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.
It’s been a long two years of waiting for UK fans of prog metal pioneers Between the Buried and Me. Now, fresh from the summer release of the widely acclaimed Coma Ecliptic (Metal Blade), Ghost Cult caught up with BTBAM’s guitarist Dustie Waring on their current world tour, ahead of their recent London show.
There have been some fantastic reviews for the new record; you must be really proud of it?
Yeah, we are. It was something really different for us, musically. We try to never repeat ourselves so the fact that people like it and support us is giving all of us a pretty incredible feeling.
When you’re in a band like BTBAM that have so many ideas going around, how do you decide between what’s working and going to work and what should be discarded?
There’s always a lot of ideas because everyone in the band contributes but the process is a fairly straightforward one: if we like something collectively, it’s in. If a piece doesn’t fit quite right in one place but is going to fit in another then we simply move stuff around: it’s pretty democratic and open.
Did you have any arguments you had when making the record?
You know, we don’t have arguments. At all. We are a very rare band in that regard. I guess we are like brothers, like family. Don’t get me wrong: we are all brutal with each other from a sense of humour perspective; we have a very dark sense of humour, but there’s never ever been arguments in our entire career – we just don’t do that.
When it comes to the live show, given the vast range of styles, how do you pick what should go into the BTBAM set?
Dan (Briggs, bass guitar) keeps a log of every set list from every tour so we look back and remind ourselves what we have been doing and what we have missed out on. Obviously, we are trying to promote a new record so we will be doing stuff off that, but we kinda just try to play the bangers off the important stuff. Stuff everyone likes. There’s songs from every record – almost- and a fun little encore that we do (Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, fact fans).
You’re known for having a fan base that is passionate and, dare we say, a little bit anal about everything you do; what’s the song that they always ask about that you don’t play?
Well, obviously you get some people who yell out once in a while who want some really, really old shit that was from before, like three of us were actually in the band.
So some people will shout for some stuff off the first record but those kids are like maybe 1% of our audience and we have done that and the majority of the crowd have joined us from the newer stuff, so when we are doing really old stuff they are going “Hey, is this new?!”
We understand that some people want the old stuff but, to be honest, it’s not actually that popular with the majority of our fans. Some people ask for ‘Swim to the Moon’ but that’s like 19 and a half minutes…or people ask for the full length version of ‘White Walls’ or ‘Selkies’.
We have done a version of ‘…Moon’; we do from the clean break which comes out cool. Mind you, having said all that, if people yell stuff and we are in the mood, we’ll usually find a way to play it.
When you are travelling from town to town, concert hall to concert hall, how do we keep yourselves motivated?
Honestly, it’s what we chose to do with our lives and so it’s not that much of a burden but there is another thing – there are so many bands who do so much amazing music and no one gives a shit about them and we have just this amazing opportunity to play music for a living- we aren’t rich or anything in this age of the music industry – no one is getting rich – so it cannot be about money.
I just want to play my fucking guitar. I have this great guitar company that make me my dream guitars and they customise them just for me and this band. These are the best people I could be playing with and people like us and support us and come to see us and they go nuts when we play and that’s what keeps you motivated.
We have the rare opportunity to create whatever the fuck we want and you know no one questions it. Our fans almost expect us to do weird shit now. Honestly, we all love to play music and we love our instruments and the fact that we can pay our bills just by doing this is a blessing.
You’ve spoken before of being a band with a wide range of interests and influences. What have been the things that you have loved this year?
I really, really love this new Ghost album. I was never really a fan of their older stuff – it didn’t really grab me – but the new record in particular I listen to a lot. I love it – I’d like to play with them one day. I listen to a lot of shit that people probably wouldn’t think I would listen to. For example, I have been listening to this Casey Musgraves record a lot; she is fucking awesome; I love her. I’ve been listening to a lot of SG Lewis too – really relaxed, ambient electronic stuff with pretty melodies, he’s just smooth and cool. The other band that I have been spending a lot of time listening to is Happy The Man from Washington DC. I’ve been listening to their records from the 1970s; I have been into them for a while and their album has been played A LOT.
