Friday, October 20, 2017

Hypersleep Monologues: a Retrospective on Between the Buried and Me

If you like heavy metal and haven't been living under a rock for the past ten years, you know two things: one, that Dave Mustaine and Metallica have made peace, and two, that there's this really off-the-wall band from North Carolina called "Between the Buried and Me."

BTBAM are known primarily for two things: mixing disparate musical genres like a flooded palette of watercolors and working with time signatures that are impossible to count and switch between unless you're a supercomputer. This latter bit is what initially piqued my interest in them—generally, when they include odd time signatures, it's done quite well considering the guys have been brought up in the West, the domain of 4/4 music.

What I've aimed to do in this article is provide a retrospective on BTBAM's original album releases. I've excluded live albums, compilations, and The Anatomy Of (because it's a cover album).

Between the Buried and Me (2002)

I never noticed until just now that there's a leafy branch behind the "between." (source)
BTBAM's self-titled effort was released before I started junior high. I am officially an old man.

As I listened to this album so I could write this article, I immediately noticed that the production sounds a little unpolished. Not necessarily complaining, mind, but it almost sounds like they recorded the guitars directly onto the master right out of the line-in without applying any effects or equalization to them. Perhaps a better way to describe it is "lo-fi," particularly the ending of "Shevanel Cut a Flip." (Also, about 4:32 into "Use of a Weapon," there's what sounds like an error on part of the drummer, like he was trying to play a variation on the ride cymbal pattern and didn't quite get it. Initially I was a bit surprised they'd keep that take, but then again this was their first album and who knows what kind of financial constraints they were under that might have made rerecording infeasible. They weren't yet the progressive-metal powerhouse they would become.)

The second thing I noticed was the lack of the odd time signature work that BTBAM would become famous for. There are a few hints of it, mostly on the second half of the album. For example, you can hear a polyrhythm about halfway through "Use of a Weapon," with one of the guitars playing a pattern in three where everybody else, notably the drums, is in four, and the intro to "Fire for a Dry Mouth" seems to alternate between measures of 4/4 and 9/8 (or a similar just-over-four time signature). In addition, the opening of "Shevanel Cut a Flip" seems to dip into 5/4. But overall, it's 4/4 or 6/8 all the way.

One thing that did not change was the stylistic variation. "Shevanel Cut a Flip" is the major example of this, with most of the song being a chorus-drenched, non-distorted ballad in triple time. The beginning of the song is what you'd expect from a metal band, and then there's a weird section where it sounds like people are ordering food at a café—which, particularly if you're familiar with Colors, really shouldn't be surprising—and then a bunch of ostinatos that fade into deliberate clipping while the song plays out.

The Silent Circus (2003, re-issued 2006)

Incidentally, "Lost Perfection" describes what happened when they released Coma Ecliptic. (source)
Where Between the Buried and Me felt lo-fi, The Silent Circus opens with the audio equivalent of finding yourself in a dreary, foggy morning before sunrise, wandering around a bit because you're ignoring every movie you've seen where something bad happens in a situation like this, and then getting bashed over the head. In other words, for its sophomore offering, BTBAM improved noticeably over their self-titled release.

With Between the Buried and Me, only a few bits of odd-time material made it onto the album. On The Silent Circus, it's easier to name the songs that don't include odd time signatures ("Shevanel Take 2"; maybe "Reaction," if "Reaction" even has a time signature at all). BTBAM's material from here on out is liberally sprinkled with bizarro meters like 5/4, 7/4, 13/8, and 15/16. It works better in some places than others—"Camilla Rhodes" is about as subtle as a brick through a windshield about its 5/4 work early in the song; conversely, "Mordecai" has so many tempo and meter changes it's hard to determine which way is up (in a good way, I feel).

Again, BTBAM jumps in and out of genre. This is neatly exemplified if one listens to all of the tracks from "Mordecai" to "Ad a Dglgmut" in order. "Mordecai" is about half-and-half prog metal and anthemic grunge/soft rock. Immediately following this (unless you're watching the official music video, which switches the order around for some reason), "Reaction" is almost straight-up ambient music comprised of some synth chords, sotto voce lyrics, and unintelligible background whispers that fade into "Shevanel Take 2," an acoustic song that wouldn't feel out of place on a Lukas Graham album. And once that fades out, "Ad a Dglgmut," whose title is apparently the result of someone along the line having a seizure at the keyboard, is a medium-hardness rock song if you ignore the thrash-metal bookends.

