Let's talk about Between the Buried and Me's "Coma Ecliptic": Part Two

This will continue directly on from part one of this piece.

Track 7 – "The Ectopic Stroll"

    Oh my god, though. This is my shit. This main idea is just so fun and dissonant I can’t help but love it, and the vocals are fantastic too! This is so far past simple cheesiness that it transcends the issues of “Turn on the Darkness” and becomes just pure revelry like many BTBAM songs can become when the intention is clear. It’s a little similar to the intro of “Fossil Genera” but not enough to cause worry. I really dig the foreshadowing of the pseudochorus at 0:44 with the little countermotif at 0:22, and I also dig that pseudochorus a lot. For one, the tempo change into it is an actual metric modulation (the 8th note tempo is equal to 8th note triplets in the previous tempo), which is an often-underutilized technique that (for me) makes for immensely more justified-sounding tempo changes than sudden, noticeable changes that aren’t metrically based. The higher guitar line is an interesting little permutation, and I also like the lyrics; they seem to imply a sudden realization or moment of control (supported by the music) that is quickly taken over by some madness, hence “can’t get it right”. Also, check out the background vocals from 1:00 on. This whole part is just an exceptional opening salvo for a BTBAM song, and I feel that they manipulated the main idea just enough (especially by adding that gorgeous guitar solo at 0:51) for the transition at 1:07 to not feel premature.

    The following section is heavily reminiscent of “Bloom” from Parallax II but I’m not complaining. It works. I appreciate that they don’t let the song’s essence get too loose by reusing the tonality of the main idea again at 1:37, and then following the established logic by going to the tonality of the B idea again at 1:42. This caps off the first segment of the song and brings in the actual chorus at 2:09. This idea is fine and a typically dramatic BTBAM chorus, but I feel like it’s just a little too buttoned-up for the sentimentality they’re trying to play for here.

    We then return to the A idea at 2:59 after an interesting transition. This puts a little development on it that’s essentially just BTBAM revving up to take us into an instrumental section straight out of Dream Theater, but I really love it here. To be fair, I tend to like Dream Theater instrumental sections, but the thing they always stumble on is complete ineptitude at mixing their “instrumental sections” and their “songs”. I mean, listen to “Outcry” for the most extreme example of this I’ve found yet. As I keep saying, though, BTBAM cultivate a much more laissez-faire attitude with their music and especially in this song we’ve heard a lot of weird, non sequitur ideas already; additionally it’s actually within the scope of the song to include a weird development section like this (“Ectopic” means “abnormally placed”). This part actually reminds me a lot of the band SERDCE in that it seems like a much more well-conceived Dream Theater (though SERDCE can certainly also be guilty of sudden mood swings between self-serious “emotional” parts and absurd, slightly “wacky” instrumental stuff).

    Back to "The Ectopic Stroll", the parts for this section sound related enough to the rest of the song to fit and not feel tacked on. A good example is the simple 1E+ rhythm at both 0:50 and 3:44. The timbre of everything is pretty similar to the rest of the song too. Also – more fuzz bass at 3:51!! I love the way they play with the 5/8 idea at 4:24 as well, distorting it rhythmically until we break back into “the song” at 4:34 which some of the instrumental ideas bleed into. We then get the capper for the “can’t get it right” at 4:49, the crux of the whole song, and I think this moment is one of the only so far on the album that really affects me. It’s just great.

    Then we get some blues soloing, which is fine – it’s certainly alright to include right after the intensity of the previous section. We recap the chorus again and close out the song with a hilarious, but I think massively earned, use of a humongous perfect authentic cadence that resolves with a tiny single piano note. It fits. I love this song.

Track 8 – "Rapid Calm"

    Now, in contrast to the jaunty, purposeful previous song, we immediately move into what I’d lightly characterize as a lethargic, aimless mess. I’ll start out by being harder on the main motif of the song than I was back in “Node”: 0:47 is just a bad idea. There’s no subtlety to it, there’s no interesting harmonic motion inherent in it (all that is added on by the other parts here), there’s certainly no groove to it, and the only interesting thing about it is that “It’s in 25/8 time split into 3-3-4-3-2-4-3-3!” It could have been palindromic but the middle of it isn’t even close. It’s just so booooring and BTBAM use it exactly as it is literally twenty times in this song. What?! At least in “Node” this idea only played 4 times and had minor alterations to the end of it, as well as being stated in a way that sounded much less like it was trying to be capital-c Cool as it does here. I do think the guitars and vocals surrounding it elevate it, and I also appreciate the quarter note cycle Blake puts the whole thing through from 1:06 to 1:24, but I just really am not a fan of the focus of the section.

