There aren’t many bands that infallibly cause you to utter, “What the actual fuck!?” in response to every album they release, but Between The Buried And Me’s brain-splintering conundrums of multi-genre madness have the ability to confound and inspire awe in equal measure, leaving the listener to wonder: “How the fuck do they do that?”
Clever enough to cause a minor brain haemorrhage with the sheer complexity of their cross-genre compositional tapestry, the North Carolina quintet have never been ones to take the easy route. Back when the hardcore scene was kicking and screaming its way through the new millennium, they were doing things that turned the rebellious genre on its head.
“When our band was more rooted in the hardcore scene – and I mean the legit, Straight Edge hardcore vegan scene – even from that time it was still about the music,” says bassist Dan Briggs. “Our peers would be jumping around on the stage, going nuts, and that was cool to see, but we just wanted to play the shit live like the way we wrote it.”
Going against the grain is within their genetic make-up. Not many bands can truly own the term ‘progressive’, often buckling under the enormous weight imposed by mixing up too many styles, signatures or genres without the cohesive glue that makes sense of the desire to experiment. But Between The Buried And Me, even in their raw infancy, were determined to put an original and sometimes puzzling spin on the punk-rock aesthetic.
ON THIS ALBUM WE’VE DEFINITELY GONE FOR A MORE DIVISION BELL -ERA FLOYD THING.
Too heavy for fans of progressive rock, too progressive for the hardcore kids and too downright bonkers for a lot of metalheads, they continued to carve a niche for themselves in the face of criticism that they were being clever for clever’s sake, hopping from genre to genre like a kangaroo on a bed of hot coals. But somehow they managed to knit these musical motifs together like they were natural bedfellows.
With their new album Coma Ecliptic, they’ve nailed it again, reaching further into the realms of accessibility than they have ever gone before, yet still cultivating a head-spinning kaleidoscope of progressive rock and death metal, packaged up in their unique brand of controlled chaos.
“On this record we were more concerned with writing crushing, emotionally heavy, dramatic themes than constantly writing neat little fucked-up parts,” states Briggs, who describes Coma Ecliptic as a modern rock opera inspired by his time immersed in conceptual masterpieces over the last few years. He quotes Quadrophenia, Operation: Mindcrime and The Wall, as well as Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stravinsky and Mussorgsky as inspirations.
“The material is not as dense this time,” says Briggs. “The arrangements are more purposeful; we did more with less. I was trying to propel myself into a different mindset. We wanted to rewrite the script and really propel ourselves forward.”
Saying they’ve done more with less is a little like saying they’ve expanded the Complete Works of Shakespeare. This is a band that from the offset mixed musical elements from hardcore and quasi-death metal to melodic prog, and now they’ve had time to mature and experiment even further, fans will know to expect the unexpected.
“On this album we’ve definitely gone for a more Division Bell-era Floyd thing,” says Briggs. “It’s a big jump forward, but to me it just sounds like BT Bam [Briggs’ truncated reference to the band’s name]. If people are drawn to the death metal elements then they might be disappointed, in all honesty.”
Coma Ecliptic does indeed show a significant evolution since their self-titled debut, and may be their most theatrical release to date. While their debut had singer Tommy Rogers using death metal vocals to inject the record with a heavy dose of ferocity over a hotbed of flailing hardcore riffs and beats, their latest offering, following on from 2012’s conceptual opus The Parallax II: Future Sequence, continues to make good use of Rogers’ vocal diversity. Gone are the acerbic screams. Instead, he makes full use of his repertoire with smoothly sung melodic phrases and Machiavellian character voices.
“I wanted to take a different approach,” says Rogers. “My girlfriend and I went to see a Danny Elfman play. It was an orchestra playing Tim Burton songs and he sang a few Nightmare Before Christmas songs and it was the most intense performance I’ve ever seen outside of screaming. He was creating the same feeling I got when I was young, watching guys basically rip their throats out. I wanted to somehow capture that energy on this album.”
It helps that the band are all on the same page. When Briggs came to his bandmates with the idea of making something “more dynamic, more theatrical”, Rogers agreed. “The character voices were really fun on The Parallax,” enthuses Briggs. “I wanted to dig a bit deeper into that, and the outcome is a rock opera… or our version of one.”
Daring. Difficult. Complicated. Cerebral. All words that could be used to describe Between The Buried And Me’s sound. And as much as we like to think that talent is born and not nurtured, the group’s finely honed musicality was not a product of getting tanked up on whiskey, nor has it been a vehicle to get ladies into bed. Belonging to an elite group of bands like Dream Theater, Periphery and Tesseract, the group have often been viewed as geeky, and are adored by fans who like to pour over the technicality of their playing.
