Automata I and II–Between the Buried and Me

Between the Buried and Me is a band that I have no history with before this year. To be honest, progressive metal is a genre I have little familiarity with at all as well. Basically, I have listened to a couple of Coheed & Cambria albums, and that is about it. But while I was looking through albums that had released this year a few months ago, I saw Automata I by Between the Buried and Me, and from the album title and the band name I was a bit intrigued. As a result, I ended up listening to Automata I, and found it a very interesting experience (more on that in a minute), but I was immediately wondering about a part two. After all, Automata I seemed like it was just the first of a series given how short it is (only around 35 minutes) and, obviously, the title implying another album that would be its sequel. A quick search let me know that Automata II, the second part of what was a complete Automata project from Between the Buried and Me in 2018, was coming out just a couple of months later. As a result, even when I started writing reviews, I really wanted to write about Automata I, but suspected it would be premature to judge the one project without waiting the short time before the second part came out. And it finally did in July, yet I found myself at an impasse. I did not know what I thought of this album, either as two parts separately or a single work. My opinion switched from liking it overall, to disliking one part but liking the other, to indifference on the project’s ideas or execution, and everything in between. However, after listening to Automata I and II many different times, I think I have my opinion figured out, so I am finally ready to write on these two albums, this one project.

Really, both Automata I and II are very similar, yet also clearly different. Automata I is 35 minutes and Automata II is 33 minutes, though Automata I has six tracks, two more than the second. has only one song longer than nine minutes, while II has two such tracks, one of these being thirteen minutes long (and the two shorter songs essentially being a two minute long intro to an eight minute track, arguably making this really a ten minute section). Both parts are cut from the same progressive and technical death metal cloth, with heavy riffing and dramatic voicing through both the singer and the instrumental parts. However, II is much more heavily indebted to the narrative than I, which is definitely more devoted to building the tension. This is appropriate, but is worth pointing out. The result is that Automata I and Automata II may as well have been released as one nearly 70 minute long album, rather than separated into parts, as it is hard to get either part well. Automata I is anti-climactic without Automata II, while II lacks context for its heavy narrative focus to work alone. Automata I is weak and unemotional by itself as the emotional payoff is in Automata II, but II is a mess of melodrama without the buildup of I. As a result, I will not be scoring these two albums individually, as I do not see them as two albums, but as one split between two discs that happened to be released separately. And, in my opinion, this is the fairest way to review the project as a whole and the best way to appreciate it as a listener, since I will say from the get-go that this project is not perfect, but it is good enough that it deserves a chance to be heard as it is intended to be heard: as one Automata.

Opinions on release structure aside, the project’s first part starts off with a bang thanks to the exciting “Condemned to the Gallows.” The dark, unnerving opening riff sets the stage for a powerful moving experience; I just wish that this riff was emphasized more consistently throughout the track instead of the direction Between the Buried and Me decided to take. Particularly, the harsh shift from this great riff and melody to relatively mundane electric guitar chords and the rough vocals of the lead singer is just a stunning shift away from something I got into very quickly, to a complete mess. In fact, a theme running through much of the Automata I portion is that the band appears to just be throwing guitar riffs against the wall to see what will stick, and only get it right half of the time. Weirdly enough, this both works for and against the album, as anything good is likely to come back and anything bad only lasts about thirty seconds, but even the best parts are not able to get a real hold since they are gone so quickly and the unpleasant portions make it hard to stick through it all. “Condemned to the Gallows” is definitely the most extreme example of this, managing to be a mixed bag of good and bad ideas just by itself.

The other song guilty of this is the third track “Yellow Eyes,” which was probably the hardest song for me to really get a grip on in the entire Automata project. At times, I love “Yellow Eyes” and what it is doing, and at others I am clamoring for it to just end as soon as possible. The song starts with a strong industrial feel, with the rough vocals fitting in much more here than on “Condemned to the Gallows,” but once again the noodling of the band gets the better of them. Cohesive structure goes out the window quickly, with only the refrain of “yellow” and choir sounds in the background really keeping it from falling apart at the seams. While I can appreciate dynamism as well as anyone, I do not really think the crazy melodic and rhythmic shifts are dynamic as much as they are disconcerting. In fact, repeat listenings made me really notice how little the actually melodies were changing at all, with all of it being in the same basic octave and scale, with the result being a sound grating chaos, not actual musical complexity. I actually start to feel queasy listening to it all, like I am getting motion sickness from how all over the place it is. Though it might not be so bad if the shifts were between a faster and slower tempo more often, but the first real relief in the track does not come until the song is half over, which is unacceptable for a song that is eight-minutes in length.

