Craft Recordings‘ vinyl reissue series of Between the Buried and Me‘s early discography continues apace with the band’s third album, 2005’s Alaska. This album started to put the North Carolina quintet on the map outside the relatively insular world of heavy metal subgenres. Alaska was also the record where the band’s current lineup solidified, as vocalist Tommy Rogers and guitarist Paul Waggoner were joined by a trio of new members: bassist Dan Briggs, drummer Blake Richardson, and guitarist Dustie Waring.
To this point Between the Buried and Me had shown themselves to be willing to throw in melodic passages and occasional acoustic moments to contrast their standard setting of harsh, technical metal. Their previous album, The Silent Circus, featured an entire chunk of songs in the middle of the record that were quiet and melodic. Alaska balances the dark and the light better, and the additions of the new members allow for increased nuance in the musicianship. This is also the record where Rogers begins to show off his skills as a keyboardist and continuing to demonstrate his versatility as a vocalist.
The big song here is “Selkies: The Endless Obsession”, which Rogers has cited as the only song from the band’s early era that the group is regularly willing to play live. Listening to it again, it’s easy to see why it goes over well with the band’s current audience of progressive metal fans. It opens with laser beam synths, a wholly unusual sound for the band at the time, playing a catchy melody. Guitars and bass quickly join in and pick up the melody, taking it into variations while Richardson accompanies with cymbal-heavy percussion. Eventually, the guitars add some crunch, leading into Rogers singing in a low, creepy voice before the guttural howl comes in around 1:45 into the song. This long transition from synth melody intro into harsh metal is very smooth musically and really sets the template the band would operate from going forward.
The harsh section goes on for roughly 90 seconds before a quick, menacing-sounding bridge leads briefly back into the main melody, itself a transition into an airy, piano-driven part of the song. Rogers sings angelically while Richardson’s precise snare drum rolls and ride cymbal work provide excellent backup. Then there’s a jazzy guitar solo while the rest of the band lies back, slow and subdued. Finally, the guitar distortion comes back for the song’s two-minute coda. Waggoner and Waring play guitar harmonies and trade melodic solos while Briggs and Richardson throw in just enough flourishes and fills to make this a true full band feature on the finish. The band then lets the song end on a long, melodic fadeout.
“Selkies” is an impressive seven minutes of music that effectively encapsulates a bunch of different styles without feeling forced, but it isn’t all that Alaska has to offer. “Backwards Marathon”, the album’s longest track, doesn’t get the same kind of love but offers almost as many interesting musical choices as “Selkies”. It starts with a harsh, punishing riff and Rogers in full howl, transitioning into a fast hardcore section, slowing back down into a grind, taking off even faster, and so on. These technical rhythm and tempo changes dominate the first two minutes of the song before the band finds a heavy groove and, finally, at the 2:30 mark, lets Briggs’ bass take charge and lead the song into a much quieter section.
This atmospheric passage has Rogers singing in falsetto, “It’s raining / It’s raaainiiiinng”, while Briggs and the guitars echo the same melodic riff off of each other. The band lets this section breathe, content to soak in the musical atmosphere for a full three minutes before the distorted guitars and pounding drums enter and start to push into the final section. Rogers goes for a falsetto ’80s high note before dropping back into the guttural vocals. The song has an interesting ending as Rogers drops the vocals and a melodic guitar lead takes over while the band still grinds along. Rogers then pops up on synth, doubling the guitar lead to finish out the song in a way that effectively combines crunch and melody.
Sequentially, Between the Buried and Me make Alaska flow better than their previous two albums. There’s a logic to this tracklist that separates the heaviest material from the quietest and deftly places the in-between songs, well, in between. Opener “All Bodies” is mostly a pounding, heavy track, but it features a melodic section that recurs in the middle and again at the end with a soaring vocal from Rogers and an extended guitar hero solo from Waggoner. The middle of the track also features synths joining in with the heavier chunks, which is a subtle but fresh wrinkle for the band at this point. “All Bodies” is followed by “Alaska”, with a melodic introduction that’s entirely subsumed by the next three minutes of grinding metal. The almost-parodic “Croakies and Boatshoes” wraps up the beginning of the album with two and a half minutes straight of riffage, double bass kick drums, grinding guitars, shouting, and growling.
Then it’s onto “Selkies” and the 50-second instrumental break “Breathe In, Breathe Out”, which sounds a lot like one of Opeth’s quiet songs from this same period. This leads into “Roboturner”, which, at seven minutes long and offering nothing but rhythmic technical metal and growling vocals, is the album’s clearest link to the band’s earlier material. It’s also by far my least favorite track on the album.
From here the band go to the subdued “Medicine Wheel”, which places the sound of falling rain at the start of the track to set the stage for four minutes of very effective instrumental work. Waggoner and Waring play off of each other while Richardson does a lot of great tom work and Briggs holds it all together with slow but melodic bass notes. There’s a moment in the middle where the song transitions into a much darker sound and stays there, but they never crank up the guitar or go heavy. This lets the fade-in snare roll and metalcore guitars of “The Primer” hit with maximum impact. “The Primer” is mostly heavy and technical, but that melodic metalcore intro returns for the song’s final section, no less technical but allowing the guitar melody to shine through. The song’s final 30 seconds are maybe the first time the band digresses into the weird, anything goes style that would come to define them on future albums. As the metal subsides, the song, apropos of nothing, goes into a weird acoustic guitar waltz that then fades away.
The album finishes with “Autodidact” and “Laser Speed”. The former is another pummeling track of blast beats and chugging guitars, at least for the first two minutes. Then it goes into a series of progressive style, herky-jerky guitar solos and duets before settling into a tense piano, bass, and cymbal-heavy section. The two guitarists return for an extended duet and then the song returns to its pummeling opening section. “Laser Speed”, on the other hand, finishes out the album very quietly. The title is intentionally ironic. It begins with a folky acoustic guitar solo, which gives way to a full band lite jazz jam. Richardson lays back impressively on the drums with lots of quiet ride cymbal and rimshots, while Briggs brings a fat, round tone to his bass playing that is perfect for the style. The folk solo isn’t entirely unexpected for the band, but the lite jazz is a hugely effective curveball that, intentionally or not, sets the stage for the next album, Colors, and its even more adventurous sonic experiments.
After a couple of albums figuring out what they wanted to do musically and a few years shuffling members,
Alaska is really where things started to click into place for Between the Buried and Me. It’s not up to the level they would soon get to, but it’s a strong record in its own right that is worth revisiting for fans of the band.