Post-Colors Between the Buried and Me has been confusing to say the least. In 2009 we saw the release of The Great Misdirect, an album that showed the five-piece North Carolina progressive death metal juggernaut staying in their comfort zone, and it came off as little more than stagnant and bloated. The Parallax albums, despite being pretty sounding at times, came off as little more than attempts to recreate Colors but with the cynicism and sense of humour sucked out (although Future Sequence, despite this, is actually a pretty good album). And chances are, if you didn’t like either of those albums, well it doesn’t look as if Coma Ecliptic will do anything to change your mind, but for the strangest reason. I say this, because the album showcases BTBAM at their softest yet, with the least amount of growls to be featured on any of their albums so far, and more vocal-driven passages than their others too.
If anything made the album that many consider to be their magnum opus, Colors, what it is today, it’s the fact that so many view it as an album that is as much a product of its time as it is an album that stands the test of time. The album was written as a 64-minute piece of music but due to studio pressure, was split into 8 different tracks- but no matter what you view it as, it’s an album that is far more than the sum of its parts, and is chock-full of so many “so bizarre it’s almost cool” moments, such as the bizarre polka tangent in “Prequel to the Sequel” or the bluegrass hoedown at the end of “Ants in the Sky“. It blends in technical death metal with 1970s prog and a shitload of other genres, and features more awkward transitions than flipping channels on TV. The album that came before that, Alaska, had a similar thing going for it. There was less Mr. Bungle-esque genre-roulette, but awkward transitions a-plenty and time signature changes that would make The Mars Volta jealous. “Roboturner” is 7 minutes of being trampled with heaviness from start to finish, and “Croakies and Boatshoes” is a mix of claustrophobic musical heaviness, brutal death metal vocals (including pig grunts), and hilarious lyrics about douchebags. So naturally, with how high-regarded both albums are, it would make sense that BTBAM would be comfortable with their proggier side that they’d make it last on their next few albums.
The biggest problem with the album is something I mentioned above: it’s too reliant on vocals than the long instrumental passages that gave BTBAM their typical kick. This wouldn’t be a problem but for two things: 1) This isn’t a Thomas Giles record and 2) The vocals range from decent to at times cringe-worthy. I mention Thomas Giles as a comparison point, because a number of tracks seem as though they were written for one of Tommy’s solo records (for BTBAM newbs, Thomas Giles is vocalist Tommy Giles Rogers’ solo project). In fact, the opening track “Node” seems to be just that, with sprinklings of spooky keyboard tinkling and occasional moments of The Wall styled bombast thrown in there for measure. It’s not that it’s a bad song, but it almost feels like a poor man’s “Goodbye to Everything”, a track that isn’t even that good to begin with. We also get more evidence that Tommy has been listening to Muse a lot, as “Dim Ignition” pretty much feels like a direct Muse outtake. Which isn’t a bad thing, as it’s actually one of the most interesting moments on the album- problem is, this doesn’t feel like BTBAM so much as it feels like a Thomas Giles album, and that’s one of the biggest issues with this album. Despite this being their least death metal album yet, there’s far less growling- not that that’s a problem, but his clean vocals on this album sound as if he’s doing a weird mix of James LaBrie and Billy Corgan. When his actual growls come in, they sound completely monotone and uninteresting. His vocals are at their lowest on, “The Ectopic Stroll” where it sounds as if he’s trying to sound like James Hetfield- it truly has to be heard to be believed.
The album is musically at its best when the band bring their typical heavy and frenzied musicianship to the table- and sadly, there’s so very little of it. The band are so neutered here, it almost sounds as if they showed up one by one and recorded all their parts. Tracks like “Famine Wolf” show flashes of proggish BTBAM at their best, and some small parts of “The Ectopic Stroll” showcase some true excellence. “Memory Palace” is probably the best track on the album musically- clocking in at almost 10 minutes, it sounds vaguely like a Colors cut with more clean vocals, but as far as music goes, it displays some truly face-melting guitar work from Dustie Waring and Paul Waggoner. It even has some of the trademark “in-track genre-bending“, where certain parts have almost a sort of Latin groove, before going back to typical hardcore BTBAM. And “Turn on the Darkness” is a track that showcases the band at their classic sound (sans much of Rogers’ growling), and thematically is one dark and bleak track, beginning with creepy acoustic picking and eerie vocal harmonies before exploding into a musical juggernaut, recapturing some of their past tech-death glory. The problem, though, is that it’s too lead by Tommy’s vocals to leave any real impact. And it’s immediately followed by “The Ectopic Stroll”, which is easily BTBAM’s lowest point. The first three minutes are Tommy singing in some poor man’s Hetfield voice over ridiculous honky-tonk piano metal, followed by a minute or so of some synthesizer bullshit before finally some real BTBAM musicianship blares out of the speakers, but too bad it’s all short-lived.
Coma Ecliptic is a concept album/rock opera that focuses on a man stuck in a coma, the dreams that he experiences, and at one point is given the chance to continue being stuck in a coma or begin a new life. This is an interesting concept, as people who have been in comas have reported just being stuck in a black void, to having vivid hallucinations or nightmares, and scientists themselves even don’t know what goes on, as some have theorized there is not enough blood flow to get to the brain, whereas one has even admitted that she experienced nothing but nightmarish images, and even said it took her “longer to recover from the hallucinations than the physical injuries“. This would be an awesome focus for a concept album if it was better explored. Whereas the band’s Parallax albums are science fiction stories and, while not exactly easy to understand the first few listens, at least have their concepts defined well enough in the lyrics, Coma Ecliptic doesn’t feel like a rock opera, and feels too episodic to have a running connection throughout.
Overall, Between the Buried and Me’s seventh album is a real mess. If you prefer the Parallax style to Alaska style, you’ll like it, and if you wish for the fast and heavy tracks like “Backwards Marathon”, you won’t. There’s too little substance on this album to carry it, and the best comparison I can think is Opeth’s Heritage– both albums have grand ambition and yet completely squander it, resulting in over an hour (under in Heritage‘s case) of music that comes off as under-cooked and half-hearted. It’s truly a shame to see this happening to a band as talented as BTBAM, but it’s almost enough to make one wonder if they only seem awesome because of Alaska and Colors, and the few really great tracks on Future Sequence.
Although Coma Ecliptic has some serious and unignorable ambition, it’s marred by its lack of memorability and substance.