I genuinely don’t have a lot to bring to the table here, so I’ll forgo the background explanation and context setting I usually do. “Automata I” is the first part of what I presume is a two-part work mirroring Between the Buried and Me’s prior release “The Parallax”, which was a 30-minute EP followed by a 72-minute LP. “Automata I” is 35 minutes long and effectively 5 tracks. So, how is it? Well, it’s… fine.
Overall, it’s definitely not far from “Coma Ecliptic” in its makeup. There’s a bit more harsh vocals, and a more cohesive use of synths and decoration towards making this One Thing than “Coma Ecliptic” which was more or less episodic. But it’s not a huge difference, and BTBAM haven’t had huge differences between any of their albums since probably “Colors” 11 years ago. Personally? Their vocabulary is starting to grow a bit stale, and most of the expansions they’ve made in vocalist Tommy Rogers’s contributions are of varying quality.
I think Rogers has made great contributions, but “Automata I” makes me feel that he’s kind of shouldering a lot of focus as the element that changes the most between releases, since everything about the instrumentalists remains… pretty much identical every time. With that as a disclaimer, the combination of vocal delivery, lyric writing, and lyric setting is one of the most disappointing parts of this release. There’s a lack of emotion or expression to his clean delivery that makes the majority of the loudly-backed melodic sections (the endings of “Condemned to the Gallows” and “House Organ”) really fall flat. The hallmark cryptic lyrics of BTBAM are, yup, still here: they’re lacking the bits of actual character and humanity that parts of “Parallax II” blessedly had, and I think this compounds with the monotony of the delivery to make them a bit grating.
Furthermore, there’s a lot of really amateurish lyric setting throughout the EP that sounds like it just wasn’t given enough attention. It first shows up in literally starting the first song by saying the name of the song on one note – but it’s a pretty ubiquitous issue. The distant vocals around 5:00 of “Condemned to the Gallows” are again singing the name of the song in a really unnatural 8th note part as “Con-de-e-e-e-emned to the gal-lows”. It’s… well, it’s amateurish. It sounds cheesy. This is very noticeable in “Yellow Eyes” and “Blot” too, at the 6:56 and 5:59 marks respectively, where the lyrics don’t fit the melody – it sounds as if the melody was written first and then the lyrics had to be crammed in to fit. The latter example is very noticeable as the lyric “Computer simulation complete” comes across roughly as ‘Computer simulashncmplete’ and gets really awkwardly crushed into the melody. It’s unnatural, but not in a good, evocative way.
Speaking of amateurish and cheesy, “Blot” has a lot of rough parts, huh? The opening exoticism guitar over the ridiculously cheesy wah-wah bass and the reverb-drenched drums is pretty cringe-inducing. Maybe even worse is the obligatory epic major chorus, first shown at 2:51. It has this meandering harmonic structure that goes nowhere, trite lyrics, and is probably an all-timer for out-of-place BTBAM choruses. I would expect this to have come on an album 7 years before the chorus of “Lay Your Ghosts to Rest”, not after. Also, there’s a pretty iffy note choice in the vocals in the first repetition of the double chorus (at 3:10), using a C leading to the D right after when the actual key would suggest the leading tone of C#. It’s just… a weird nag, like a lot of the issues I have with this release, that makes it seem like this got pushed out too quickly.
Here’s the stuff I like about this EP quickly: the motif at 1:20 in “Condemned…” and 1:29 in “House Organ” as well as other places is good and sounds relatively fresh. The intro to “House Organ” is also fresh as hell and really plays up the atmosphere evoked by the title “Automata” well (and the riff reappears in “Millions” throughout the section at 2:11). The machine sounds, programming, and such are quite good, in stark contrast to the other somewhat recent mainstream-progressive-metal-concept-album-with-robots, Dream Theater’s “The Astonishing”. The audacious, stuttering guitar melody in the first main section of “Blot” is weird and cool in the right way. There are some really interesting scream & harsh vocal textures throughout the EP that are leaps and bounds ahead of the clean stuff.
Finally, “Millions” is a really beautiful, solemn, even subtle BTBAM song. It suffers from some of the things I’ve already discussed, and is probably a bit too short, but if that kind of moody departure from BTBAM cliches was more representative of this album - I’d be much more positive on “Automata I” as a whole! But it’s not! And I’m not. I doubt I’ll be listening to this very much until the release of the second part. Instead, I’ll be lost in how unbelievably good Instrumental, adj. is, and how every song of theirs sounds new.