I didn’t enter this record with an overabundance of optimism. I have written previously here about my feelings toward Automata, Between the Buried and Me‘s last record, which was split into two staggered releases—specifically how it reattained a sense of song-oriented emotional logic in its compositions without sacrificing the progressive edge to the material. Still, it is hard to shake the stain of albums like Coma Ecliptic, a messy execution of the admirable idea of isolating the progressive rock portion of their song from the heavy metal, and especially Parallax II, which read more often as a friend put it like “being trapped in a Guitar Center while dozens of out-of-sync players practice their sweeps in various keys.” This last point is a controversial one among some long-time fans of the band, a portion of whom view Parallax II as the high point of the BTBAM’s compositional and playing prowess, but I hold that if you compare that record to the three-album run preceding it (or even its immediate predecessor in the Parallax I EP), you’ll find the songwriting of, say, “Extremophile Elite” paling in comparison to “Selkies: The Endless Obsession,” “Ants of the Sky” or “Disease, Injury, Madness.” Compounding those shaky releases were remix/remasters of their quintessential run from Alaska through to The Great Misdirect which often sound spacious to the point of sanitization, granting a sizable amount of worry that perhaps the band had lost the plot sonically yet again.
Much to my surprise, the first track on Colors II, “Monochrome,” grabbed me. The group is known for these kind of slow-building, melodic and frankly Muse-lite type opening pieces, and given the constrained compositional form their album openers take, it’s honestly hard to produce an outright bad song. So, I sat patiently, waiting for the song to tick over and the riff-salad to begin, only to find yet another pleasing song, replete with lots of twists and turns but, most importantly, a strong sense of emotional cohesion linking those riffs and sections. And so the next track began, and the next, and the next, on and on, and slowly it dawned on me that, well, this is actually good. This was a revelation of no small amount of shock. In private conversations with other prog metal-loving friends, real dyed-in-the-wool Dream Theater and Pain of Salvation and Symphony X acolytes, true diehards of the subgenre, BTBAM have become somewhat of a frustrating topic for us all. They were once slated to become the new Dream Theater as that previous great’s work began to slowly but obviously decline in quality just as BTBAM were on their own radical ascension. But fate is fickle and strange, and this coronation never quite took place, so much so that even the members of the band themselves spoke of their frustrations at seemingly hitting a ceiling. So to have a record that didn’t just didn’t disappoint but actually satisfied was one of the most pleasing bites of crow I’ve had in quite some time.
The record has complex gestures backward, only further complicated by both its name/self-presumed history and the one fans have associated with it. The title of the record links it with Colors, their 2007 watershed record after the breakthrough of Alaska which debuted their then-new, now-classic lineup. But aside from the overall structure of the record, each track seguing into the next, there is little to connect it to that previous album. There are light lyrical referrents, mentions of monochromaticism and rainbows, but not much in the way of direct, non-oblique references to previous lyrics. Likewise, the music itself doesn’t borrow riffs or phrases, at least noticeably, from that previous record. Instead, what we get is a complex structure, taking Automata‘s functional reset of their core sound but folding in the progressive rock explorations of both their covers album as well as Coma Ecliptic as well as a solid helping of The Great Misdirect, the group’s finest hour as composers. If anything, the naming of Colors II becomes fitting given that, like its predecessor, it’s the second record of what feels like a new era for the group, following the breakthrough of Automata with a watershed moment of consistent emotionally impactful material.
What’s more, the group’s often-maligned tendency to have genre dalliances here is tastefully executed, the incursions of non-prog metal compositional ideas no longer feeling like cheeky riffs but instead like gainful contributions to the nuanced emotional textures of the pieces on the record. Their ears have matured and mellowed, between work here and in numerous prog side projects, that there is seemingly no longer that existential artistic itch to cover every inch of artistic ground that strikes their fancy. This sense of peace lets them pursue here that which works instead of a gimmick that might tick a bucket list box. There are still moments when perhaps the instrumental portions could have been trimmed down somewhat, the guitar arpeggios toned down and the rhythmic shifts into and out of triplet feels sacrificed for tighter pieces, but these dalliances likewise no longer weight down the whole affair. On the whole, there is less sense on Colors II that the band feels burdened to be shockingly futuristic, no superheroic desire to save progressive metal or prove themselves; instead, they are free to write compelling material.
It was a pleasant surprise as well to encounter flourishes of well-conceived and executed stabs at classic prog sonics and ideas. On one track, an ’80s King Crimson cyclic guitar motif appears while on another, a late ’70s Jethro Tull riff pops up; Genesis and their gentle avant-gardeism seem a common touchpoint and there are grace notes of Yes and Gentle Giant appearing across the disc. The result is a definitive shift of the timbre of the record, no longer feeling emphatic on the metal end of their sound but instead on a broader sense of progressive music, one free to move across the palette of what that might mean even if it most commonly means some kind of metallic variant. I was cautiously optimistic following Automata, a record that still is critically undervalued largely because of how burned people have felt in the wake of the material preceding it. Colors II proves ultimately that this optimism wasn’t just well-founded, but that I simply didn’t have enough of it. This is the band we had always hoped Between the Buried and Me could be, freed from the shackles of needing to be the very best and instead being allowed to maturely pursue making quality music. If this is the road the band walks on the future, it is easy to imagine them returning fully to the good graces of the metal world. It is good sometimes to eat crow.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.