As far as the metal aesthetic itself, it's alive and well. Both sections of "Lost Perfection" feature some truly merciless shredding. "Camilla Rhodes," which I mentioned above, is, for all its flaws, definitely on the harder side of its genre. "Aesthetic" features sections of persistent power chording, blast beating, and breakdowns. "The Need for Repetition" starts with an almost sludge-metal section that could almost have been performed by Sleep, if Sleep had formed several decades later instead of releasing Jerusalem.

BTBAM started experimenting with synthesizers on this album (or, at least, this is the first time it's easily noticeable). "Destructo Spin" opens with some high-pitched stabbing at sine waves, and as mentioned above, "Reaction" is almost entirely synth-driven. Synthesizers become more prominent as BTBAM matured.

Perhaps the percussionist in me is a bit more inclined to pick up on things like this, but the drums in this mix have more presence, at least in my estimation. Perhaps they upped the bass in the mix. The double-pedal work in particular has more "oomph."

Roger Ebert, in reviewing Psycho, wondered "why Hitchcock marred the ending of a masterpiece." I find myself asking a similar question about the hidden track at the end of "The Need for Repetition." It's … quite puerile. Not quite as bad as Waking the Cadaver releasing a recording of themselves using drugs on their debut album, but still, it doesn't do them any favors.

Alaska (2005)

What exactly are "croakies" and "boatshoes", anyway? (source)
Maybe I'm in the minority here. Maybe I'm not. But this is my favorite BTBAM album. It was how I was introduced to them, and it's the album I'm most inclined to listen to when the mood strikes.

Again, there's a very strong opening statement in "All Bodies." There are four counts of lead-in before the band starts chugging away full-force. Then there's an almost piratical "heave-ho"-type section, which is followed by a truly inspiring 5/4 component.

The track "Alaska" was my first BTBAM experience. I remember being astounded at all the time signature changes, and for me, it has held up in all the years since. Then there's the ending. Some may find the ending of "Alaska" too drawn-out for their taste, but I think it's like a train going full-bore and letting its momentum carry it as far as it can before it finally ends.

If you like your listening experience to go up to 11 on the Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness, try "Croakies and Boatshoes" and "Roboturner"; these two are the frontrunners for being the single most intense song in all of BTBAM's discography. I mean, sure, "Disease, Injury, Madness" off of The Great Misdirect (q.v.) has that epic first two minutes or so, and "White Walls" off of Colors plays out with almost Dragonforce-like speed work, but "Roboturner" and "Croakies" are consistent throughout. Even the eight-measure phrase with no distortion in "Roboturner" sounds like a black hole is wandering by and tugging at the lead guitar.

I mentioned above how the band began to experiment with synthesizers on The Silent Circus. Probably the representative specimen of BTBAM synth usage would be "Selkies: the Endless Obsession," which opens with a 7/8 ostinato played on a synthesizer. Other than that, there are also "Medicine Wheel," which functions as a sort of musical breather episode, and the 5/4 section of "All Bodies" mentioned above, which manages to sound hollow, electronic, and orchestral all at once. (I'm unsure if the opening of "The Primer" uses a synth or just fed-back distorted guitars.)

There's a resurgence of the freight-train, harshly-vocalic feeling in "The Primer," followed by a truly improbable ending in "Laser Speed."

Colors (2007)

"By your powers combined…" (source)
This album is probably regarded by most as peak BTBAM. I don't think it's their absolute best album, but it has considerable clout. I was in high school when this came out and it was pretty earth-shattering.

We start with a soft piano intro in "Foam Born (A) the Backtrack." This eventually builds up into a more hardcore metal-esque ending leading into "Foam Born (B) the Decade of Statues." Then we segue into a … I'm not sure what you'd call it, really, that comprises "Informal Gluttony." Seriously. It's a mix of stereotypical "tribal"-type beats, Afro-Cuban influence, and Arabesque guitar riffs when it's not chugging guitars and palm-muting. But it's not without cause that this is the song they made the T-shirt out of.

"Sun of Nothing" is where my beef with post-Colors (actually, probably post-Alaska, but the post-Colors era exemplifies this) BTBAM starts to crop up. The genre-shifting, in my opinion, starts becoming a little too self-indulgent. It's not nearly as bad as what happens two albums down the line, but still, the non-metal components start grating on me here. Thankfully, at about 9:35 into this track, we get some nice riffs back into a more conventional ending that also serves to preview "White Walls" a bit. "Ants of the Sky" similarly has cleaner, less-harsh sections, but I think there it works better with the song as a whole thematically (plus there's less de-emphasis of the harsher pieces). At least until the very end, of which a large portion is a straight-up bluegrass jam with audio of a saloon or a bar playing over it. Yeah.

"Prequel to the Sequel" feels more like the Alaska era, albeit a (very) slightly counterfeit one. Again, there's a cheesy interlude that's straight out of the repertoire of an accordion player on the Champs-Élysées, if that accordion player spoke English and formerly played for the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I liked that part a lot more in past years; maybe I'm getting old and elitist.

