Automata I was a divisive work for Between the Buried and Me, as some fans — myself included — felt that while it was a great collection overall, its familiarity and safeness made slightly it underwhelming as well. As such, expectations for the concluding half of the progressive metal quintet’s eighth studio album were tempered a bit, which is exactly why Automata II ends up being so immensely satisfying and surprising. More epic, emotional, and eccentric than its counterpart, the record showcases Between the Buried and Me at their most effective, daring, and self-assured, resulting in a joyously brilliant sequence that ranks alongside the group’s best work.
Interestingly, even the band acknowledges how much more unpredictable and bold Automata II is. In our recent chat for The Prog Report, for instance, rhythm guitarist Dustie Waring admitted, “Part I started as all business, whereas this one needed more of the weird shit”; likewise, the official press release has bassist Dan Briggs reflecting that the LP takes their sound “into a whole new terrain…. It’s quirky, adventurous, melodic, dark, and full of theatrics”. If Automata I found them assuaging fans with a tried-and-true formula, Automata II sees them astounding listeners with a bevy of ingenious twists and turns that further illustrate why Between the Buried and Me are masters of their craft.
“The Proverbial Bellow” kicks things off with a dynamic stampede of feisty riffs, sleek keyboard interjections, and urgent rhythms that instantly stands as one of Between the Buried and Me’s most infectiously intricate and flamboyant sections to date. From there, things quiet down so vocalist/keyboardist Tommy Rogers can offer a hypnotic motif that evokes Gentle Giant and sets the stage for his poignant decrees. His verses (“I am I / What is this?”) are commanding enough, but it’s his chorus (“Please pick up / pick up the phone / it’s been ringing”) that truly mesmerizes as arguably the most impassioned and gripping passage he’s ever sung. Of course, the arrangements suit his narrative expertly the whole time, shifting between abrasive complexity and psychedelically calm counterpoints with the sort of exquisite lunacy that the group does best. Frankly, it’s one of their greatest achievements yet and a clear testament to how determined they are to challenge themselves and their audience after all these years.
A carnivalistic piano ballad, “Glide” acts as a peculiar but touching respite between its hyperactive bookends. Complemented by accordion, marching percussion, and other colorful oddities, its heartfelt core is quite moving and tasteful—that is, until it shifts into a kind of danceable vintage boogie during its final moments. Not only does this provide another clever and ambitious deviation—demonstrating once again how erratic Automata II is—but it also lulls you into tranquility before segueing into “Voice of Trespass”, a vicious assault that’s easily Between the Buried and Me’s most atypical and startling track in years.
Channeling the wacky density of groups like Diablo Swing Orchestra, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, and Major Parkinson (as well as Devin Townsend’s “Bad Devil”), “Voice of Trespass” is a whirlwind of timbres and styles that also features Rogers’ trademark sinister affectation (which he uses at least once per album). It’s a ceaselessly addictive and inventive recipe that seamlessly mixes the beloved Between the Buried and Me template with shades of jazz, swing (obviously), and classical before its ominous second half offers the strongest link between the two parts of Automata. It’s as exciting and imaginative as it is overwhelmingly sophisticated and volatile, making it a classic in their catalog.
As you’d expect, “The Grid” conveys a similar sense of bittersweet finality as previous full-length closers like “Silent Flight Parliament” and “Option Oblivion”/ “Life in Velvet”. An initial juxtaposition between clean and harsh dispositions yields an enthralling narrative conclusion before eventually settling on acoustic closure (“We / are in this / together”) and classic rock guitar solos. Unsurprisingly, it all flows effortlessly, striking as many emotional chords as it does musical ones and leaving you exhausted but immensely gratified and awe-struck. It feels like the end of a grand sonic journey.
Automata I was a superb sequence, no doubt, but Automata II is a downright masterpiece. Exploding with captivating melodies/lyrics, vibrant antics, genre-splicing resourcefulness, and remarkable cohesion and consequence, it exemplifies perfectly what makes Between the Buried and Me so skillful, striving, and singular. No one does progressive metal like them (although many try), and the fact that they can still impart so much unrestrained and multifaceted freshness into their formula is amazing. As a result, Automata II achieves three feats at once: it ranks as its own triumph while simultaneously recontextualizing—and elevating—Automata as a whole and strengthening Between the Buried and Me’s place as the king of the genre.