Between the Buried and Me

between the Buried and Me singer Tommy Rogers has said that his favorite CD's of all time are Queen's first seven albums. Judging from his band's sound, he's not joking. If Queen were a death metal band, it would be Between the Buried and Me. And if "Bohemian Rhapsody" were a death metal album, it would be Alaska. Replace hard rock, piano balladry, and opera with death metal, prog rock, and emo, and the result is one of the most intensely colorful albums you'll hear this year.

Forming in 2000, the Raleigh, North Carolina-based band took its name from a line in the Counting Crows song "Ghost Train." In 2002, Between the Buried and Me released its self-titled debut, which revealed amazing technical proficiency. Recorded almost wholly live in the studio, the album explored different shades of metal and hardcore, with turn-on-a-dime unpredictability. The band's next album, The Silent Circus, was its breakthrough, gaining a cult-like following by mixing metal, hardcore, jazz fusion, emo, and electronics, sometimes all in a single song. "Mordecai" was the album's anthem, a "Bohemian Rhapsody" of sorts for the camo-short set. Astoundingly, the band wrote the entire album as a piece, each song building upon the last.

Alaska demonstrates this same singular vision with skillful track sequencing. The album is organized into three sections separated by instrumentals that provide breathers from the madness. And what madness it is, with the highest highs, the lowest lows, and everything in between. The first song, "All Bodies," is a veritable symphony:
0:00 - Chugging death metal
1:08 - Proggy odd meters
1:45 - Anthemic chorus with spiraling guitar arpeggios
2:25 - Dramatic orchestral stabs
2:53 - Apocalyptic, crashing chords with more guitar arpeggios
3:14 - Back to the death metal
5:29 - Operatic vocal harmony and "hey, hey!" chant
5:42 - Anthemic chorus with spiraling guitar arpeggios
This may look like the recipe for a headache, but it absolutely works. The band has significantly tightened up its songwriting from its previous "everything but the kitchen sink" approach. Transitions are natural now, and the band seems to have settled on a formula: technical death metal as the foundation, quiet parts for contrast, and insanely melodic choruses with the aforementioned guitar arpeggios. There's much room for variation in the quiet parts. ""Backwards Marathon" has a soft, psychedelic interlude, "Medicine Wheel" has glistening clean tones, and "Laser Speed" closes the album with straight-up bossa nova!

As for the guitar arpeggio, it has become the Between the Buried and Me trademark. In lesser hands, it would merely be wankery. But unlike conventional metal shredfests, the arpeggios here go over triumphant pop chord progressions, and are deliciously melodic and controlled. "Selkies: The Endless Obsession" is a perfect example. For the most part, with its proggy odd meters, the song could pass for one of Opeth's. But in true Between the Buried and Me fashion, there's an out-of-nowhere vocoder passage and an ecstatic rideout with luscious, jaw-dropping arpeggios. Who would have guessed that some former hardcore punkers could pen a prog metal opus using mythological creatures as a metaphor about media exploitation?

Rogers' quirky, personal lyrics avoid typical "evil" metal themes. "Alaska," for example, is about trying to stay awake on the road, and unlike, say, Bob Seger's "Turn the Page," it shows, not tells:

"Eye motions… in out… heat lightning, scares us both… the only two people awake at this fucking hour… I won't remember this in the morning… at least I wrote this all down… please pick the right song… the one that keeps the eyes wide… creepy… yes, creepy… the idea of control… controlling death with alertness… when is the fucking sun coming up."

These stream-of-consciousness lyrics happen to be delivered with one of the scariest death growls this side of Morbid Angel. It's an interesting contrast, the non-metal lyric with the metal delivery, and the lyrics are worth reading. But even without the lyric sheet, Rogers' vocals are compelling. With cookie monster growls, midrange rasps, high shrieks, and sweet emo crooning that rivals Ben Gibbard's, Rogers is one of the most versatile rock singers today; only Greg Puciato (The Dillinger Escape Plan) and Mike Patton (Faith No More, Fantomas) have more range.

Aptly, Between the Buried and Me is touring with The Dillinger Escape Plan and Hella this winter in the indie chops fest of the year. It's a good time for uncategorizable music right now, with Chiodos (who also claims a Queen influence) and The Fall of Troy taking similar "anything goes" approaches. When Freddie Mercury sat down at the piano and wrote "Bohemian Rhapsody," he could hardly have imagined that bands 30 years later would build entire careers around its kaleidoscopic spirit. The song has practically become a genre unto itself, with Between the Buried and Me leading the way.

Reviewed by: Cosmo Lee
Reviewed on: 2005-09-28
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