"Viridian" is a beautiful instrumental piece. Again, I liked it a lot when it came out, but I also like it now because it actually has relevance to the overall feel of the piece. There's some clean guitar work reminiscent of the intro to "Naked by the Computer" from the self-titled album. This leads into "White Walls."

I wouldn't dispute anyone who says that "White Walls" is BTBAM's magnum opus. The song is about fifteen minutes long and manages to cover so many decades of heavy metal successfully that there are people who have grown old and died between the eras they hearken back to—not to mention the blistering clip the guitars play at towards the outro. The final notes belong to the piano from the start again.

At this point, I wonder if BTBAM didn't start trying to do too much. As I mentioned earlier, I prefer Alaska over Colors. I don't mind listening to (most of) Colors, but it seems like they started doing things just for novelty as opposed to experimentation faithful to the overall tone of both the album and them as a group. But, still … "White Walls."

The Great Misdirect (2009)

Or, as many fans of the band might describe it, "The Great Misfire" (source).
The opening to The Great Misdirect, "Mirrors," strikes me almost as a bait-and-switch. There's a tantalizing preview of a musical chainsaw to the gut, but then they launch into a ditty akin to the work of, say, Pat Metheny or Jaco Pastorius. It's not terrible—actually, it isn't even bad—but it's not what I was expecting. "Obfuscation" is where the beat drops, so to speak, and it's actually a rather nice throwback. The two tracks seem like an attempt to repeat the experience of the first two songs on Colors, except the payoff doesn't happen at the end of track one. It's also a more harmonious beginning—again, not a bad thing, just a bit unexpected.

"Disease, Injury, Madness" has a fantastic first minute forty-five or so. It's the musical equivalent of punching a bear into submission, especially that riff at 1:26. But then, if I can borrow a quote from someone who reviewed James Cameron's The Abyss, there's a huge left turn. The musical atmosphere becomes quite rarefied and a bit corny (the sferic-like synthesizer drops don't help) and it's very hard to get back into the song once it picks up again. On top of that, once it does, there's another musical left-turn into a fast-forwarded Pink Floyd paraphrasing that ends up back in Jaco territory before ending with the musical equivalent of Dracula as performed by Howdy Doody.

"Fossil Genera (a Feed from Cloud Mountain)" is, upon a relisten, much better than I remember it being. Again, it feels like a somewhat-lighter Alaska-session jam that got saved for later. There's one part in the middle I don't care for, but even then it still resembles "Autodidact" from Alaska. Towards the end, we get a similar vampiric vibe, except I think they pull it off more successfully than in "Disease, Injury, Madness." I think the particular chords, or rather the variance between the notes comprising them, has more than a little to do with this.

"Desert of Song" just irks me. In this case, I place part of the blame on the time signature, because it's like a six-eight shuffle throughout a large part of it.

"Swim to the Moon" is kind of uneven to listen to. There's some absolutely fantastic passages reminiscent of Mastodon in the first third of the song, and the remainder of the song has its moments of "classic"-type material, but overall it's kind of like a plate of mashed potatoes that you put in the microwave, and when you bite into it, half of the bite is scalding and the other half is still frozen.

Overall, I'd have to say this album, for all its faults, has grown on me. The vision of BTBAM's musical evolution may have exceeded its grasp at times, but there are still plenty of worthwhile moments on this one.

The Parallax: Hypersleep Dialogues (2011)

Or, if the cover's anything to go by, "The Parallax: Migraine Auras" (source).
The first track is "Specular Reflection," and the opening statement is unexpected. Thankfully, I mean "unexpected" in the way that I'd grown accustomed to BTBAM being. It's very Steve Reich-esque, even in the instrumentation, and wouldn't have felt too out of place in Music for 18 Musicians, and then it's back to full-speed-ahead very quickly. Overall, the first track was like a happy medium between the pre-Colors and post-Colors eras.

"Augment of Rebirth" and "Lunar Wilderness" have this gritty, stripped-down feel to them (yeah, multiple guitars and an ersatz Farfisa organ is "stripped down," right?), and I feel much the same about these as the opening track. I found it a very pleasant listen.

There's really not much to say about this one because it was just a three-track release. This EP struck me as a return to form. The release was intended as one half of a concept project. Could the second half complement this successfully?

The Parallax II: Future Sequence (2012)

Well…no, not really (source).
The first track, "Goodbye to Everything," already starts off on a troublingly lackadaisical note, and is basically the minor prelude that exemplifies the post-Colors norm. Then we launch into "Astral Body," which … honestly, the thought struck me that it was almost like newscast bumper music for about a third of its run, with the rest of the song coming off like the soundtrack to a direct-to-video CGI movie, except with metal screams over it. "Lay Your Ghosts to Rest" begins on a promising note but devolves into overly self-indulgent jazz.