I like a lot of country blues because the players are sooo good; I actually play with a Nashville artist when we are not on tour just to try and develop myself as much as I can and be as well rounded as I can be as a guitarist. Working with the Nashville guys is good because you have to change your phrasing completely to do that kinda stuff, it’s completely different to everything that I had learnt. I want to be good at all kinds of music not just a good metal guitarist so it’s good to test yourself; it’s good to able to improvise over a blues scale for example: that shit is important to me.
If you weren’t playing in BTBAM, who would you want to be playing with?
I have some friends from North Carolina who are in a band called He is Legend; I’ve always really enjoyed their records and Adam (Tanbouz, guitar) is a sick, seriously underrated guitar player and…. (mimes guitar picking) his hands, man – no one can sound like him. It would be cool to play with Casey Musgraves, for sure. There’s a guy in the USA called Sturgill Simpson who has this unbelievable guitar player from Estonia – can you believe that – this incredible, authentic Southern country playing and it’s a guy from Eastern Europe! It would be cool to play stuff like that….
As a working musician, have you found people more open-minded to different types of music or less so?
Oh with some bands, for sure. There still a lot of bands who keep writing the same record over and over; but over the last five years, there have been some bands doing new and interesting records. I’d say a lot is down to location and the fan bases. Fans are a lot more open-minded and accepting. Take us is an example. People totally accept us for who we are and what we do. Having said that, we are definitely taking time to build our audience. We are not an overnight sensation and we have been on a steady incline.
Do you think that is because you are not an easy band to define and because there is so much going on in your music?
Yes for sure; people have been telling us that they would listen to the record for 10-15 times and not like it and then – bang! – something happens and they are really into it. That’s cool by us. Over fifteen years we have realised that we are not doing this to get rich. We are doing this because we love music and we love playing and we hope, ultimately, that people like us.
With their, at times, near insanity-inducing levels of genre merging and sheer unpredictability it is pretty apparent that the lyrical subject matter of Between The Buried And Me also fits this bill. Even a cursory glance over previous song titles such as ‘Foam Born (A) The Backtrack’ and ‘Croakies and Boatshoes’ prove that even lyrically they come with rather a large dose of head scratching. Even so, the concept that saddled both The Parallax releases (both Metal Blade) was so intricate that explaining fully would require its own essay to explain (Dan Briggs’ own advice in conversation was to check Wikipedia).
On Coma Ecliptic (Metal Blade) the story is much easier to understand on the face of it, but still presents a multitude of “WTF” moments, nor is it any less grandiose. In its most basic explanation it follows a man who falls into a self-induced coma in order to explore a plethora of different realities. Seriously, it’s still easier to understand than The Parallax.
Firstly, Brigg’s explains where the story came from: “That was totally Tommy’s thing. We were a while into the album and I think he was getting nervous, he was out in California and we were locked in, and we pretty much had the album laid out. I think Tommy felt all of a sudden “I had a load of catching up to do”. I don’t know how many ideas he had before he went with the coma idea.”
“I know he was influenced by The Trumann Show and The Twilight Zone, like you’re in a reality and it’s not quite what it seems, it’s fucked up and it’s not what you thought. Thus lies an interesting groundwork for, I guess inherently a BTBAM album which is going to be all over the place.”
With this overriding story thread through the album, rather than simply an ideal or a notion, the band have raised the idea before of it being more than a concept album but instead a “Rock Opera”. The thought behind this is one that Briggs seems keen to back up, as he explains. “All a rock opera is, is telling a story through a song, and that’s what we are doing. Not too different from a concept album but it’s being in the mindset that we wanted to do something more theatrical and take it to the next level, and for us that was just calling it that, and that was propelling us to a different headspace.”