    Normally I’d feel good about this song having less material in it (much less than “The Coma Machine” certainly), as well as referencing/reusing a lot of stuff from “Node”, but it’s so long and there’s so little development I feel like this hits another bad end of the material/development graph. Too many ideas and little attention paid to each one results in something like “The Coma Machine” where there’s just a lot of jumbling around. “Rapid Calm” has a good, lean amount of ideas, I think, but also pays little attention to them so that instead of sounding cohesive, it can sound monotonous and shallow.

    I really like the B section from 1:48 to 3:53 though! This takes some of the same ideas from 8:34 of “Silent Flight Parliament”, namely the obviously similar vocals and the hazy sunset slide guitar (“hazy sunset” is just absolutely what that evokes) and builds up a similarly affecting little piece. The little swells at 2:51 are very nice, as well as the guitar arpeggations at 3:30. I think the little 6-note runs at 2:55 are a reference to the intro of “Famine Wolf” as well; they certainly have a similar contour. Regardless, this is a very good section and lends some credibility to this song while showing how to do slower-tempo stuff interestingly, which I point out because the C section of this song does slower-tempo stuff reaaaaally poorly.

    So we’ll skip over the representation of the main section again and go straight to the C section at 4:39. First of all, the drum fill into this section is… well, it doesn’t flow into the part very well. It’s kind of high-energy and also establishes a sextuplet feel, neither of which are at all present in the following part – that following part is another idea from “Node” but I think this section really lacks personality and any kind of hook. The drums aren’t very interesting (Blake plays almost the exact same part at 8:22 of “Melting City” with different cymbal selections), the vocals and lyrics are pretty stock, the actual idea from “Node” is very simple anyways, and it sound a lot like a part to play live where the crowd sings along and whatever. This part just plods along which is something BTBAM especially shouldn’t be doing in a story-driven, nearly 70-minute album.

    That section does end with a nice nod to “The Coma Machine” (compare 1:19 of that song and 5:39 of this one) which leads into a perfectly fine, X-Files theme-sounding calm section. Now, given the lyrics of the previous and next sections of the song, 6:25 is obviously intended to be a character moment where the protagonist tries to break out of their coma journey or whatever, but then is tempted back to it by greed & curiosity. As that, I think the heel-turn of the song works pretty well, and BTBAM have always been good at using these kinds of decadent head-banging rawk sections in their songs. This one does work. That’s about all I have to say about it – of course there’s cowbell in there, and the guitar solo is nice. The little cap sounds like it’s referencing 4:32 of this same song, which is fine and good. Overall I find this just a quite disappointingly slapdash piece, despite it containing Important Story Material.

Track 9 – "Memory Palace"

    Now, this was the first single from the album, and a pretty good choice at that. It’s pretty emblematic of the album, though it is one of the most idea-saturated songs and, like “The Coma Machine”, can get pretty disjointed. It begins with a very Mars Volta-sounding riff that is indeed in 11/8 to not sound cliche, as if it were in straight time it would be really noticeable how cliche it is. I do enjoy it, though, and the organ and higher guitar line added to it elevate it a little. This whole opening section is pretty stock for BTBAM, but it’s functional and builds well to 1:38 where the same thing I complained about in “The Coma Machine” happens. We’re on board with the groove, the blast beat part has started us in an interesting direction, and then they just take the intensity down and we get an unintentional-feeling anticlimax that considerably drops my interest.

