Automata I is the the first half of a two part concept album from prog metal giants Between the Buried and Me. Clocking in at a mere 35 minutes, Automata I definitely feels like half an album, given the run time of BTBAM’s previous full-length releases. In many ways, this venture is reminiscent of 2011’s two part concept album, Parallax: The Hypersleep Dialogues, the first part of which was a half-hour long. The second Automata is tentatively set to be released sometime in July of 2018, and it will be interesting to see whether it ultimately made sense conceptually to release this in two parts as opposed to one package.
Disregarding it’s length, the music is good. Fans of BTBAM can listen to Automata I with confidence. These six tracks will feel familiar, but are anything but stale. Tommy Giles seamlessly alternates between his ephemeral clean vocals and his harsh screams. There are ample time changes, and beat-heavy breakdowns. You will be treated to a fine balance of evocative atmospheric sections, as well as intense heavy ones. The transitions are filled with interesting, conjunctive guitar licks.
Thematically, the album is interesting as well. The lyrics often refer to ambiguous swathes of imagery. It’s clearly referring to the barrage of strangely fluctuating and intangible images one might experience while dreaming—dreams being a favorite motif of BTBAM. This idea also plays naturally well with their style of stringing interesting but distinctly different sections together within one track, similar to how there is very little logic to the narrative structure of a dream. The lyrics reference sleep both subtly and overtly as well. It’s extremely allegorical, leaving the listener to pull what they might, as far as meaning, from the words.
“Condemned to the Gallows” is a fine opening track. It’s quintessential BTBAM. It immediately establishes the tone, both of the album and style of the band, and of the concept of dreams. A soft, ethereal opening of acoustic guitars and keys tucks the listener in. Tommy Giles gives a glimpse of his haunting clean vocals, and then, after a whispered “goodnight,” we are plunged into a stimulating, epic barrage of sound. Intricate guitars and plenty of keys. At 2:20, they abandon the rhythm entirely, throw out a funky transition, and lay out their signature breakdown. There are few bands this melodic that can pull off the guilty pleasure of a beat-heavy, head-banging breakdown, and BTBAM is one of them. At 3:40, they put a soaring, soundscapey guitar solo on full display. Then, at 4:39, a pause, and another quick breakdown. Why not? This is BTBAM. A beautiful vocal section, and a return to the opening acoustic guitar. Done. Next song.
As great as the opening track is, I feel like it’s what we’ve come to expect. Track two, “House Organ,” is really where things get interesting. There is an almost industrial feel to this track. A neat layering of dissonant keyboards and a simple, repeating guitar riff with off-beat snare hits. Then, some of the grittiest vocals I’ve ever heard from BTBAM. A very simple, but catchy melody echoes throughout nearly the entire track. It’s a very hypnotic song. At 3:00, the simple repeating theme begins to build in layers to a nice conclusion.
Track three, “Yellow Eyes,” is a bit of a surprise again. The first couple minutes feel oddly “Alice in Chains.” Very groovy and accessible. Around the two minute mark, they fall back to their roots—heavy and proggy. Two minutes later, another complete shift. Suddenly the style shifts to that of a jazzy prog rock band. Then again after the 6 minute mark, they break into a Deftones-esque vibe for a bit. This track really feels like 4 distinct songs in one, and I don’t think it’s by mistake. They are playing again off the strange transitions within dreams. This track contains imagery of creation and destruction, and the form of the song is best summed up by its telling lyric, “this landscape seems to change too often for comfort.”
Track four, “Millions,” clearly sticks out as an obvious choice for a single, which in this case, I don’t mean as a criticism. It tracks in at a bizarrely average four minutes and change. It’s gorgeous, and accessible. There are still some stellar screaming sections, but it’s largely a soft song, with a simple melody. It’s the layered clean vocals and echoing keyboards that really make this one stick out. The concept is carried forward with imagery of millions flying overhead and of the speaker “losing his perspective.” This track is refreshingly consistent, given the unpredictable transitions BTBAM is known for. Oddly, this one stands out by not going in strange directions, and showcases some of the prettiest singing Tommy Giles has ever recorded.
“Gold Distance” is a simple, minute-long, ambient transition into the final track, “Blot.” Where “Millions” wouldn’t feel too foreign on the radio, “Blot” is a treat reserved for true prog fans. It clocks in at a more appropriate ten and a half minutes, and it goes everywhere. Unpredictable guitar sections give way to long melodic interludes. I can’t help but be reminded of Fleetwood Mac straight off the bat, and again at 1:57. I keep expecting to hear, “Listen to the wind blow, watch the sun rise.” Nice theme, though. The chorus in this track is absolutely majestic, and is lyrically engaging as well. “Exploring the escape. Endless lives whispering by…so fast. Escape.” This line encapsulates both the distorted way we experience time within dreams, as well as the fleeting nature of real life as well. Similarly, the line “I won’t remember me; I won’t remember us” seems to speak to both the difficulty of maintaining memories of dreams once we awake, as well as the interpretation of death as the complete loss of the psyche and of all memories.
It will be interesting to see how Automata II continues to play off the concept of dreams, and the way the unconscious mind traverses experiences. At 35 minutes, Automata I is a fine collection of songs, that rarely disappoints. I put it amongst BTBAM’s best work, including both Parallax and, dare I say it, Colors? It’s a natural progression for the band. They stay close to the sound fans love, but push the boundaries just enough to be fresh. I anxiously await part II, slated to come out this July.
FAVORITE TRACK: “Millions”
RELEASE DATE: 3/9/2018
FOR FANS OF: The Contortionist, Protest the Hero