"We like to keep the fans on their toes, and we like to keep ourselves on our toes too." The story of Between The Buried & Me's Automata concept albums

 Between The Buried And Me.
Between The Buried And Me.
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In 2018 US prog metallers Between The Buried And Me released Automata I, the first part of a double concept album that barrelled headfirst into a dystopian nightmare, examining social media, issues of privacy and suicide. Guitarist Paul Waggoner told Prog the ideas behind the album.

You don’t have to subscribe to any particular ideology to acknowledge that the modern world has gone a bit peculiar. Whether you blame unscrupulous politicians or the unstoppable rise of social media, human beings aren’t being very nice to each other at this point in time.

The upside to the whole enervating spectacle is that progressive music has been blessed and/or cursed with a whole new array of societal ills to write about. Never a band to shy away from conceptual conceits or narrative depth, Between The Buried And Me have channelled their post-millennial anxieties in the most fruitful way possible, conjuring a gargantuan, two-part new album that takes listeners into a very timely take on the classic dystopian nightmare.

“The definition of an automata is a mechanical construction made in the likeness of a human being,” BTBAM’s lead guitarist Paul Waggoner explains to Prog. “The overriding theme of the record is that in this society we have a tendency to take ownership of people. Whether it’s actors, musicians or anyone in the public eye, with the use of social media and how accessible everyone is to each other, people become a commodity for society to be entertained by or taken advantage of, and that can sometimes have a really devastating effect on the actual person.”

The new album’s core narrative tells of a futuristic world, where one celebrity’s dreams and innermost thoughts are broadcast live to an audience of millions. Automata explores the consequences and repercussions of this extreme invasion of privacy, but while the album is more cautionary tale than contemporary commentary, the parallels with the increasing ubiquity of social media and the narcissism and disorientation that it seems to encourage are obvious.

“We’ve seen it recently with suicides in the music industry, with Chris Cornell or Chester Bennington,” Waggoner notes. “Some of these people seemingly had it all, but they’re dealing with these internal demons, and we as a society have a tendency to exacerbate that to a degree. It’s only going to get worse because technology has made the whole world so much smaller.

“People don’t have privacy,” he continues. “So from that we got this futuristic story where this professional entertainer has been commodified to such a degree that even his dreams are tapped into and publicised for our entertainment. We thought that was a unique way to make the statement we wanted to make.”

Between The Buried And Me
Between The Buried And Me

Impressively, BTBAM have had the same line-up since 2005. As Waggoner relates the intricate but seemingly relaxed process of piecing a new album together, it’s very obvious that he and his four bandmates have achieved a rare state of creative harmony. With all five men contributing ideas, it’s hardly surprising that Automata brims with wild dynamics and perverse detours, but as the guitarist points out, most of the music they make together seems to just happen…

“That’s absolutely true. It all happens very organically. Sometimes it’s like magic, man. It’s like we just blink a couple of times and the next thing you know, we’ve got an hour’s worth of music. We build songs and figure out ways to make one song bleed into another song, and then suddenly you have a full album.

“At some point we try to come up with a firm plan of how we want it to start and where to go dynamically, and then we need a good way to bring the album to a conclusion,” he explains. So I guess we definitely do all of that somewhat consciously, but it also just happens, you know? Sometimes I’ll listen back to an album and think, ‘Man, how did we do that? I don’t even remember doing it!’ It’s just a unique synergy that we’ve been able to build over time.”

Automata I’s most obvious curveball, the simply melodic and succinct Millions, speaks of a band that are entirely comfortable with embracing less schizophrenic musical ideas and simply pursuing whatever feels right in the surreal confines of the studio. The album features plenty of the extravagant and intermittently extreme prog that the band are known for, of course, but it’s these more unexpected moments of subtlety and respite that present the real challenge to longtime fans.

“We did surprise ourselves a little bit with that song,” Waggoner nods. “Dustie [Waring, rhythm guitarist] wrote the whole first half of that song and he presented it as a single idea that could be one small part of a bigger song. But the more we listened to it, the more we thought, ‘This is so cool!’ It was just a complete song, basically, and we felt that the parts he wrote were really strong and that they’d probably get lost if they became incorporated into a more elaborate song structure. Currently it’s my favourite song on the album. I love the way it starts and builds, the way it ends. It’s so different for us – an actual song, as opposed to some grandiose soundscape!”

Given the way the band’s sound has progressed over the last decade, could the BTBAM of 2007 have conjured something as straightforward as Millions or would they have instinctively messed it up with a blast beat and some screaming?

“Probably the latter!” Waggoner laughs. “It may not even have made the cut for not being weird enough! It’s interesting how your brain works when you get a little older and you’re more likely to appreciate simpler ideas.