    1:38 – 1:43 reminds me  of  “Holomovement” (1:41) by The Contortionist a lot in that it sounds really bad and awkward (haha, but seriously). Both those moments are just so cringeworthy. They both take the musical trajectory before them and veer from it with some unimportant guitar line, stop, and then just go back to the original vector. They’re both too short and seem aggressively unrelated to the rest of the song, like they were added just to have a Transition Part. But what makes both of those parts sound truly thoughtless to me is the use of absolute/computer generated silence at the end of the transition: why?? It sounds unnatural, it sounds awkward, and it only serves to separate the “before part” from the “after part” in the listener’s mind even though those parts already sounded pretty similar; plus it’s really lame and it makes me think they listened to a “natural” silence version (with the tracking musicians muting their instruments as best they could), heard how awkward it sounded, and said “Maybe it’s the sound of the instruments being instruments that’s making this part sound bad” and muted those sounds for wont of a quick fix. The absolute silence in “The Coma Machine” at 5:24 works because it’s somewhat plausible that the song could end there, but the two uses I’m discussing here happen early on in the song and even happen after material that couldn’t possibly be the end to any song and thus don’t even have a fakeout justification behind them. They just don’t work.

    Anyways, the next section is quite nice. This is another classic ABAB thing, but both ideas are good, rhythmically related, and show up in “Option Oblivion”, so that’s nice! They then return to the little 3-note repeating line that they keep doing around the main idea, and then return to the main idea with added cowbell and background vocals. Lovely effect with the vocals at 3:09. Then we have another little transition section – this one reduces the complexity and intensity quite a bit even though we haven’t quite peaked in the previous section, but there’s still time to fix that downward trajectory until we hit 3:34 and all the energy just drops out of the song. Now, in a holistic view of the album, this chorus part here isn’t awfully placed. Its cheesiness, like the Dream Theater part I talked about in “The Coma Machine” feels more okay when it’s earned by everything that’s happened in the album so far (I’m not going to even talk about what I thought about this section when I heard it in single form). However, this chorus is just too lame to really work in my opinion. Nothing’s funny about it (except its corniness) and yet it’s just so cliche and Pink Floyd-y that I can’t take it seriously. Compounding this is the fact that the lyrics and vocal lines are (again, to me) just trash. The first phrase in particular, “focus on melody”, is ironic because it sounds like something I’ve heard thousands of times. This entire section just seems thoughtlessly sparse for the emotional climax of the album. Also, the organ sound is really obnoxious and loud. Waaah! I don’t like it!

    We get a little back on track after that chorus with an interesting little riff and great vocals. I like these particular vocals because they’re overenunciated just enough to get out of ambiguous territory and be a little tongue-in-cheek, especially with how Tommy pronounces “smoke”. Importantly, though, the vocals aren’t outright hilarious or anything, which would necessitate the music be comically contrasted as well – it’s just a small joke in the vocals. By comparison, the vocals of the chorus I hate in “Turn On The Darkness” are just so overexaggerated that the other instruments (drums especially) just sound uninformed. We continue in “Memory Palace” with a functional, good example of overexaggerated lyrics: 5:03 is obviously comedic and manic in nature and the drums, the guitars, everything supports that madcap atmosphere and helps build a mini-climax before the build to the actual climax of the song.

    BTBAM immediately drop down the intensity, since they just “burst the bubble”, and play an interesting little progression. The two parts it seems to meld (I don’t think it shows up intact anywhere else) are the 1-5-m3-5 outline from 3:13 of “The Coma Machine” and the switching between major and minor modes in the same phrase from 2:21 of “Rapid Calm”. It’s a cool idea, and the mood is right. We do a little transitory material at 5:43 and – holy shit, what was that?! This is like a mini-epiphany for me. What a cool as hell sound that is!! I’d love to bring in a quote from a Song Exploder episode here, but I can’t find it, so I’ll paraphrase. We, as humans, probably will not see an appreciably new color for the rest of our lives. We don’t experience shocking new tastes that often, nor do most smells, textures, or shapes surprise us. But we hear new sounds all the time. Anyways, this continues into another really cool, interesting part that reminds me of 5:09 from “Specular Reflection” (though as is par for this album, I think that was better executed on Parallax I). This immediately goes into a big dramatic part at 6:15 that doesn’t feel especially earned, and the vocal proclamations aren’t especially new or exciting. Another little quirk of this section is Blake’s fill starting at 6:23. He takes 8 seconds to do a big exciting drum fill and literally plays one lick 8 times in a row across different drums. This is a true Portnoy Part, but I think even Portnoy would have had taste enough to take this one again.