Certainly it’s a terminology which pricks up interest more so than the more tried and tested concept album, and with it brings a greater sense of gravitas. This way of looking at their work, it turns out, is also a product of some important members coming further out of their shell in terms of story writing, even with elements of stories and tales in their work before; “Colors (Victory) is a conceptual album but not lyrically, musically it works as one unit but lyrically was not locked in. Tommy was not confident enough that he could do it, even though there are songs like ‘Sun Of Nothing’ that was such an intense story that surely he could have locked in and carried out. So he was hinting at it then and on the The Great Misdirect (Victory), and he picked at little elements of those in The Parallax, but he is at a cool place now when it comes to writing stories and being vivid.”
What is made even clearer from Briggs’ explanations about the songwriting processes is just how long the whole system has proven. “Some of these songs we have already been sitting on for a year, and it’s so nice that people are finally hearing it, to finally get feedback.”
With the framework begun such a long while ago, it makes it all the more bewildering the number of other musical projects that Briggs has under his belt and currently in work. As passionate about each one, with a hugely variant music taste, Briggs relishes the chance to touch base, firstly with the most high-profile of all, his dissonant, Mahavishnu Orchestra inspired Trioscapes, and the adrenaline shot it gave him: “We have done a good bit, we’ve done handfuls of touring in America and trying to get to Europe; it’s just lining up with the right people to make it happen. That group’s a lot of fun. When that started in 2011 it really gave me a jolt, and I feel like I’ve been riding a wave ever since. I don’t know what it is but it just got me so pumped and really excited and it hasn’t stopped.”
Also included are the more melodic Orbs with a new album, which “We have been trying to shop it and work out how to get it released”, a project he describes as the closest yet to a solo effort, which is “inspired by a lot of music from the 30’s and 40’s, jazz standards, but it’s pretty fucked up, it’s different”, and another that has been mostly kept under wraps until now which sees a new working relationship with Richard Henshall of UK tour buddies Haken.
“We haven’t really announced the band yet but I’ve been posting bits and we finished the album in April, trying to find a good time to record it, which will probably be towards the end of the year or start of next year. That music is really fun, really exciting, really different, and I love the band Haken, and Richard has been super cool to work with.”
How Briggs finds the time and the energy to work on so many different acts and types of music is simply astounding, and you get the impression this is just the tip of the iceberg for him. What can’t be overlooked though is how much Briggs (and the rest of BTBAM for that matter) are fans of exciting, experimental music that pushes boundaries. “For me, all the music I do is equally as important. It’s never a question of do I ever want to book studio time in these two weeks I have free before I go out; it’s like ‘Yeah, obviously, am so excited to do that’.”
More than enough proof that the future of the quirky, difficult to grasp music is in very sturdy hands.
Some of the most special acts in both the worlds of Prog and Metal are the ones that give a big middle finger to the idea of convention and instead choose to create something fresh and new. Along with these are the ones who reinvent themselves, to adapt and continuously move forward and challenge themselves, perhaps whilst confusing the fuck out of people and making them take notice. All of these can be attributed to musical alchemists Between The Buried And Me.
Signs of the band’s progressive streak has always been a part of the band’s sound, even if in the early days it was much less prevalent as bassist Dan Briggs comments from his time joining in 2004. “At that time of Alaska (Victory) we were so rooted in the hardcore scene, it took a while for the natural progression to kind of happen, and that’s how always how we have written music, we have always written it to happen naturally, nothing is forced and that’s just what’s most important.” Even so, the evolutionary steps they made from those days through to fan favourite Colors (both Victory) in 2007 through to the sheer mind-boggle of The Parallax II: Future Sequence is staggering.
Heading even further down the rabbit hole, new album Coma Ecliptic (both Metal Blade) sees a greater focus on the band’s melodic aspects, as a result there is a decrease in their death metal elements and growls (but still prevalent) and greater influx of their Prog Rock influences and of their quirky and downright weird side. “That element is at the forefront now, and if you look at the Parallax record, you could guess that was kind of going to happen. That’s when we have most fun, when we have can experiment, when we can bring out the banjo and do layering and fun stuff, more vocal harmonies, more character voices.”
