Revisiting the Beginnings of Progressive Metal Titan Between the Buried and Me
Between the Buried and Me's debut is a little weirder than expected, but not nearly as creative as they would become.
Between the Buried and Me
Between the Buried and Me
15 May 2020
Like much of the band's current fanbase, my first exposure to Between the Buried and Me was with Colors, their fourth album, and the one where they embraced the anything-goes progressive metal sound they've continued to develop throughout their career. I'd never gone as far back as their self-titled debut album, so with this new vinyl remaster and reissue, it was the perfect time to see how the band got started.
My impression going into Between the Buried and Me was that it was all grinding metal with very few of the weird flourishes the band later became known for, but that isn't quite the case. The album's cover is the first indication that this wasn't a typical heavy metal release for 2002. It's a tranquil cover, featuring an empty stage with a single bright light highlighting a grand piano and a music stand with sheet music on it, and "between the buried and me" in small, standard black print at the bottom. It's a striking image because it's so incongruous with the music contained within. Whether this was meant as irony or as a hint to the band's future aspirations, it definitely sets the record apart visually from the metal of the time. The reissue features a record on clear vinyl, which is always a cool, interesting look, and the album sounds great played at 33 1/3 rpm.
Whether the music itself is great is a trickier question. It isn't quite what I was expecting, but it also isn't that far off. Between the Buried and Me is indeed an album full of pummeling drums and chugging guitars, but there are more hints of the band to come than I was expecting. Take opener, "More of Myself to Kill". It begins with a burst of noise and vocalist Tommy Rogers screaming his head off, hardcore style, and shifting effortlessly into more of a death metal growl. At the 40-second mark, there's a short guitar lead, the first hint of a melody in the song, but it's quickly subsumed in a tempo change where the band slows down and gets weightier, before going even slower and lower. But then, after maybe 95 seconds, the noise fades away into a single clean guitar riff, and drummer Will Goodyear sings cleanly, "Memories/ Keeping / All these tears inside."
These lyrics are repeated and even joined by harmony vocals, and eventually a three-part vocal, before letting the guitar riff take back over. The band then drifts on this groove for a while, letting guitarist Paul Waggoner quietly add texture (it's not exactly a solo). All told, this section lasts for nearly two minutes before cranking it up again into a blistering melodic guitar-led metalcore section. At this point, the song goes back into the heavy noise of the beginning, filling out another two minutes of the track with shifting tempos and screaming and growled vocals before landing on a 30-second outro with a pair of simple guitar riffs interlocking and finishing it out.
That is a hell of a lot packed into just under seven minutes of music. It's daring and interesting, and the band's willingness to linger on a slow, clean, decidedly not metal-sounding section placed them a little apart from many of their musical peers in 2002. But "More of Myself to Kill" is also not particularly thematically coherent as a piece of music. When the band returns to the heaviness after the metalcore bit, it only gives the slightest nod to the earlier heavy section, and the outro riffs come out of nowhere as well. Adding songwriting skill to the technical chops was something that only started to emerge in fits and starts on their third album Alaska and into Colors, and didn't really start to click until the band's fifth album, The Great Misdirect.
Technical chops, cool digressions, and songs that are only moderately coherent is pretty much the order of the day for this particular album, as it turns out. Each one of these eight tracks has something interesting going on, but a lot of the time, it's kind of a slog to get to those interesting bits. For example, Side B opens with "Fire for a Dry Mouth", all balls to the wall pounding and growling, with lyrics (much thanks to the printed lyrics on the back of the record sleeve, they're incomprehensible aurally) that are an extended "fuck you" to a former friend.
But after five minutes of this, the guitars suddenly get melodic, with a great harmonized duet that leads quietly into "Naked By the Computer". This track begins with tender, soft guitars, with hints of classical guitar poking around the edges before it hits a slow, heavy riff a minute in. The band sits on this riff for a full minute before launching back into something fast and heavy. "Naked" has the weird distinction of getting less and less interesting as the song goes on, as each new section is a little more generic-sounding than the previous.
Other songs here serve up their curveballs at more unexpected times than the beginning and end of the tracks. "Aspirations" starts with more metalcore style melodic guitar and quickly shifts into chunky rhythmic riffing, but then slides into another melodic guitar section that even gives bassist Jason King a moment to shine, before returning to the opening riff. The metalcore influence is something the band left behind relatively quickly, and it's kind of a cool aspect to their sound when it pops up here and there on this record This return of a musical theme is notable in and of itself, but the early '80s-style falsetto metal singing that shows up for about 30 seconds here may be the record's most delightful surprise.
"What Have We Become" ends the first side with four minutes of punishing metal, but leaves time for a slow, melodic guitar outro, first with a heavy solo and then with the same kind of quietly picked solo playing that we hear at the beginning of "Naked". Album closer "Shevanel Cut a Flip" uses this same tactic but in extremis, stretching the song length to nine minutes and starting as heavy, noisy, and chaotic as possible. It hits the record's most random digression 80 seconds in, though, as a single guitar plays a herky-jerky riff over the noise of a crowd at a bar, and a swingin' jazz beat comes in on the ride cymbal. After about 25 seconds, the riff is recontextualized into a more typical heavy sound and King gets a real bass feature.
That is all a precursor to the song's real change, though, as right around the 3:30 mark the clean guitar picking that typifies all of the album's quieter sections returns. And this time, it sticks around for the rest of the song, with a pleasant groove that shifts from light to darker and back. Clean vocals and harmonies return as well, eventually letting the band take back over and sit on the groove for the song's final three minutes, fading out in a haze of white noise. It's interesting to see that when Between the Buried and Me include quieter sections throughout this album, they are mostly quiet in the same way, with soft drums and floaty but quickly picked guitar riffs. They were willing to take big musical swings here but not always able to pull it off.
I also noticed that lead vocalist Tommy Rogers was not yet playing keyboards on this record and that he ceded the clean vocals to drummer Will Goodyear. Goodyear has a strong voice, but Rogers, who already is doing a variety of screams, growls, and guttural grunts with his harsh vocals here, turned out to be equally adept at traditional singing as well once Goodyear left the band after this album. Another thing that surprised me was the blatant musical call out to Faith No More in "Arsonist". Between the Buried and Me has often seemed like a band taking a lot of musical inspiration from the kitchen sink metal-adjacent lunacy of Mr. Bungle. So to hear them play what is essentially the closing riff from the Faith No More track "Jizzlobber" in the middle of a song was an unexpected shout out to vocalist Mike Patton's other famous 1990s band.
There's a lot to like about Between the Buried and Me for fans who have never dipped back into their early material. It's worth a listen to hear where they started, with an ear towards where they were going. The vinyl reissue is quality, so for people who like their records, this is a good one. Despite the chances they were taking, though, this is not the band at their best. Unless you are already a pretty big fan of the band's harsher material and other metal of that ilk, I'm not sure how much listenability most current fans will find in this record.
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