"Autumn" is a sort of harsh ambient-noise track for the inside of a spaceship. Because I like that sort of thing (ask me about my thoughts on Tim Hecker or Merzbow sometime), I enjoyed it. The intro to "Extremophile Elite," however, unpleasantly crashes your interplanetary joyride, both in aural tone and in its triple-time shuffle feel. It manages to recover somewhat by about forty seconds in, but then launches back into the same jaunty melody from earlier for a few seconds. If suspension of disbelief is a thing for albums, that track just destroyed it.

"Parallax" is similar to "Autumn" in that it's an interlude, a breather of sorts, and that I like it. It differs by actually having a melody driven by slow, longing, chorus-drenched guitars and a spoken-word segment, delivered by a narrator who bears a striking vocal resemblance to Liam Neeson, overlaid. "The Black Box" might as well be a jack-in-the-box.

"Telos" is another warmed-over helping of mashed potatoes. What's more frustrating is that the good parts are good in and of themselves, but they just don't go together. It's like finding bits of lobster in your mac and cheese. This then leads into "Bloom," which is just over-the-top and ridiculously corny (there's an obviously-blatting tuba). BTBAM were always ones to bend genres, but I think that they snapped it on this one.

I don't care for most of "Melting City." Most of the last third of the song, however, is very good. Hits a nice medium between frenetic and melancholy, up until they start kicking it into high gear again. Again, very jarring, and not the understandable jarring of their earlier albums.

"Silent Flight Parliament" is yet another grab bag full of the rocks and candy corn of music—there's too much being done, and it seems like concepts got shoehorned in. The final track, "Goodbye to Everything Reprise," is almost an afterthought—a coda, if you will.

This album comes off to me almost as a parody of BTBAM. Sure, in their classic era they would do ridiculous stuff with genre-shifting, but in the days of yore, their experimentation felt like it had purpose. On this album, it's incredibly blunt and feels as if it was done just to do it. Again, there are some enjoyable bits, but in my opinion, the negatives outweigh the positives—all the more disappointing given how good Hypersleep Dialogues was.

Coma Ecliptic (2015)

"No, you did not fool us" (source).
This album is easily the lightest release in the BTBAM catalogue. There are still hints of the metallic signature from which the band originated, but it's largely been shed.

Again, we have a now-typical opening statement in "Node," which flows pretty seamlessly into "The Coma Machine." The trouble, from my perspective anyway, is that it feels more like a pop album with a salting of distortion. There are a ton more synthesizers, largely cheesy ones at that, and the album is very unsubtle about them; the exemplar from this release is "Dim Ignition."

"Famine Wolf" is probably one of only two songs on this album I'd voluntarily listen to on even a semi-regular basis, as it at least partially captures the feel of the original band. I can even forgive the bizarre ending that leaves me somewhat "out in the cold." "King Redeem / Queen Serene" is also rather enjoyable after the first two minutes and twenty seconds for much the same reasons.

"Turn on the Darkness" reminds me of a certain ill-fated Spider-Man musical in more ways than just the title. While there are more classic hardcore-metal elements, this gets destroyed by the '80s power-ballad-type vocals and power chords that are also present. This is followed by "The Ectopic Stroll," which I found not very interesting in general, and "Rapid Calm," which reminds me of Alaska's "Laser Speed" in many respects. Again, I actually quite like the third quarter of it, but it isn't very BTBAM-y—it's another synthesizer run. Also, the ending has a cowbell and sounds more like Kansas with rough singing than the masters of odd-time death metal.

From the standpoint of instrumentation, "Memory Palace" is very good for most of its duration. The vocals, however, cut the heart out of the piece for me. The following track, "Option Oblivion," has the exact same strengths and weaknesses. "Life in Velvet," the outro, is saved from this fate by an overflow error from the use of the piano; it has this very late-1800s vibe to it that manages to keep the song from imploding before the guitars kick in at the end.

In my opinion, Coma Ecliptic was a logical progression given the band's trends; the perceived recovery of Hypersleep Dialogues was an aberration. Their original self-titled release was almost entirely within one genre, and subsequently the group started including elements from other, some might say contradictory, influences. I suppose from my subjective standpoint, it did largely seem that the softer elements became more and more prominent as time went on, with Hypersleep Dialogues being the exception. I wouldn't say it's the end of the world, but it certainly isn't to my taste.

What do you think? Am I old and elitist or am I on the right track? Let me know in the comments!


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