The Kid Gets Heavy
Metal, That Is, with Between the Buried and Me and Deliverance

I’m occasionally asked how heavy I get, musically speaking.

And the answer is pretty damn heavy. Usually when people ask me this, they’re wondering what I think about bands like Metallica or Mastodon, concerned that I seem to devote an enormous amount of time, energy and love to quieter, more meditative artists. I do rock sometimes, yes. But when I hear “how heavy do you get,” my mind moves in a more extreme direction, to bands like Meshuggah, well beyond the tolerance level of a lot of people I know.

So it was a great experience to be in a room last week with thousands of people who were similarly excited to see one of the heaviest bands I love: Between the Buried and Me. They played the House of Blues, and packed the place – I spent most of the show pressed up against the sound booth, trying not to get beer spilled on me as person after person nudged and shoved their way past me. That I enjoyed the whole show anyway is a testament to the bands.

And yeah, at least 50% of my excitement was about the opening act, The Dear Hunter. I will never again pass up a chance to see them. They’re one of the best bands in the world right now, and their catalog of amazing songs keeps growing. Casey Crescenzo was in fine voice, in contrast to the last time I saw them, and the band slammed through several selections from the latter three Acts, plus a couple tracks from their great new EP All Is as All Should Be. I believe we got the first ever live outing of “Witness Me,” which was pretty cool. Anyway, The Dear Hunter. I continue to evangelize for them, because they’re incredible.

But I was also excited to see how Between the Buried and Me would pull off their devilishly complicated progressive metal live. I’ve described them as Frank Zappa’s death metal band. They started off their career playing raw metal, but quickly grew more cerebral, and have for some time now only been crafting conceptual pieces that play like single 70-minute songs. Their albums are so wildly complex that I don’t know how they keep track of them while playing – I half expected them to use sheet music. The most labyrinthine of their records is the one that got the most play: The Parallax II: Future Sequence, an astonishing science fiction narrative set to jaw-droppingly heavy music that is insanely difficult to play.

And they were awesome, of course. Playing this music for any length of time must be simply exhausting, and they gave us nearly 90 minutes of blistering, yet painstakingly accurate performance. Tommy Rogers was the revelation for me – I knew the band would be tight behind him, but Rogers played all the keyboard parts while slipping effortlessly from his death growl to his strong melodic voice. The set closed with perhaps its most challenging piece, the 15-minute “Silent Flight Parliament,” and it was amazing to see them navigate its twisting passages.

I mention all of this because Between the Buried also played three songs off of their new album, Automata. They opened with one, in fact, throwing the crowd off guard right at the start. And while these songs didn’t inspire any particular reaction live, I’m happy to report that the first half of Automata in its recorded form is excellent. In fact, if the second half continues in this vein, I’ll happily put this record among my favorites from this band.

Wait, wait. First half, I hear you asking? Yes, for reasons that thoroughly escape me, BTBAM has decided to split Automata over two releases. The first is out now, the second will follow this summer. When I first heard this news, I thought they’d delivered a lengthy double album. But no, Automata will reportedly run 67 or so minutes when it’s complete, and this first half contains only 35 of those minutes. It’s only half a story I could easily read in one sitting.

And it is a story. Automata is a spiritual sequel to Coma Ecliptic, their previous album, in that it tells another futuristic sci-fi story about people and technology. The new record is about a man whose dreams are broadcast to the entire world as a form of entertainment, and presumably will tell the story of how he breaks out of this enslavement. But we have to wait until summer for that.

Which will actually be difficult, because Automata I is so good. Musically it feels like an arrival point. Coma Ecliptic sometimes felt confused to me, like the band wasn’t sure whether their excursions away from their metal roots would work. In some cases, they were right to be worried, but I applauded their willingness to take so many risks. Automata finds a way to incorporate everything Coma struggled to include, and sounds a lot more natural doing it. There’s just as much David Bowie and Pink Floyd here, but it sits nicely next to the other styles they’re going for, including a healthy dose of head-spinningly fast death metal.