“What we did with this album is we made sure the songs have a very defined core and center about them, and from there when the dynamic got to that point where it was going to reach a breaking point in terms of a heavy climax, or whatever, it was always within the context of the song and within the melodic focus of what was happening.”
In fact when discussing deeper influences in the album’s sound, Briggs points out his love for 80’s fun and oddball new wave acts such as Oingo Boingo, Talking Heads and Devo on ‘The Ectopic Stroll’ alongside their well-documented admiration for the likes of Mr Bungle. Stylistically in some sense it may be a departure from before everything at their core is still present. “That’s just all part of the kooky makeup for each member. We are still listening to the same stuff, we are still extreme weirdos; it’s just progression you know?”
The drift toward more a melodic formula is one that Briggs states was in the works for a number of years, but wasn’t necessarily a thought out decision, but one that happened organically: “The first song I remember writing was ‘Memory Palace’ and, I wish I could trace my timeline better but I think I was working on that a year ago. I know before we did our last tour on the Parallax I sent a handful of things to the guys. But right off the bat that set off a good start and a clear vision because a lot of those were full songs, so just right away it hit, and when Paul sent stuff a couple of months later he had that kind of focus, with ‘Famine Wolf’, and it was on the heavier spectrum but he was still hearing these vocal melodies, and when I dug in with him we got the chorus and a good flow for the song and it fit in perfectly, and these 5 songs had a really cool awesome flow.”
Instrumental in the greater focus on vocal melodies and new dimensions was frontman Tommy Rogers wanting to expand his delivery and venture down new avenues: “Tommy was wanting to explore things outside of screaming, and I think it was clear to us that our music was going to go in a different direction, less of a focus on death metal stuff, and I know he was wanting to find his voice and new ways of being intense without taking it to that full extreme of screaming. So I think it’s so cool, rather than just going between his scream and his soft voice, he found so much cool middle ground to work with and characters.”
With the decreasing of BTBAM’s extreme metal roots on Coma Ecliptic however there is of course the possibility of a small, narrow minded contingent decrying the decision, despite its seemingly natural path. When asked if he sees a possible backlash from some fans over this, and compared to Opeth who completely stripped their death metal elements, Briggs seems very positive and highlights the differences between the two situations.
“I don’t think so because it is still there. Mike kind of left the scream in the past, and for me what I think Opeth is doing totally fits.”
“Talking to Mikael (Akerfeldt) you can talk about the same kind of bands, obviously he loves King Crimson, he loves Yes, Genesis and you hear those influences, he just isn’t taking it to the extreme by screaming, and that’s ok”
Despite the clear differences between the two bands and the kind of extremes both have gone to in somewhat reshaping their sound, Briggs explains the difference, but sounds very thankful for an almost kindred spirit. “Its nice to see there is another band that’s an example as far as sticking to your guns. We never questioned like “should Tommy be screaming more” even back in Colors, is it weird having this big Rush kind of thing, no we are just doing it! But it’s nice to see others sticking to their guns.”
In their fifteen year existence, Raleigh, North Carolina quintet Between the Buried and Me has resisted all attempts at categorisation largely by the ever-changing nature of their music. Breakthrough record Alaska in 2005 saw them being lumped in with the ascendant metalcore scene largely by virtue of their choice of record label and haircuts, despite that critically acclaimed release being very different in content to anything post-Killswitch.
Further records such as Colors in 2007 and The Great Misdirect two years later (all Victory) saw the band flirting with death metal and grind yet the overarching theme was that of fully-fledged progressive metal, something that has now come to fruition on Coma Ecliptic (Metal Blade) a bona-fide rock opera that was always in the works, yet few thought would ever be quite so glorious.
