Surpassing expectations is never an easy thing to do. In the case of North Carolina’s Between The Buried And Me, the speculation over what this most idiosyncratic of bands would do next has ranged from mild curiosity to fevered anticipation and all the compass points in between. The plaudits that followed 2015’s Coma Ecliptic (Metal Blade) varied from admiration to salivation and whilst there remained a soupcon of “I preferred their earlier work” running alongside, it was a record that established the band as one of the tent poles in an increasingly burgeoning Progressive Metal scene.
Automata 1 (Sumerian) arrives as the first half of a promised two album programme for 2018 and, to use a sporting metaphor, is as sharp and effective as Anthony Joshua’s jab. It’s a concept album of sorts: commentaries on our increasingly short attention span as a society and the commoditisation of celebrity. There’s also plenty of sci-fi imagery, dream vs reality metaphors and reflections on mental health. Long term followers of this band are likely to be comforted by this diversity; newcomers might find things initially overwhelming. Bear with them though, as the payoff is rich and rewarding.
Opening track ‘Condemned To The Gallows’ begins proceedings with an atmospheric guitar part that beckons the listener into a vortex of time changes and dynamics that veer between playful and exotic to pile-driving and precise bludgeon. It’s heady, breathless stuff, leaving the listener floored and energised in equal measure. What follows – the unremitting, dark and brooding ‘House Organ’ – is a superb distillation of the genius of this band as you could wish to hear. Effortlessly shifting from intense, hammering malevolence to calm, reflective warmth and back again with layers of electronica and plaintive harmonies this is both technically brilliant and emotionally resonant.
There’s a dark eccentricity running through the mayhem of ‘Yellow Eyes’; it’s part controlled madness, part existential chaos and all the better for being both of those things. By contrast, the ostensibly straightforward ‘Millions’ arrives as something of a jolt, suggesting an initial throwaway sensibility. Upon repeated listens, it offers something deeper and more nuanced, with the (for them, anyway) use of verse, bridge, chorus, verse facilitating a playful experimentation within the songwriting construct.
‘Gold Distance’ and ‘Blot’ are effectively a single pair of tracks. The former is awash with atmospheric musical passages and psychedelic vocals, reminiscent of Pink Floyd that morphs gracefully into the magnificent latter, a masterclass in musical wizardry. ‘Blot’ is a ten minute powerhouse of sterling riffing, exotic and confounding guitar interludes, gravity defying vocals and challenging yet beguiling percussion. It’s head mangling, gut thrilling stuff. And it’s over before you’re good and ready, meaning you dive back in for an instant and very welcome replay. Again and again.
At thirty-five minutes long, loads of people are going to idiotically comment that the record is too short. Ignore them: Automata 1 is a record that confounds expectations on many levels. As the first half of what promises to be a journey of challenging, unpredictable but ultimately life-affirming music, this is exciting, innovative, playful and addictive stuff. It is certainly true that they have dispensed with some wilful eccentricity but, in its place, Automata 1 continually offers a rich palette of aural beauty. The second part cannot come quickly enough.
Expectations surpassed. And then some.