The record opens the same way the concert did, with “Condemned to the Gallows.” It begins slowly, but soon erupts into a maelstrom of shouts and growls, guitarists Paul Waggoner and Dustie Waring parrying and thrusting around one another, like a violent dance. “House Organ” brings the keyboards in for long stretches, while the nearly nine-minute “Yellow Eyes” is a true epic, erupting with volcanic power but always returning to the clean melody. The EP (for that’s what it is) ends with “Blot,” which we also heard live. It’s a ten-minute excursion that slows down to a crawl in places, and ends abruptly.

That ending is the only problem I have with this record, in fact. The space between “Blot” and the next song should have been only a couple seconds, but now it will be months before we hear where it should have picked up. I hope there’s some reason not yet apparent to me why the band would cut their album in half, beyond (of course) the monetary one. Automata I is the first Between the Buried and Me album to leave me wanting more, and not in the good way.

I only complain because what we have is so awesome, though. I don’t know any other band quite like this one, where all five musicians have mastered their craft to such a level that they can create albums like Colors and The Great Misdirect and then leave them in the dust, as if they’re bored with them and looking for new challenges. I’m still catching up with those older records, still reveling in their pleasures, and BTBAM has moved well beyond them. They’re one of the best heavy bands in the world, and they somehow keep getting better. Bring on Automata II, because part one is fantastic.

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I’m glad we’re talking about heavy music this week, because it gives me a chance to review the new Deliverance.

I’ve been a Deliverance fan since I understood what metal was. My teenage metalhead phase coincided somewhat with my teenage Jesus phase, and Deliverance was the perfect band for 15-year-old me to discover. Their first two records, Deliverance and Weapons of Our Warfare, were absolute classics of the Christian thrash genre, which was just feeling its way into existence in 1989. “Weapons of Our Warfare,” the song, got some MTV airplay, which was exciting to teenage me, because I thought it meant something.

As I grew up, so did Deliverance, leaving behind their strident Jesus-ness for a more mature and progressive approach. Leader Jimmy P. Brown became like a heavy metal Bowie, shifting styles album to album and working with Terry Taylor of Daniel Amos to create more layered, nuanced music. I’d stack albums like Learn and River Disturbance up against a lot of progressive metal, and I still admire their shift into industrial dance music with Assimilation, an album none of their fans were asking for.

Along the way, Brown launched a few other projects, most notable among them Jupiter VI, which has become his full-on prog band. Five years ago, Brown announced Hear What I Say, the final Deliverance album, and it was… OK. It was a summary of sorts, including some heavier material and some slower, keyboard-driven stuff, but it all seemed kind of half-hearted. Not the way I would have wanted a band with such a long and interesting history to go out.

Which is why I’m so glad The Subversive Kind exists. The new Deliverance album, their eleventh, is a gift to longtime fans like me. It’s a return to the full-on heavy thrash that I first loved, burning through eight tracks in a compact 31 minutes. It’s basically their Reign in Blood – fast, angry, with screaming solos and pounding drums. It’s classic metal, and Brown has convened some old-school players to pull it off, from bands I love but most of you have never heard of, like Tourniquet and Vengeance Rising. I know, I know, but if you’re into this corner of the music world, those names mean something. And I’ve been into it since I was in high school.

The Subversive Kind is pretty vague in its spirituality, which is fine with me. It’s mostly about living in a dark world and looking for the light, which is pretty relatable stuff. “Concept of the Other” takes aim at the idea that any of us should be shunned or mistreated because of who we are: “We’ve clearly drawn the line of who to justify to hate, reasoning by law and love, the blindfolded one has sealed their fate…” Otherwise it’s mostly your standard metal songs about overcoming pain and continuing the good fight.

Musically, though, it’s an eruption. I’m super happy with how heavy and intense it all is, and how focused its attack remains. There are no ballads, no quiet parts, no acoustic guitars anywhere. It’s just one loud, fast bit of molten awesome after another. These guys all have to be in their 50s now, and they still jam like teenagers. I never thought I’d get another Deliverance album at all, but to get one this committed, this energized, this electric, well, it’s a treat. Long live Deliverance.

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