Regardless of what one’s opinion of Between the Buried and Me’s 2012 concept LP The Parallax II: Future Sequence is, it’s hard to deny one thing: it’s certainly the band’s Most Album. Running 72 minutes long over 12 tracks, three of which run over the ten minute length, Future Sequence is a brain-twisting phantasmagoria of tempo changes, breakdowns, and all-around instrumental virtuosity. Just when a song picks up momentum or a theme begins to establish itself, suddenly the group pulls a fast one, and off in a new direction the song goes. Take, for example, the short number “Bloom”: think you’re getting into a Queen-esque, theatrical metal tune? Well, not long after it kicks off with a rapid piano figure, it pulls out some maneuvers from the metalcore playbook, after which it then segues into a twelve-bar blues section. Because, hey, why not? Heralded as a work of genius by many and an overstuffed kitchen sink by others, Future Sequence nonetheless unites all rival interpretations with one fact: easy listening, it ain’t.
Now, given the trajectory Between the Buried and Me have been on starting with 2007’s masterful Colors, the writing and arranging styles present on Future Sequence are hardly surprising. Indeed, many of the sonic tricks on that record can be found on 2009’s The Great Misdirect and the predecessor EP to Future Sequence, 2011’s The Parallax: Hypersleep Dialogues. But while this band excels at dense, labyrinthine compositions, Future Sequence commits a cardinal sin that all too many modern prog bands are happy to do: confusing quantity with quality. There is a truly impressive amount of things going on in Future Sequence, but just shy of halfway through the LP the law of diminishing returns kicks in hard, with each new time signature change feeling more obligatory than surprising. As I wrote in my review of Future Sequence for PopMatters, the record can be best described as Between the Buried and Me’s “Michael Bay moment”: there’s a lot going on, it’s all high-octane, but there’s too much movement and not enough focus for it all to stick. In toning down their requisite metal histrionics and focusing on actual songwriting, Between the Buried and Me produce their best record since Colors with Coma Ecliptic.
As such, the structure of Coma Ecliptic, Between the Buried and Me’s latest outing for Metal Blade, looks worrying at first pass. Shorter than Future Sequence by only five minutes, Coma Ecliptic is, like that record, a concept album, a loosely framed narrative involving “the wanderings of an unidentified man, stuck in a coma, as he journeys through his past lives.” Although none of the tracks go on longer than ten minutes, “Memory Palace” runs just shy of it, and the rest run for somewhere between six and eight minutes. All the surface indicators, then, suggest a retread of Future Sequence’s bloviating.
Amazingly, the exact opposite is true. Coma Ecliptic bears all the signposts of a Between the Buried and Me album, but rather than a constant barrage of tempo changes and dynamic shifts, the music is streamlined, with the focus now on the actual songs themselves. Themes recur not just within each song, but also throughout the album as a whole. The balance between frontman Thomas Giles’ clean and harsh vocals is better than it’s ever been, with the more frenetic metal bouts appropriately placed at strategic moments, in distinct contrast to Future Sequence’s schizoid bursts of screaming. Balance is the key factor that makes Coma Ecliptic as successful as it is. The natural flow of these songs is reminiscent of Between the Buried and Me’s strongest record, Colors.
Take highlight cut “The Ectopic Stroll” as an example. Beginning with a wicked groove shared by piano and guitar, the track then develops imid-section rife with frenetic, finger-melting guitar technique. Had nto a Coma Ecliptic gone the way of Future Sequence, it would have juxtaposed that section with another similarly knotty section, resulting in Cinnamon Challenge levels of instrumental overload. However, after all the fury comes to a close, the band reintroduces the opening riff with a slightly new variation, bringing the music back to its original ground. This kind of arrangement can also be heard on the second track, “Coma Machine”, which similarly uses piano/guitar interplay to a compelling, syncopated effect. In their wild-eyed ambition, Between the Buried and Me have in the past failed to put a filter for their seemingly endless ideas; with Coma Ecliptic, they’ve found the songwriting structures that effectively bind together their sundry turns and tricks.
Coma Ecliptic is most impressive on a structural front, but it’s no slouch on the sonic end either. After 2005’s Alaska, a potent stew of various metal subgenres, Between the Buried and Me moved increasingly towards a prog-centric rather than a metal-centric style. While there are no shortage of downtuned guitars and death growls on Future Sequence, in its overall aesthetic and in its composition, it’s far more akin to contemporary prog than it is to metal. Metal remains an integral part of the sonic equation on Coma Ecliptic, but prog is even more at the fore here, with the influences of Yes, and King Crimson out on full display. Lead single “Memory Palace” echoes Alex Lifeson’s guitar technique and tone in more than a few places. The midsection of “Turn on the Darkness” even evokes Dream Theater circa Scenes from a Memory.
This continual move into proggier territory is coupled with the reduced amount of harsh vocals on Giles’ part, which suits the music just well. The light/dark contrasts throughout Coma Ecliptic are all the better for the increased usage of Giles’ normal singing voice, which in turn makes the more brutal passages feel all the more visceral. On the bipartite “King Redeem — Queen Serene”, Giles sings melodiously over acoustic guitar arpeggios accented by piano and chimes for the first half; in the second, staccato low notes on the piano transition the tune into its cathartic, double bass-driven climax, where his growls are in full roar. Giles’ clean singing also bookends the album on the two keyboard-driven short numbers “Node” (opening) and “Life in Velvet” (the Freddie Mercury-indebted closer). His voice has improved considerably since Between the Buried and Me’s earlier days, and even when he tries out a less-than-successful vocal inflection — his attempt at a theatrical croon on “The Ectopic Stroll” comes off more Adam Sandler than Mike Patton — he’s so successful on the whole that certain eccentricities can be forgiven. And this is prog, after all: eccentricity is part of the game.
In terms of its musical style and its tight composition, Coma Ecliptic succeeds. On the matter of it being a concept album, here the same fact of Future Sequence remains: if you follow the concept (a lyric sheet will be necessary), it can enhance your appreciation of the music, but it isn’t necessary to enjoy the album on its own terms. This is in large part due to the structure of the narrative itself, which the band describes thusly: “Each song is its own episode in a modern day, sort of The Twilight Zone-esque fashion.” Rather than utilizing the narrative-in-reverse of Future Sequence, Coma Ecliptic takes a decidedly more episodic angle, and as such neither the music nor Giles’ varied vocal delivery suggest a rigid movement of the plot. Some continuity is afforded to the album by its short opening and closing tracks, but on the whole the music moves at a fine pace, whether or not you’re tracking the story as it unfolds.
Ultimately, it’s more important that Between the Buried and Me have overcome the faults of Future Sequence and its repository of random ideas. The levels of both cerebral creativity and musical energy are just as high on Coma Ecliptic, but here the group strains out all the excess, leaving behind only the best ideas behind. This record is no casual listen, but it feels only half as long as its predecessor — even though, in actuality, it is but minutes shorter. The reason Coma Ecliptic feels so much less lengthy is because of a subtle distinction that mars even the most talented of musicians: the focus is on songs, not ideas. One could cram a piece with any number of the latter and make it impressive-sounding for all of its convolution; however, it’s the former that’s the most fulfilling, as Coma Ecliptic thrillingly evinces.
In his review of The Great Misdirect for AllMusic, Jason Lymangrover asks of Between the Buried and Me, “Is there such a thing as being too ambitious?” On past releases, the music made by this band pointed toward a “yes”. Fortunately, with Coma Ecliptic, Between the Buried and Me prove that ambition isn’t the issue; rather, it’s figuring out what to do with it.