In just shy of two decades of constant action, it’s been a fantastical and thrilling trip to watch the metamorphosis of Between The Buried And Me. From their early mathcore-inspired days through to the sprawling polka-meets-death metal mashup headfuck of the classic Colors to the sci-fi prog rock of The Parallax II: Future Sequence, BTBAM have delighted in keeping their listeners on their toes. But, fine album in isolation though it was, 2015’s Coma Ecliptic was the first time it felt like the band stayed in the same place, offering more of the same rather than the sharp left turn fans had grown to expect.
With that in mind, Automata I offers a fascinating insight into to where Between The Buried And Me are heading as a unit. Have the wanderers finally settled, or are there more territories to discover? In typical BTBAM style, there’s actually an argument to be had for both outcomes here. Opener Condemned To The Gallows does start with the kind of robotically futuristic space prog that the band have dealt in over recent years, but they haven’t forgotten to throw in some pretty extreme blasting and Tommy Giles Rogers Jr’s full-throated growl to keep those who like their music heavy satisfied. Only two minutes in and BTBAM have allayed any fears that they might go ‘Full Opeth’ to rest. In fact, the way that it’s followed up by the monolithically groovy riffing of House Organ you’d be forgiven for having to stretch your mind back some time to remember when Between The Buried And Me last sounded so brutal. It doesn’t keep up that level of intensity throughout the entire track, instead descending into a dark piano lament that recalls the best of Porcupine Tree in the period after Steven Wilson first discovered Meshuggah. With that kind of picture painted you’d expect it to be a lengthy prog epic, but the song clocks in under the four-minute mark, showing that this is a band who have mastered their craft to such an extent that they can weave their narrative using a brevity that is considered anathema to this genre.
Automata I is a record that delights rather than shocks for the most part, the band cherrypicking all of the strongest nuances from the vast buffet of their back catalogue and organising them into a coherent whole. But familiarity isn’t a problem when the consistency levels are this high. And with this only being the first half of a double album it never feels bloated or outstays its welcome as so many other records that display this level of unorthodox musicianship and complexity often can. In fact, it’s closing track Blot that leaves the album heading out on a high: a 10-minute, Eastern-tinged masterpiece that swings from sounding like a Muse soundtrack to dystopian war to Enslaved at their most ethereal via everyone from Radiohead, to Battles, to Sikth. It’s a thrilling way to sign off, and just leaves you licking your lips in anticipation for the second part of the Automata story, which will be released later this year. You get the feeling that longtime fans will be counting down the seconds to hear where they go next as soon as the final strains of Blot ring out. We never really thought they’d stay too still, and Automata I proves the point emphatically: Between The Buried And Me’s creative train is still rattling forward at quite a pace.