Maybe the most interesting thing about the new Between the Buried and Me album is that it’s a concept album about a guy in a coma. Interesting not simply because it’s a guy in a coma, but because of what that sorry state of affairs means for the poor fella, and his metaphorical relationship to BTBAM and Coma Ecliptic. Doesn’t matter, really, what got him where he is, just that he’s there, unsure of how to get anywhere else but certain he can’t get back to where he was. His only reference point is his past, his memories, but given the blank slate that defines the future as he will know it, an uncomfortable but auspicious boundlessness becomes his palette. He could tumble in the eddies of uncertainty, doggedly struggling against the flow of what “should be,” or maybe give up the fight and let forces force. Or he just might reflect, assess his hitherto unknown strengths in this new place, make smaller, more nuanced movements at just the right moment to end up just where he’d like in his mind. It’s a strategy we’ve all employed at one time or another, responding to environmental pressures rather than fighting them, making the most of this push and that pull to get where we want to be, mostly by accepting the changes beyond our control and exploiting those within it. It’s growth, and it’s how we change without losing who we are.
You could call it addition by subtraction. In brain development, neuroscientists call an analogous thing “pruning,” a pragmatic term for an elegant process that involves the elimination of unnecessary synaptic connections to free space and resources so that more focused, powerful and efficient neural networks can be built. It’s the beautiful interaction between environmental forces and genetic predisposition; the process that makes us who we are. Again, it’s how we grow. It’s also pretty much how art works, music and heavy metal. And it’s why Between the Buried and Me made Coma Ecliptic instead of The Silent Circus Redux or Colors v2.0.
Plenty of BTBAM fans are already moaning that the band has abandoned its identity, forsaken them in pursuit of what passes for a commercially viable product in heavy music. Or that the band has finally grown old. Both are silly notions, but the latter is indirectly (and accidentally) the most accurate assessment: Between the Buried and Me has grown up. More appropriately, and no surprise to them, they’ve come to know themselves.
In telling the story of a man who’s forced to know himself without the benefit of external cues, Between the Buried and Me has jettisoned much of what once defined them. They’ve dropped a whole shitload of notes in favor of more open spaces; tempered technical chops to make room for melody; shaved away huge swaths of grandiosity for nuanced soundscapes and atmosphere; filtered chaos to better harness latent energy. Between the Buried and Me has become a more efficient machine.
And so Coma Ecliptic is an album more so than previous records. Some have called it a Rock Opera, but whatever; it’s a story well-told through a sequence of musical movements, each piece dedicated to the telling. New sounds and style changes reflect that. It’s no stretch to suppose that Between the Buried and Me picked the storyline and then selected sounds and styles that fit best, as opposed to folding a cool story around pet riffs and chord progressions. What we get then is songs that reflect the shifting peace and ennui, intrigue and terror that being conscious in a coma must bring. When all you’ve got to live is the past, that journey will bring you through all the times, good and bad, and with no recourse but to be there in it, the result will be alternating serenity and chaos, well reflected by the style here and which fits well in the BTBAM canon anyway.
Tommy Rogers’ vocals reflect the band’s turn to nuanced expansiveness, using details within an extended range of styles to fill out the big picture. That picture’s a convoluted and enigmatic one, as is to be expected given the band’s previous works, particularly the inter-album Parallax Saga. Whereas the lyrical details will take some time to digest and may never fully resolve for the observer, the music paces the narrative nicely in the meantime. Opening track, “Node,” introduces the record in familiar Overture style, but the inveterate BTBAM fan will note right away that things feel different, open, pensive relative to past works, yet appropriate to the scene, as loved ones fret over the man in the coma. Songs like “The Coma Machine” and “Famine Wolf” are more familiar but also reveal edges to have been polished, intricacies smoothed, riffs unkotted and stretched out, and atmospheric density dissolved to reflect the wideness of inner space. The band exploits the newfound expanse to fill that palette with hues both familiar and fresh, including trademark runs-up-and-down-the-scales and winks and nods to Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree, but also piano, organ, electronic bleeps and bloops, and winks to Queen, Yes and ELP, and even a nod to Duane Allman from Paul Waggoner.
Intensity crests and contrasts widen as the album progresses and BTBAM makes great use of both to gather momentum heading into the Event Horizon. But, if there’s a quibble here, it’s that all that neurocosmic Sturm und Drang culminates in a bit of a fizzle. Truth told, it’s a bit anticlimactic, the way it ends. Knowing this band, though, it’s but a piece in a grander to-be-determined plan and we’ll be rewarded with a sequel (of sorts) down the road, and that wisp of a promise more than compensates for what amounts to a picked nit.
Coma Ecliptic, for all its newness, is same ol’ same ol’ for Between the Buried and Me inasmuch as it’s the just the next step in an ongoing evolution for the band. Here, as with previous releases, there’s a good mix of ooo’s and boo’s in the fanbase’s reception but, to their credit, BTBAM has consistently defied the expectations they’ve built for themselves and with Coma Ecliptic they’ve redefined them. And, as ever, the product of wide inspiration and relentless inner growth is a fascinating and unique but still familiar thing. Mission accomplished. After all, there really is no pleasing everybody – for any of us – but in the end: Fuck it, we are who we are right now.