Few albums in the pantheon of progressive metal have landed with the splash of 2007’s “Colors,” an eminently original and much celebrated work. Now, 14 years later, BETWEEN THE BURIED AND ME have boldly lowered the bucket back into the well, hoping to dredge up a sequel as refreshing as its predecessor. Clearly, the well has not gone dry. “Colors II” will surely sate the thirst of any prog fan, but how does it compare to the original? The characteristics of “II” that elevate it beyond the earlier offering are the same characteristics that hold it back—in a word, consistency. The song writing, performance, and production of “Colors II” are far more consistent. There are no duds, no filler, no blemishes, but alas, less goosebumps. With its superior production, inspired heavy sections and subtle allusions to the 2007 masterpiece, there is so much greatness in this album, but it never achieves the soaring, intoxicating heights of the original.
Over the years, I’ve learned to hedge my expectations with any highly anticipated release, especially if its creators are bold enough to dub it a sequel to something truly special. It’s a strange thing, calling an album a sequel, and it comes with a lot of risks. You are inviting your listeners to immediately compare it with the original, and so often, sequels don’t carry the inspiration that made the original so memorable.
An obvious example of this backfiring would be PAIN OF SALVATION’s “Scarsick,” which happened to come out the same year as “Colors.” As almost an afterthought, the band dubbed “Scarsick” the sequel to 2000’s “The Perfect Element, Part I.” Hardcore fans had been waiting anxiously for the second part for 7 years, and wow, was “Scarsick” a disappointment. Not only is it one of the weaker albums by the band, but it had very little to do with the original. “Z2” another let down that comes to mind. The obvious exception being METALLICA’s “Reload,” which really launched the band’s career.
So, did BTBAM’s gamble pay off? The weight of tying this to their most famous album certainly piqued my interest. Would the band revisit some of my most favorite colorful moments? How much would they lean on old tropes? Would this merely be a rehash of the old—something they knew they could sell after more than a year off from touring, amidst a global pandemic?
In many ways, “II” is the superior album. My one gripe with “Colors” is that much of the heavy sections (which comprise roughly seventy percent of it) serve merely as a vessel transporting us from one inspired section to the next. Not so with “II.” Though it is remarkably dynamic, with a massive range of sounds, “II” never lets off the gas. The heavy sections are easily my favorite of any of their releases to date. Rogers’ harsh vocals are punchy, guttural, and emotive. How this guy continues to preserve and improve his harsh vocals after 21 years is beyond me. The vocals are often layered with a smattering of cleans and dense guitars, with original riffs and immaculate drum work.
The production overall is top notch—each element perfectly balanced and clean. One would hope that 14 years of accruing money and experience would allow for better production on the sequel album than on the original, but man, it’s great. Work this flawless allows every detail, of which there are many, to shine through. Listeners will notice new and subtle uses of keyboards, choral voices, different guitar tones and filters after several listens. As I listen, now, I’m noticing the panning of the tom rolls in “Revolution in Limbo.” Mixing techniques like this elevate the work beyond what it might be, even if we aren’t always aware of it.
The callbacks to “Colors” are also extremely subtle, perhaps to a fault. Going in, I worried that this would be too much of a reboot, but I should have known better. What I didn’t expect was the opposite problem. There are several genre tangents, as we’ve come to expect with BTBAM. The sounds of a dinner scene. A dose of flute here, and a pinch of banjo there. But these experiments have been a mainstay for BTBAM since 2007. I wanted a couple more overt musical callbacks, clearly referencing, but re-imagining some of those memorable moments. I hoped the opener either picked up thematically where “White Walls” left off, or perhaps an echo of the “I’ll just keep waiting…” of “Foam Born.” I’m thinking of THE OCEAN COLLECTIVE’s opening of “Phanerozoic I” calling back to “Precambrian.” The most obvious callback comes in “Bad Habits.” Fans of the band will immediately perk up, hearing “Sleep on. Fly on.” I loved the lyrical callback, but it reminded me of how powerful that moment in “Colors” is, and I’m not sure anything on “II” can stand up to it.
“II” clearly wins out when it comes to volume of excellent music. For starters, its around 80 minutes long, and there is zero filler. The transitions are excellent, and the experiments we come to expect have decent payoffs. The valleys are definitely higher on “II,” but I’m not ready to say the peaks are as high. There are excellent, beautiful chorus lines on “II,” but nothing a think as moving as the climaxes of the original. “Never Seen Future Shock” comes very close, but they pull back at the 7:54 mark when I wanted them to push the drama even more. This would have been the moment to get a screamed “sleep on” to really bring the chills. Great track, though.
Also, how is there not a track called “Sequel to the Prequel?” Missed opportunity.
“Colors” also benefits from having been so influential upon its release. BTBAM have released several fantastic albums between these two, and we know what they are capable of, even when they do push the envelope. The experience of hearing “Colors” back in 2007 was far more enlightening than hearing “II” today. Additionally, “II” has the privilege of being informed by such an intimidating prior body of work. In many ways, “II” sounds more like the pair of “Automata” albums than it does like “Colors,” which makes sense, by its mere proximity.
In a vacuum, it would be easy to declare “Colors II” the best album this band has ever released. It’s more polished, more consistent, and more massive in scale than any previous BTBAM release. Whether you want to crown it the champ or not probably depends on how important “Colors” or “Parrallax II” (a contender in its own right) are to you. Best or not, “Colors II” is worthy of the sequel moniker, and certainly makes much of the BTBAM catalog feel obsolete by comparison. What an impressive way to spend lockdown.
FAVORITE TRACK: “Bad Habits”
RELEASE DATE: 8/20/21
FOR FANS OF: Devin Townsend, The Contortionist