With a concept detailing a coma patient’s self-induced exploration of his past lives, facing the choice to either stay or move on to parts unknown and the strange, arcane machine which enables him to do this, none could accuse Between the Buried and Me of lacking a sense of the grandiose. However it is the music that matters and on this record the band has wandered further into the lands of bewildering, arcane prog than ever before, while thankfully still in touch with their metal safety ground. Bands such as Genesis, Queen and Pink Floyd are notable reference points here, with BTBAM seeking to emulate the sense of wonder and freedom those noted acts managed to achieve with their seminal records back in the 70s.
The guitars on Coma Ecliptic are more interested in swirling leads and deft licks than common-or-garden heads down riffing, with rhythm largely left over to the solid, yet often playful bass guitar. This is apparent from the first time the axes make an appearance; with a brief yet histrionic solo which closes the soulful, piano-led opening track ‘Node’. Of course, this is still a metal album at heart and most tracks feature basic one/two chugs during the verses, although the attention will mostly be focused on the ever-present spiralling leadwork. A prime example of this is ‘The Coma Machine’, which develops the themes of the opening track into a surreal yet wholly engaging journey of bewildering prog rhythms, fluid guitar acrobatics and soaring, mysterious keyboards. It’s one hell of an impressive start to a record and things only get better from there.
Whether it’s the Zombi style 80s synth of ‘Dim Ignition’ complete with buzzing vocal effects which pitches the listener straight into a John Carpenter action film, the absurdly fun Vaudevillian stomp of ‘The Ectopic Stroll’ which Faith No More would have killed to have included on their recent comeback album or the emotionally devastating ‘King Redeem – Queen Serene’ which flits between soulful acoustic introspection to searing melodic death metal with a few maniacal prog flourishes thrown in for good measure, it’s utterly impossible to get bored. This is a record that you could listen to over twenty times and still find surprises waiting for you at every turn.
Each member of the band has come on leaps and bounds since the early days with Paul Waggoner surely staking a claim for one of the most gifted guitarists of his generation and the man Dream Theater should be keeping a close eye on when they next suffer a crisis in the ranks. But it is mainman Tommy Rogers who deserves most of the plaudits. His soulful croon will tug at your heartstrings on ‘Rapid Calm’ during the wondrous guitar solo-used-as-verse, but will instantly switch to feral death growl without breaking sweat, and crucially without ever sounding contrived.
The record that they were always promising to make but you weren’t sure was possible, on Coma Ecliptic Between the Buried and Me have exceeded all expectations and delivered not only the album of their careers but one of the most monumental ambitious rock concept pieces this side of Operation Mindcrime (EMI).
How they will ever top this remains the only sticking point.
You can also see the music video for the title track of the album at the BTBAM portal on Metal Blade’s website:
Commenting about the album, the band released a statement:
“Once again, the band has returned with an ambitious concept album. This time, the story follows the wanderings of an unidentified man, stuck in a coma, as he journeys through his past lives. Each song is its own episode in a modern day, sort of The Twilight Zone-esque fashion. The unidentified man enters each world and is offered a choice: stay, or move on to the next in search of something better, something more “perfect.”
Between The Buried and Me tour dates with Animals As Leaders and The Contortionist begin tonight:
Jul 07: Georgia Theatre – Athens, GA
Jul 08: Sidebar Theater – Tallahassee, FL
Jul 09: Venue 578 – Orlando, FL
Jul 10: Revolution – Ft. Lauderdale, FL
Jul 11: Freebird Live – Jacksonville, FL
Jul 13: Warehouse Live – Houston, TX
Jul 14: Juanita’s – Little Rock, AR
Jul 15: Diamond Ballroom – Oklahoma City, OK
Jul 17: Mesa Theater and Club – Grand Junction, CO
Jul 18: Brooklyn Bowl – Las Vegas, NV
Jul 19: Club X’s – Tucson, AZ
Jul 21: The Observatory – Santa Ana, CA
Jul 22: Observatory North Park – San Diego, CA
Jul 23: The Catalyst – Santa Cruz, CA
Jul 24: Ace of Spaces – Sacramento, CA
Jul 25: Knitting Factory Concert House – Boise, ID
Jul 27: The Complex – Salt Lake City, UT