Isn’t it great when progressive rock bands actually progress? North Carolina’s Between the Buried and Me have been flaunting their musical chops from the get-go, but for quite a while, they were barely known outside metalcore circles. Young audiences were quick to embrace the quintet, who despite showing some tremendous potential for something beyond the simple combination of metal’s dexterity and hardcore’s crunching breakdowns, appealed to the karate-kicking kids with the requisite screamed vocals and melodic death metal riffs, which countless American bands have been doing for the past seven years.
As their core fanbase has grown up, though, so too has Between the Buried and Me. Their second album, 2003’s The Silent Circus, particularly the track “Mordecai”, was a major turning point, as seemingly all of a sudden, the band had discovered the knack for delivering sublime melodic moments, be they vocally or guitar-based, to serve as a sedate counterpoint to their trademark visceral power. The momentum carried over in a huge way two years later on the superb Alaska, which dared to match Swedish greats Opeth when it came to labyrinthine arrangements and shockingly beautiful introspective moments. If we thought these boys were good then, last year’s covers album The Anatomy Of had our minds reeling at the limitless musical possibilities they were capable of. The fact that all 13 songs were faithful renditions of the originals was beside the point, as the band made it look ridiculously easy, hopping from genre to genre like precocious young prodigies: Queen, Depeche Mode, Metallica, King Crimson, Blind Melon… they nailed each one. After lifting our collective jaws up off the floor, the only question remaining was whether they would be able to bring that kind of variety to their own compositions.
Two minutes into Colors, the answer is a resounding yes. Hell, yes. Good grief, yes. With the ravenous appetite and unbridled euphoria of a bunch of four year-olds in a candy store, Between the Buried and Me has at last allowed all those myriad influences to surface, giving us a record that holds absolutely nothing back for 64 continuous, mind-boggling minutes.
Especially in the era of the compact disc, the idea of a whopping single-track album is nothing new, but the overall results, especially in recent years, have been decidedly mixed. Sleep’s massive, lugubriously lengthy Dopesmoker is universally regarded as a stoner rock masterpiece. Meshuggah’s bold Catch-33 lacked staying power, but was still an impressive display of the Swede’s challenging time signatures. And the less said about the Mars Volta’s tepid wank-athon Frances the Mute, the better. What is so remarkable about Colors, however, is that for all the dozens upon dozens of twists and turns this psychotic suite unleashes, they never come at the expense of the central melodies, and never for one second sound contrived.
It’s all there in the opening section “Foam Born (a) The Backtrack” (good to see these lads have the prog rock song titles down), and frankly, it’s incredible how this band is able to get away with what they do. Starting with just singer Tommy Rogers and his piano crooning a The Bendsstyle melody, gentle waves of guitars and cymbal crashes straight out of Weezer’s Blue Album kick in, moog synth spiraling in and out of the background, before giving way to a darker segue reminiscent of mid-’90s melodic death metal, which then inexplicably explodes into an astounding piece of theatrical black metal, as if Norwegian legends Emperor had decided to sit in for 30 seconds. The crushing death metal intro of “(b) The Decade of Statues” begins immediately after, and we’re off to the races, completely at the mercy of Rogers and his mates for the next hour or so.
To map out every section of this album would be a mammoth task (although one can imagine an obsessive fan doing so to a meticulous degree on his or her blog), but half the fun is discovering new little instances of inspiration with each listen. “Informal Gluttony” opens and closes with a thunderous Middle Eastern-inspired segment similar to the atmospheric touches of death masters Nile. A bit of Weimar cabaret interrupts “Prequel to the Sequel”, Dan Briggs delivers some terrific bass solos on the instrumental “Viridian”, and a weird piano vamp interrupts “Sun of Nothing”, which then leads to a summery, almost calypso section, climaxing with an uncanny imitation of Dark Side-era Pink Floyd. The obvious centerpiece of the entire album is the 13 minute “Ants of the Sky”, in which things get increasingly convoluted, from Queen-style solos, to chugging Hammond-driven hard rock, to breakneck thrash metal, to smooth soft jazz soloing, to the capper, a ridiculous moment of country music, complete with clinking bottles and the sound of a bar brawl in the background.
All the while, Between the Buried and Me keep themselves from falling off the deep end by firmly rooting their increasingly eclectic sound in classic metal, be it power, death, thrash, or black. For each time they throw a curvevball our way (and yikes, are there a lot of them), Colors always falls back on that central metal sound, and by the time “White Walls” reaches its majestic conclusion, the musical tangents that seemed ludicrous at first seem natural. A true marvel, this challenging but ultimately highly rewarding album is an example of a young band just discovering what it’s capable of. At the rate they’re going, the modern metal pantheon awaits.