Despite my everlasting love for Colors, it’s hard to say Between the Buried and Me aren’t writing the best music of their careers right now. After the theatrical sci-fi pomp of Coma Ecliptic the band crafted a masterful return to their heavier roots in the two-part Automata, developed as a single album before being split into two halves (for easier consumption?) with Automata I beginning the narrative of a man journeying through his own dreams, which are being broadcast to the world as cheap entertainment. How does it end? Four months later we finally find out with the stellar Automata II, which supplies the back half of the concept with some of the most dynamic, engaging and downright killer music the band has ever produced.
The big question around the rest of the internet is how much of an impact was the idea of releasing the record in halves: is Automata II weaker on its own without the framework Automata I provides? From a narrative perspective a small piece is lost in translation; it certainly helps to have the understanding of the concept before jumping in. But I also understand how cutting the album in two allows a listener to really digest and pay attention to all the intricacies embedded in each track: doing that with, say, 36 minutes of music for approximately three months before feasting on the final 33 minutes provides an appreciation lost in the land of immediate obtainment and consumption. So sure: Automata II is potentially weakened in the lyrical department having to live on its own, but musically not a step has been missed, and in fact cutting it in two allows what would normally be the back half of the album to really shine on its own, exhibiting a bold and experimental edge the first part suppressed in favor of a more full throated attack.
Which means you can say “The Proverbial Bellow” is either the opening track of Automata II or the seventh track of Automata. It doesn’t matter, because either way it’s the best Dream Theater song I’ve ever heard without having to actually listen to Dream Theater. The expressiveness Tommy Rogers displays in his solo work blends seamlessly with the band’s 80s era King Crimson guitar gymnastics, ripping progressive rhythms and a layered, powerful vocal performance. The flamboyance of a lick like the one that comes at the end of Rogers’ “I’m so alone here / Sensory bliss” is wonderful and striking because of how much it contrasts against the next section.
At just over two minutes, “Glide” feels more like connective tissue between “The Proverbial Bellow” and “Voice of Trespass” but it’s still a theatrical delight, preparing the listener for the even bolder exercises in straight up prog the band blends into “Voice of Trespass;” it can’t help but stand out as the twisted highlight of the two parts. Featuring a brass ensemble that recalls classic Extreme mixed with a hot swing jazz combo carnival barker delivery from Rogers, the main riff drives relentlessly forward, the the furious pace shattering half way through for a quick xylophone interlude that screams Zappa before pivoting to a prog/funk syncopated descent into madness. There’s a crushing mid-paced recall to “Condemned to the Gallows” that segues back to some serious Zappa riffage a la “Dirty Love” from Overnight Sensation. In other words, it’s a crazed delight.
With an exhausted wheeze, the song segues into the majestic dance of “The Grid” that ends on a more calming, positive note than previous albums. Gone are the abundant zigs and zags, instead focusing on a strong and cohesive melodic line to carry through the song. “Grid” reaches for a sense of peace high in the atmosphere and a gentle return to Earth, and its light touch allows a better view of how every instrument, every sound, connects to build the whole.
I don’t know if Between the Buried and Me have anything left to prove at this point. Each album continues to sound exactly like them without simultaneously feeling like a retread. Even the cutting of a gigantic conceptual epic in half doesn’t hinder their musical message, and if anything serves to highlight the songs that comprise Automata II in a way that keeping the album whole couldn’t have done. I don’t think I’ve had enough time to call this the band’s masterpiece yet, but give it a few more listens and I may have to concede the point: this is one HELL of a feather to put in the band’s cap.