Underground metal subgenres proliferate with a speed and inanity that has its closest analogue in the ‘90s electronica scene. But whereas electronica’s divisions and transformations were spurred by new technology, there seems to be little behind the distinction between, say, “death metal,” “black metal,” and “metalcore” than the most obnoxious brand of scene politics. Trying to cultivate their own sound in that context, it’s easy to understand why Between the Buried and Me’s albums always seem to be accompanied by an agenda, whether that’s proving that a metalcore band can play with as much technical skill as their straight-metal colleagues (The Silent Circus), proving that their auspicious debut was no fluke (Alaska), or proving that a genre-defying prog act can double as an emotionally riveting listen for people who care nothing about wonky progressions or time-signature changes (Colors). Where the The Great Misdirect works—and by and large it does—it’s because Between the Buried and Me finally sounds like a band with nothing to prove.
In their three previous albums, the band left nary a genre untouched, from bluegrass to hardcore punk, laid down some truly righteous guitar solos, and earned a reputation as one of the most promising young metal acts in the U.S. But through it all they’ve largely evaded establishing their own sound: Their back catalogue rocks unbelievably hard as a collection of singular feats but desperately lacks a statement of intent. Approaching the second decade of their career, the band has finally started to think hard about what a Between the Buried and Me album should sound like.
And so the album’s biggest surprise is that it doesn’t make any great leaps forward. Having already demonstrated their mastery of so many musical styles, the band wisely focuses on integration. Colors may have been exhilarating, but it was also chaotic and oddly paced—in short, a mess. Here, the many genre styles, moods, and textures that contributed to that album’s eclectic fury return, but with more attentiveness to transition and subtlety. Instead of looking at an 11-minute track as an opportunity to cram seven or eight movements into a single song, Between the Buried and Me try, on “Obfuscation,” to make the connection between melodic blues soloing and breakneck thrash clear, or on “Fossil Genera,” to make Tommy Roger’s Mike Patton impersonations cohere with his falsetto theatrics. In that track’s final stunning minutes, a lush, orchestral coda blooms out of the anarchic metal bridge; in an earlier incarnation, Between the Buried and Me would have just piled on the strings and left the listener to figure it out. For progressive musicians, there is a tendency to interpret craftsmanship solely in terms of virtuosity and unpredictability, but Great Misdirect wisely allows nuance to be part of the equation.
This is all admirable in theory, but as the album stretches on, it’s hard not to notice that some of the unbridled enthusiasm that made Alaska and Colors the heavy, heady trips that they were has been sacrificed. That’s forgivable. The type of a maturation process that Between the Buried and Me has embarked on is never easy, and the record shows that few bands from rock’s progressive edges pull it off. On the one hand, you get acts like Isis that seem to fall to Earth with a fully-realized sound; then there are the countless others that are perhaps too indulgent (Dream Theater) or too unfocused (Pelican) to streamline their virtuosic chops, oddball influences, and all of the heavy metal staples into something fit for wider consumption. In any other genre, a release like this would be considered a safe move. But today, prog rock means constantly one-upping the other guy, and so taking a breather to consolidate what one already does well—in effect, to release the same album a second time but slightly better—is the riskiest move of all.
That said, Great Misdirect contains substantial flaws that cannot be chalked up to prog-rock growing pains. As a lyricist, Rogers riffs on phony mysticism tropes of the Zep/Floyd derivation, spiked with a bit of that apocalyptic hyperbole so crucial to heavy metal’s iconography since Black Sabbath. And it’s not that he’s gotten worse at his craft, but the proportional increase in clean singing means that lyrical blunders previously lost in Rogers’s caterwauling now get delivered with crisp, radio-rock clarity. All the worse when, as his contribution to the record’s finale, he exhorts the listener to “become one with the sea” and “swim to the moon.” Similar passages crop up throughout the album, and your tolerance for them will hinge on how impressed you are by Rogers’s formidable vocal chops, and, more crucially, exactly how nostalgic you are for psychedelia in the vein of Jefferson Airplane.
And what about that last track? The good news is that “Swim to the Moon” is the only truly bad song on the album. The bad news is that it comprises nearly a third of the album’s runtime. In its first 10 minutes, Between the Buried and Me treads water, repeating much of the preceding material in miniature, before forging ahead to a strange fusion of ‘90s alterna-rock, jam-band noodling, and, naturally, death metal. The band harmonizes over interminable blues solos, occasionally spiking the concoction with a blast of double bass drum or a vicious power-chord progression. Hey, new combinations can be fun sometimes, but this is pretty much the sonic equivalent of being force-fed a peanut butter and tuna sandwich. Hypothetically, I could see a pair of new college roommates bonding over this track as it magically resolves their conflict over whether to put on Dave Matthews Band or Mastodon. Beyond that, it’s difficult to imagine anyone bothering to listen to the track more than once. Should we applaud Rogers and the gang for forgetting their audience and following their idiosyncratic tastes to their conclusion? Or do we just enjoy the 40 minutes of listenable music and hope that the apparent finale was, in fact, the promised Misdirect?