After all, why just have one instrumental section where the guitar, keyboards, and bass trade off string-bending solos when you can have five, right? With Dream Theater breaking the Billboard Top 10 with their last album, A Dramatic Turn of Events, the popular perception of prog will continue to involve top-notch instrumentalists jamming on for as long as they damn well please. Length isn’t inherently bad of course; Ayreon’s The Human Equation and 01011001 both come close to approaching two hours, and they’re pretty fantastic prog records. They don’t lend themselves to a casual listen, but it’s not wrong for an artist to demand a lot of his audience when his art warrants it. Sometimes pushing the envelope requires a little more than 50 minutes of one’s time.
It’s that idea Between the Buried and Me’s career has more or less been working towards. When the group released their self-titled back in 2003, they were a band with undeniable strands of prog running in their DNA, but they never shot for the 10-plus minute epics that are the norm in prog. Alaska (2005) is the refined achievement of their early years; the group managed to seamlessly switch between different metal genres within a single song, all with the determination and skill of a band that has a true progressive vision. Still, during that time most wouldn’t have lumped them in with the likes of Tool or Porcupine Tree; folks who identify as fans of prog at the broad level tend to be wary of the death growls that were heavily present on Alaska (vocalist Tommy Rodgers even does the thankfully abandoned pig squeal on “Croakies and Boatshoes”).
After Alaska came the titanic achievement in 2007’s Colors. I’m willing to give Between the Buried and Me grace in any future reviews of their work, because it is going to be brutally difficult to try and top a record like Colors. A single hour-long song may sound like a Tuesday for a prog band, but Between the Buried and Me’s frenetic, constantly evolving sonic is not easy to keep up for an hour’s time. Amazingly enough, they pulled it off, and to this day Colors remains a monumental achievement in metal music. It’s an undoubtedly ostentatious work that commands every second of its runtime, and it’s an absolute blast throughout. Anyone who found the death metal overbearing on Alaska had a lot more to like in terms of prog on Colors; as a result of that LP, Between the Buried and Me’s career trajectory has been toward prog metal legends.
Unfortunately, with The Parallax II: Future Sequence, they’ve hit something of a roadblock. Future Sequence, the second of a bizarrely-structured half EP/half album sequence that began with last year’s The Hypersleep Dialogues EP, is 72 minutes long. Having just discussed the prog fan’s propensity toward lengthy compositions, anyone reading this view likely didn’t bat an eye. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t either; since I’d gladly sit through the entirety of Colors any day, and I very much enjoyed The Hypersleep Dialogues. Future Sequence is only 10 minutes longer than the former; that much time couldn’t mess things up, could it?.
Well, it does. Very much so. This isn’t to say Future Sequence is a bad album; at times it’s as engrossing as their past material. The organ break a minute and a half into “Lay Your Ghosts to Rest?” Cool. Throwing in a dreamy piano waltz (“The Black Box?”) halfway through? An unconventional choice, sure, but it actually works quite well. The riffs at the beginning of “Astral Body?” Pretty awesome. But the feeling that’s left by when minute 72 has run up is that of sonic overload. With Colors, the music was dense and frequently shifting, but everything flowed so well together by some unexplainable quality that it didn’t feel like a chore to listen to. Sadly, this is the most chore-like thing this group has produced yet, a case of prog’s worst excesses taking over. In trying to be a Very Serious Concept Album, The Future Sequence lets the goal of being imposing run show, to the point that your watch is going to become atypically interesting by the time “Telos” kicks in. This all adds up to Between the Buried and Me’s Michael Bay moment: there’s a lot going on, it’s all flashy and cool, but one would expect more from the people who have made works of brilliance in the past.
To watch a group of musicians as talented as Between the Buried and Me capitulate to overindulgence, while not unexpected given their requisite style, is disappointing. Fortunately there’s enough in The Future Sequence to make one think there’s a great album to be found somewhere amongst these 13 tracks. In fact, to a newcomer, this might be the mind-blowing metal album of 2012. The technicality of the musicianship is as impressive as it’s ever been before, the fluidity of the transitions between the songs is well done, and there’s plenty of pulverizing death metal riffs. But even in The Future Sequence‘s best moments, it feels like the work of a band comfortable in its own ambition. It’s all too easy to be impressed, and that’s the exact kind of complacency one wouldn’t expect from these guys.