    That big Important Drama Section then leads into a reprisal of the main idea of this song in straight 12/8 time. I like this a bit, especially since most of the “main ideas” on Coma Ecliptic tend to just get repeated a bunch without changing context at all. This is a nice change of context that develops the main idea a little. We then go into a fast exciting part to prepare for the last chorus, and oh god, is it as bad as it was four and a half minutes ago. The guitar solo is a rare misstep as well from Paul (guitarist); it’s just blindingly simple and not even in an interesting way like the solo in “I Am Colossus” (2:58). This leads into an interesting, extremely classical guitar-sounding section that then cycles through the chorus again and lazily transitions back into the main idea for another four thoughtless repetitions of it, which then goes into....

Track 10 – "Option Oblivion"

    ...where I think some nice elements come in. First of all, this intro has an interesting blend of acoustic and electric guitars. Second, it’s very clearly a reprisal of the part at 1:43 of “Memory Palace”. That’s pretty interesting, and stands out on this album since we don’t have a lot of cross-song ideas – though, to be fair, BTBAM don’t do that a lot on any other albums, either; only between paired songs like “Mirrors” & “Obfuscation” and “Astral Body” & “Lay Your Ghosts to Rest”. The only big example I can think of offhand is the progression at 7:53 of “Sun of Nothing”  and 13:30 of “White Walls” (postscript: also wow, forgot the even more obvious 3:52 of “Astral Body” and 5:13 of “Silent Flight Parliament”), but I really wish they did it more often in the songs that aren’t Very Important Songs (i.e. not the bookends of the album).

    So that first section transitions into the chorus at 1:08, which is fine, but the transition is again very awkward for very similar reasons to the ones I outlined for “Memory Palace”. Additionally, the drums are really chopsy and busy for the first exposition of this chorus; it would have been okay if this were the second time we were hearing this chorus but it seems like an unintentional overload of the audience’s processing. That goes into a Typical Paul Waggoner-Led End Of Album Dramatic Guitar Solo Jerkoff Time, but I don’t really mind that and it’s nice that they keep trimming down the length of the TPWLEADGSJTs since the 3-minute one in Colors. I really like the solos here as well, they’re fluff to be sure but they’re well-executed and functional fluff.

    The next part is a little sudden, and seems like another idea that would make a lot more of an emotional impact if we had ever heard the damn thing before. It’s a nice enough vocal/lyrical combination, though, and very dramatic feeling for the penultimate track on the album. Then we get a reprisal of 8:24 from “Memory Palace” plus vocals at 3:58, which is a nice way to cap off the “main part” of the album as “Life in Velvet” is definitely intended to be a sort of postlude/encore thing.

    Overall this whole track, to me, is “well-executed and functional fluff”. It exists to be dramatic and to be paired with “Memory Palace”. Let’s move on to the final track.

Track 11 – "Life in Velvet"

    The first time I heard this, I literally thought I had accidentally queued up “The Spirit Carries On”. It’s not stolen or anything, just that they serve very similar purposes, both start with soft, simple piano, and they also use the same first and second-ish chords. Seriously, try starting them at the same time. It’s pretty funny.

    Anyways, this is obviously the main idea from “The Coma Machine”. Nice. Again, at this point, I just don’t get much emotionality from this album, so as lovely as the vocals in this intro are, they don’t really tug at my heartstrings like “Jet propulsion disengage” from Parallax II or “I’ll make my old life seem new” from “Augment of Rebirth”, which, in case I haven’t mentioned it enough, is one of my favorite BTBAM moments ever. Back to “Life in Velvet”, we get an almost comically sudden switch to minor at 1:30 – really seems like they should have thought about that one more – that reintroduces the Dramatic Guitar Part from “The Coma Machine” to be even more dramatic. We then finally go into a really brutal, correctly built metal part at 2:57 that’s similar enough to the chord outline of the previous part to feel like a logical extension, the fuzz bass comes back in!!!, the lyrics reference the very beginning of the album, and then we end the album with another really cool moment.

    And that’s it. I’ve written enough about this big prog opera but I guess I should sum it up. It’s fine. Y’know? I don’t think BTBAM are going to drastically change their sound or process for the next album, or perhaps ever, but I feel like they should at least keep changing a modicum per album like they did here to stay somewhat fresh. I hope next time, they really drill down and find an emotional thread to the concept, or in the end they’ll just continue down the path of “a bunch of prog shit, who cares?”. Regardless, they at least do prog shit more decently than most – I just find increasingly that I'm not the person who does care. I give it a Hype Index of 2.0559 mJh. Bye!