“When I was younger, I was in constant competition with myself, nothing was ever good enough or cool enough. But as you get older you realise that you were probably wrong and those simple ideas are actually really cool. It’s a great song and somehow it still sounds like us.”

Although they first emerged as ostensible members of the so-called math metal movement that was kicked off by the likes of Candiria and The Dillinger Escape Plan in the late 90s, BTBAM were exhibiting a strong affiliation with progressive rock as far back as their classic third album Colors in 2007. At this point the band have been fully assimilated into the prog world, with only those remaining extreme metal tropes providing any kind of barrier to reaching that broader prog audience. If 2015’s Coma Ecliptic was the breakthrough the band needed, Automata I feels like the right next evolutionary step: an album full of both accessible and jarring moments, it might still blow a few Yes fans’ wigs off, but this band’s sincere passion for prog is undeniable.

“I guess it’s been a kind of progression that we started with Colors,” Waggoner says. “Not that we were ever trying to depart from our usual sound, but we found a more mature sound, one that maybe incorporated some more of our classic prog influences. We never really stuck to the true metal or hardcore formula in our songwriting and it was always important to keep pushing ourselves. I don’t think we made a conscious effort to say, ‘Okay, we want to be a prog band’. We’ve just tried to keep pushing ourselves to our limits and to be authentic, to make music that we like. It just progressed to a point where you could listen to us and say ‘Oh, right! This is a prog band!’

“So many bands are subject to trends,” he continues. “What’s hot one minute can turn into something with absolutely no market a minute later. The fact that we’ve been able to keep doing this and remain true to ourselves and still have a career, well, we’ve just been very lucky.”

Between The Buried And Me
Between The Buried And Me

With success coming their way almost in spite of their esoteric approach to heavy music, BTBAM have learned that doing things differently can be one possible route to glory. One major problem they face is that the music industry and modes of music consumption have altered to such an extent that even inveterate mavericks have to pay attention and find new ways to buck the system. Balancing the need to be independent and artistically free with the need to pay the bills in the age of streaming and online pilfering is a modern dilemma indeed.

“Obviously as an artist you want to be expressive, you want to be free, you want to do what comes natural and you want to be totally free in the way you make music, but at the same time we’re all in our late 30s and we need to make a living,” notes Waggoner. “You do have to pay attention to the current trends, in terms of marketing and how music is being consumed these days and how you can monetise that. It’s very difficult and I think we’re always at odds with that.

“That’s where we have most of our disagreements as a band,” he says. “It’s not about the music or the creation of the art itself, it’s more about how we’re going to present the art and tour. What bands are we gonna tour with? What kind of venues? All of that. That’s where most disagreements come, on the business side. But it is a business. At the end of the day we’re an indie prog metal band on an indie label and we have to be smart in the way we do things or it could all come crashing down. It’s an interesting dynamic.”

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Even though they are as susceptible to the whims of a rapidly changing technological age as anyone, Waggoner and his comrades always seem to be able to find their own, subtly different angle. Automata’s two-part unveiling is both a neat way to engage people in the unfolding of the album’s story and a shrewd attempt to side-step one of the great problems that nearly every musician faces in the 21st century.

“We realise we’re living in a short attention span society, so we figured we’d give people two different opportunities to absorb the material instead of hitting them suddenly over the head with a ton of music and a ton of content,” Waggoner explains. “As an album, it’s very dense. There are a lot of layers, which is why we thought it would be better to divide it into two parts. We didn’t want to overwhelm people with too much. But I still see it as one album. If I listen to it in my car, I listen to both parts. Hopefully when the second part comes out, people will have fully digested the first part and they’ll just add the second part to it and see it as one piece.”

It’s understandable that Waggoner is focused on promoting the first part of Automata, not least because it’s a substantial enough piece of work on its own. But he also seems to be enjoying the chance to tantalise fans with a few intriguing details about what to expect from part two.

“The songs on the second part are a little more involved, but at that point we’re creating a crescendo toward the end of the album so it necessarily gets a little bit more intense. I think there’s one song that will surprise people a little, stylistically speaking. I don’t want to give too much away, but I think it might catch people off guard. I think they’ll like it, but they’ll be like, ‘Woah, what the hell’s going on here?’”

After their current tour of the US with Leprous ends, BTBAM will start preparing for a potential US festival onslaught this summer, with European and UK dates to follow later in 2018, presumably once everyone has had time to digest Automata’s miraculous sprawl. Even as they continue to battle against the limits and rigors of the music biz machine, Paul Waggoner and his long-time associates are having more fun than ever. The dream lives.

“A lot of this is like Groundhog Day, man. You write an album and then you do the tour circuit for a couple of years, but we always try to keep it fresh,” he concludes. “We like to keep the fans on their toes, and we like to keep ourselves on our toes too. Hopefully we’ll be performing this stuff live to a somewhat captive audience!”