Sound — 9
In today's music industry (not to mention today's economy), too many people refrain from taking risks. This is especially true for heavy metal bands. The funny thing is, the bands that take risks are the one's selling albums. Opeth's "Watershed" made it to number 23 on the US Billboard 200. For a metal band, especially a progressive death metal band, that's a hell of a number. Mastodon's "Crack the Skye," which might be the most audacious major label album of the year, boasting ten and thirteen minute epics, debuted at number 11 on the Billboard 200. These are only two examples in a long line of failures, but it seems agreed upon that too many musicians are fearful to tread outside their comfort zone. Bands that carry the "heavy metal" tag are so quick to take the easy road and they end up going nowhere both musically and commercially because of it. Which brings this review to Between the Buried and Me's new full length "The Great Misdirect," an album so full of imagination, variation, and color, it makes other albums seem gray by comparison. It's scary, beautiful, indulgent and familiar, often all at the same time. There's bluesy 12/8 passages, spaced out keyboard-laden pieces, warped Mike Patton-style polka, jazzy guitar jams, acoustic folk and absolutely sublime vocal harmonies side-by-side with crushing death metal as if they were cut from the same, demented cloth. Now this might sound like useless genre-exercising on paper, but it coalesces so magnificently, that it's an absolute treat to listen to from front to back. Every song has a section that will make even the most jaded music fan excited. The swinging guitar breakdown that occurs about 8 and a half minutes into "Disease, Injury, Madness" will make people stop in their tracks. The strings that show up 9 and a half minutes into the regrettably titled "Fossil Genera - A Feed from Cloud Mountain," don't just make an appearance and go away. They stick around, adding both a creepy atmosphere and a sense of playfulness to the whole proceeding. One part in the middle of "Swim to the Moon" sounds like it's from an old, forgotten Blaxploitation film from the 70's. When listened to together, "Mirrors," with its jazzy chords and subdued, peaceful vocals and "Obfuscation," with juxtaposing melodic and atonal death metal riffs and growls sound almost like a statement of purpose and intent. Blake Richardson and his drums get a starring role in "Swim to the Moon," hammering out a solo in the style of Black Sabbath's "Rat Salad" or Led Zeppelin's "Moby Dick". Paul Waggoner and Dustie Waring aren't afraid to prove they can shred but they're also unafraid to show off their more subtle and varied chops. They can write killer riffs, too. The bass playing by Dan Briggs is superb throughout the album, so much so that he deserves a special mention. In this mostly guitar-focused band, he stands out by taking over the quiet passages with such understated grace, never taking away the power of the other instruments or the overall mood, instead enhancing it even when he's soloing. Every now and then (when the music calls for it) singer/keyboardist Tommy Rogers throws piano, organ and various spacey and squiggly sounds into the mix. He's actually quite good on the keyboards. The production on this album is Between the Buried and Me's finest yet, letting all the instruments breathe. The guitars don't sound like they blend in with the drum cymbals anymore. "Desert of Song" and the 18-minute closer "Swim to the Moon" sound like their respective titles. However, this album isn't perfect (well, not quite). The sprawling nature of the songs will put off many listeners, as will the unmelodic death metal portions. Death metal purists will be offended by the jazz, acoustic guitars, and polka mixed in with the brutality. But it is precisely these moments that make Between the Buried and Me and "The Great Misdirect" such an exciting band and album to listen to. It feels as though they can do anything. This band is on top of the heavy metal pile creatively, whether casual observers know this or not.
Lyrics — 7
The lyrics are unintelligible during the moments of growling/screaming, so it's hard to tell what's going on without a lyric sheet. From what can be heard (usually in the cleanly-sung moments) it sounds as though it's business as usual in the BTBAM camp: Cryptic and poetic musings about real life, with some sly social commentary thrown in. "The throat can't start singing/The scarecrow is watching" sounds like an outtake from an Orwellian novel. Tommy Rogers is still in top form as far as his David Gilmour-inspired falsetto clean vocals and his guttural growls are concerned, but they do kind of blend into the background. The best vocal hook of the album is in the closer "Swim to the Moon": "Slide into the water/become one with the sea/life seems so much smaller/swim to the moon".
Overall Impression — 9
So will this album sell as many copies as either Mastodon or Opeth's latest releases? Probably not. The music is too "out there" for many people, even (or perhaps especially) heavy metal fans. Reiterating the point at the beginning of this review, this is a band unafraid to take chances, and the result is their best album yet and what might be the best album of the year. There's more to discover on "The Great Misdirect" than any album (metal or otherwise) so far released in 2009. More happens over the course of this album than one review can describe. If there is one problem with the album, it is that despite it's nearly hour-long running time, it's over much too quickly. But, if the worst thing you can say about an album is that you wish it kept going, the band must be doing something right. This is a band that has almost made stepping out of its comfort zone a genre unto itself. Comparisons to Dillinger Escape Plan and Mike Patton are inevitable, but the fact is, Between the Buried and Me sound like no one but themselves. It is albums like this, albums that make you believe anything is possible, that are the reason this reviewer ever got into music in the first place. Buy this album, support this band.