“We’re all pretty normal guys in our own weird way – we’ve never had a party aesthetic to the band,” admits Briggs. “Three of us have never even drank or smoked in our lives. I was studying upright bass on the classical curriculum but I was also playing in hardcore bands, fusion-prog bands. I loved Dream Theater and King Crimson, as well as Earth Crisis. Not much has changed – a couple of the guys are getting married and Tommy has a three-year-old son. I’m single and I just keep starting bands.
WHAT WE DO NOW IS NO LESS SHOCKING THAN THE STUFF THEY LISTENED TO IN THE 70S.
“It’s a hard thing to justify to friends and family who don’t quite get it that you’re in a band and you make a living out of it but that you’re not goddamn Led Zeppelin and you’re not the guys playing cover sets at the bar.
“I shrink into my shell at any kind of family gathering,” Briggs adds. “I hate talking about myself and what I do. It’s not because I’m embarrassed – I just don’t want to fucking explain. There’s a stigma; they have something predetermined in their heads that I’m either Led Zep with my own private jet or I’m a poor, shitty scumbag who probably mooches off my parents.”
Trying to work out what Between The Buried And Me stand for isn’t easy. While their career-long rebellion against the norm could be seen as a political move, they’ve been steadfast in their response: we just do what we do. So how does a band born out of the hardcore punk scene end up using progressive rock as one of their main influences? It doesn’t take a genius to guess that mum and dad had something to do with it.
“Inadvertently, I got into what my dad was into when he was in his late teens, which was Zappa, Gentle Giant and Genesis,” says Briggs. “It was nothing they pushed on me – I just have his genes so at least when I’m around him and his brother, they kind of get what I do. I’m like, ‘You have Can albums, I know you listen to weird shit still!’ What we do now is no less shocking than the stuff they listened to in the 70s.
“I also remember when we were writing Alaska and Colors, we would stay at Blake’s parents’ house. His mum had a nice mural downstairs of record covers, stuff like James Taylor and Steve Miller Band, and I thought that was kind of cool. But there was also stuff like Emerson Lake & Palmer, …Court Of The Crimson King and Close To The Edge, and I was like, ‘Woah, she’s really into this stuff!’ I used to look at it and think about what a crazy time it was back then when bands like that were huge.”
You can be forgiven for thinking that Between The Buried And Me are the sonic equivalent of a cryptic crossword. But no matter how obtuse they are, they make an otherwise jumbled collection of ideas fit together neatly, cohesively, conceptually and, most importantly, emotively. It’s the reason why they’ve hit the bullseye and why hordes of fans flock to see them when they tour, even if those fans are there to perve over time signatures.
“If there’s one thing that blows my mind, it’s this,” says Briggs. “When I was 17, I was obsessed about getting into Berklee College of Music. I got accepted but it didn’t happen because it cost too much. But now when we play Boston, all these kids from the college show up. I tried so hard to be in their situation and now they want to be in mine. It’s crazy. Things are pretty good right now.”
This article originally appeared in issue 56 of Prog Magazine.
**BTBAM’s frontman explains the big idea behind the band’s new album… **
If you think Between The Buried And Me’s music is perplexing, wait till you get a load of their concept. Coma Ecliptic tells the story of a chap stuck in a self-induced coma who travels through his past lives in search of a better life. As he enters each world, he is offered the choice to stay put or move on to the next, potentially better world. Eventually reaching a world in which he is happy, our character wakes up, realising that (drum roll) everything has been a dream. Or to put it neatly, it’s basically a coma within a coma within a coma. And the take-out? The grass is always greener so be happy with what you have. So what inspired this tale? We ask BTBAM frontman Tommy Rogers…
“I’ve got to say that having a son really changed a lot of things for me. I even do it now: I search for ways to make more money or have a better life, but when I really break it down and think about what I have, it’s amazing. I have a solid relationship, a phenomenal son, I have a family, I have a great band and those are the things I come back to, and it’s kind of the message on the record. It’s not about me at all but it’s something that I keep coming back to – this guy who was searching for something when he could have already had it.”
Accompanying the album is a video for the song The Coma Machine, which was created by drummer Blake Richardson’s brother Wes. Dan Briggs gives us the scoop.
“Wes is an insane talent. Instead of describing what The Coma Machine is about, he came up with his own interpretation. The song is about the guy going into his coma so Wes developed a kind of backstory to show why he would want to leave his life and go and explore the inner parts of himself, and we thought that was really cool. They built this crazy set for it and most of the stuff you see is real and not special effects.”