Perhaps appropriately, the most focused and well-composed of Automata I‘s tracklist are the two tracks that clock in at a more single-ready four minutes: “House Organ” and “Millions.” “House Organ” follows “Condemned to the Gallows” by doubling down on the aggressive tendancies of the previous song, without much in the way of huge shifts, though the deeper intrigue of the lyrics is the first point of the album where the narrative comes into real focus. While “Condemned to the Gallows” brings the idea of being oppressed as the opening theme of the album, “House Organ” opens with the aggressively sung lines “This frame it does nothing to soothe. Thoughts of worst case seep through its fiber” and ends with the refrain “Hold your tongue, let me speak. . . there’s more to this than it may seem.” While that last line might be repeated in the next song “Yellow Eyes,” it gets a bit buried underneath everything else going on and represents more of a call back than anything special by itself. It was here that I actually found a reason to keep paying attention and thinking about what is going on. “Millions,” on the other hand, comes right after “Yellow Eyes,” and represents a massive improvement musically over everything that came before it. Though it has a definite single-ready sound, the band still messes around a bit, though the intent of accessibilty makes “Millions” stand out as much more listenable than its predessessors. Lyrically, it is not much more than (presumably) the protagonist of this story speaking of feeling alone. It did get me to think about how the chaos on other tracks might be from being in the thick of whatever is happening to the protagonist in the machines the album speaks about, as “Millions” is more focused and is clearly labeled as something of a prelude to what else has happened up to now. But “House Organ” contradicts that by not having the same problems and also not sounding chaotic, just angry and forceful. Credit where credit is due, though, the singing on “Millions” is amazing, with his bright, clean vocals here making the song sound stratospheric, like he is trying to reach those “Millions fly[ing] overhead” with his voice alone. Spectacularly, this creates the sensation of flying high and floating along that fits in with the album’s sound and narrative, while also contrasting the previous tracks in a brilliant way.

What follows is the short, smooth interlude of “Gold Distance,” building into the project’s overall midpoint and last track of Automata I: “Blot.” Like most of the album, “Blot” suffers from the problem of too much messing around without a purpose and lyrics that veer from reinforcing the dream narrative in effective ways to lines that are so cliched it takes the power from the moments they are part of. For example, the late shift to a tame melody with the softer vocals singing “computer simulation complete” hammers in the point at the end of this first half that what we have been experiencing is a simulation conjured to be in the mind of the character. Its not too heavy handed, but serves its purpose well to make it clear what has narratively been going on. By contrast, I really just want hard rock and metal concept albums to stop the “welcome to the show” cliche followed by circus music. I have heard worse offenses of this before, but it is so overplayed at this point I want band to just never think of doing this for about ten years, so when it gets used again it is hopefully by someone that knows what to do with it in a great way. However, once the softer vocals have clicked in late, the song hits its stride and becomes much more focused, almost too focused since it lags before the finish without enough to keep a listener’s attention unless the small details of the lyrics are really that interesting to a specific person (which, for me, they were not). However, the transition moment intended with this song is done very well, so well, in fact, that it is no wonder to me how many reviewed this album and negatively reviewed the end of “Blot” at Automata I: essentially, we are given a cliffhanger and not a real end, which was not very satisfying without the second half of the album to finish it off. But at this point, it is not a problem and should be taken as a positive, in my opinion, rather than a flaw.

