Popular doctrine of critical and commercial opinion often amounts to “change or die.” Occasionally, artists push back against this (through conscious decision or ineptitude), but sometimes they embrace it. Raleigh, N.C. metal quintet Between the Buried and Me has proven that they belong in the latter camp. After releasing one of the greatest and most intense popular metal albums of the ’00s — 2005′s Alaska — BTBAM made a curious move and released a covers album (The Anatomy Of), similar to R.E.M.’s Dead Letter Office or Dylan’s Self Portrait, that purported to document the band’s influences and the roots of their sound. The track list of The Anatomy Of was, in itself, another curiosity, containing some expected fare — Metallica, Sepultura, Pantera — but also curve balls such as Queen, Pink Floyd, and King Crimson.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see that this album was a signal from Between the Buried and Me to their audience: prepare for a stylistic shift. Sure enough, Colors arrived the following year, with elements of progressive and operatic rock — if tentatively present in the background of Alaska — exploded in spectacular fashion, with BTBAM incorporating widely disparate (sometimes ridiculous) conceits and instruments into generally excellent, extended progressive metal songs. Two years later, The Great Misdirect continued a trend of expanding ambition (and ridiculousness) with increasing technical mastery, en route to an intriguing, but lopsided and overwrought final product. The next step in this progression has now finally arrived, and the title — The Parallax II: Future Sequence — is a doozy, so bombastic and stereotypically prog that it verges on tongue-in-cheek. Which leads to the important question: Does the music back up the progressive grandiosity of the title?
In short, yes. First of all, the album isn’t a collection of individual songs as much as it is one singular composition. Whereas the tracks on Colors and The Great Misdirect were long (sometimes taking the form of suites), The Parallax II is literally one piece of music, adhering to formal compositional theory and holistic album structure. In regard to this, it would be pointless to single out individual tracks for commentary. Instead, I will say that The Parallax II comes off as BTBAM’s attempt at writing a ’70s prog album. If that statement reminds you of Opeth’s Heritage, forget that association, because the albums are vastly different. Unlike Heritage, The Parallax embodies the spirit of progressive music in its absolute and unabridged indulgence of the musicians’ technical prowess. This functions for better and for worse. The members of Between the Buried and Me have gone on record in interviews as stating that part of their compositional process was “if they thought something was cool, they just threw it in”; listening to the album, that comes across explicitly. More often than not, the manifestations of that strategy work well, serving as interesting musical kinks that keep the listener engaged, such as a perfectly coherent flute part (hey, Jethro Tull) in “Melting City” and the pop-punk posturing at the beginning of “Bloom.” However, it does inevitably fail on occasion; in those moments, like their attempt to evoke carnival music later in “Bloom,” it becomes difficult for the listener to take the music seriously.
These missteps are few and far between, though, and the final product is ultimately an absolutely stunning, whirlwind showcase of musical virtuosity. On the opposite side of that same token, The Parallax II is extremely inaccessible (the common bane of progressive rock and metal bands). The primary culprit of this, not counting the daunting song structures, is that both the emotional basis and lyrical content of the album are situated within an absurd narrative concept that comes off as a half-baked version of Heinlein. This continuation of an unfortunate trend away from realistic emotion and subject matter (part of what made Alaska so powerfully vitriolic) towards concept albums about aliens is definitely the primary flaw (one of only a few) with Between the Buried and Me’s recent output, and — by extension — The Parallax II.
All in all, though, BTBAM have created something unique here. Although it’s no less overwrought than The Great Misdirect (perhaps even more so), the music on The Parallax II is simply superior; this changes what was previously a fatal flaw into a minor issue. Further, the album is an impressive triumph of musicianship — even if its technical fixation removes some of the soul, as compared to Alaska — and a huge step forward for the band. If this progressive trend continues, they may be going the Roger Waters route and writing an opera before we know it.