If you were only able to see the left half of the Mona Lisa’s face, would it still be the most well-known painting in the world? Or if Michelangelo’s David was just a couple of legs and a dong, would it be the most highly-revered sculpture on Earth? This is the conundrum that’s presented by Automata I, the highly anticipated first half of a double release this year from Between the Buried and Me.
On the surface, Automata I is a fantastic album. While 2015’s Coma Ecliptic was a great record, many fans were more than a little miffed (let’s say solidly miffed) that frontman Tommy Rogers brought his clean vocals front and center on the record, outpacing his wonderful screams by a solid 80/20 split. With the band’s ongoing quest to become more and more progressive by the album, it would have surprised no one to see that disparity grow even larger on Automata I. Instead, the band has reverted back to their older stylings with much closer to a 50/50 split between cleans and screams. While my opinion is (unfortunately) not the definitive word on the matter, count me in favor of the change. Tommy has one of the most powerful and effective screams in metal, and Automata I is much better off for bringing that back.
Musically, the band has further refined the sound created on Coma Ecliptic, with all the spacey prog and mid-song interludes that helped define that record. But they’ve also reintroduced some of the heavier elements that were more ever-present on their earlier works. “Condemned to the Gallows” and “Blot” both sound like they’d fit right in on Colors, and “Yellow Eyes” is the heaviest track they’ve written since The Parallax II: Future Sequence. As I’ve already said (and I’m sure you’ve already read, right?), “Condemned to the Gallows” has all the makings of a Song of the Year Contender, with it’s incredible balance of menace, bizarre proginess, and surprising accessibility for a BTBAM song. “Blot” ups the prog-factor by at least 11, creating a challenging, but ultimately fascinating, listen that may eventually challenge “Condemned to the Gallows” for the best song on the album. Of course, being Between the Buried and Me, they balance this out pretty equally with “House Organ”, which starts of heavy but settles into a nice melodic groove for the closing half of the track, and “Millions”, the softest (and in my opinion, weakest) track on the record.
But even taking into account the strong tracks, the not-so-strong tracks, the finely balanced vocal split, the crushing heaviness and atmospherically-rich melody of the instrumentation, I still don’t really know what to make of this record. I could tell you exactly how I feel about it by, say, assigning it a letter grade at the end of this article, but that wouldn’t be right. As much as the two halves may end up being separate entities, I don’t feel like I can judge how good this album truly is without hearing Automata II. The overriding opinion that I have of this album is that it feels incomplete. Like a dick and legs without a torso and head.
I’m sure there were many reasons to split up the release of the two albums (I’m no marketing genius, but I’ve got to imagine that there’s a few extra bucks in it somewhere for somebody), but right now I feel like that choice is detracting, ever so slightly, from Automata I. I want to LOVE this album, and there are so many ingredients here that have me leaning that way. But I just can’t do it right now. So yes, Automata I is a fantastically fun listen that is worth your time many times over. But where does it lie within BTBAM’s already stellar catalogue? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
“Condemned to the Gallows”, “Blot”