Moving to Automata II, “The Proverbial Bellow,” a thirteen and a half minute behemoth track, earns every last second of its runtime with constantly interesting melodic shifts and riffs that do not just sound like the band is goofing around, but like everything has a specific point to it. Honestly, the song’s absolute intricacy from start to finish is a feat to behold, with organ and piano punctuating specific moments and the vocals hitting every note with real emotional power and precision.  Automata II is just a straight continuation of Automata I, with no real separation here, it is easy to see that the sessions recording this second half were given much more development to conclude this grand project with gusto. The main point of emphasis here with “The Proverbial Bellow” is how much heart and soul is poured into it. When the narrator sings “I am I, what is this,” I can literally feel the raw but anxious wonder here. And it is amazing to me how so much of the song can be head-banging metal, but then move into a pleading, piano-led refrain of “Please pick up the phone, it’s been ringing for years now. I’m so alone here, sensory bliss.” The moment is one of such pure tears-in-the-eyes longing that it brings in full what nothing in the album before it quite could: connection to the character. Sure, I was hearing him speak and I was aware of the situation, but I was not completely invested until now. The quality of such a long track as this (by itself, but especially with how it is strengthened by the whole of Automata I) single-handedly makes Automata worth listening to from beginning to this point.

But I say “to this point” because pretty much all momentum gained is immediately lost by the next two songs (which are a little over ten minutes combined, and therefore represent almost a third of Automata II and almost a sixth of the entire experience). “Glide” comes first and clocks in at two minutes and thirteen seconds, but it is more than enough time to leave me with a bad taste in my mouth. Immediately, I found myself hit with a cheesy accordion line, but I thought “okay, I can manage with this, if it builds into something a bit more substantial. Unfortunately, it does not, instead insisting on building this image of someone asking for a dance, and finishing out with an off-kelter intro to what I can only assume is the conflict/climax of the album with “Voice of Trespass.” By itself, I can legitimately say that the track is pretty interesting and laser focused on its point of building a cartoonish villain in the titular Voice of Trespass that it works well if one has an open mind. But no amount of open-mindedness could distract me from how seismic of a shift this song is stylistically from everything else before it and, looking back on it later, what comes after it. It feels like the album is a fairly unfocused but still straight-laced progressive metal album, with “The Proverbial Bellow” illustrating the album’s narrative and emotional pull at its best and most fully-realized. Then, in the penultimate section, we get “Glide” followed by “Voice of Trespass” which introduces a mock-vaudeville tone and sound, transitioning again into a by-the-number “dramatic” climax at the end that calls back to “Condemned to the Gallows.” Honestly, the best part of the track is the funky guitar and piano section in the last minute that ties it together as well as possible, leading into a hazy fade-out with distorted voices in the background that leads into the final track.

This final track, “The Grid,” makes many amends for the mistakes on the previous two tracks, opening with a soaring guitar melody that melts down into a back and forth between, not the buried and me, but the protagonist and the Voice of Trespass, punctuated with either heavy power chords and roughened vocals for the latter or the clean vocals and the soaring guitars returning in full. Each gets its own amount of time to work, making the song feel like a grand finale to the arc without sounding chaotic. The shimmering here fits very well, calling back to the track “Millions” in all the right ways, with this side, of course, seeming to win out by getting the last words in–“We are in this together.” Those last words are also played over an acoustic guitar and slow paced percussion with lots of cymbal crashes, culminating in a shining guitar solo to close out the affair entirely. In other words, the last thing on the album is a quite stereotypical “inspirational” moment, but it does its job well enough that I cannot really complain. It is trying very hard to be uplifting, and ends up doing what it tried to do.

I really wish I liked this album more, as songs like the refreshing “Millions” and incredibly beautiful “The Proverbial Bellow” really take me to a place of absolutely adoring what Between the Buried and Me have brought here for the Automata albums. Unfortunately, the album (and some of the songs, within themselves) is so varied in quality that I found myself relatively frequently taken out of the overall experience. Still, I think that the narrative aspect is fairly well delivered, and nothing here was so bad that I literally could not stand it. Meanwhile, the good moments were amazing, making it easy to come back to this album and experience it multiple times, overall and all-at-once, or more piece-wise. As a result, I think Between the Buried and Me’s Automata project has a lot to love and respect, even if it also has quite a few flaws as well.

7/10

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