In 2008, Between The Buried And Me appeared on the Progressive Nation tour alongside Opeth and Dream Theater. Reflecting on those shows, the band’s frontman Tommy Rogers suspects that their much heavier take on the genre caused a ruffle among punters, admitting that “if Opeth hadn’t have been there, it would have been real bad”.
Real bad? Fast forward to their slot on the 2012 Summer Slaughter tour, graced by such death metal heavyweights as Cannibal Corpse, and he says that some of the crowd are bound to feel “uneasy” exposed to BTBAM. In short, these North Virginia prog/extreme/alt/rockers/metallers have a hard job of fitting in.
Let’s be honest, prog is the black sheep of rock’s family – a capricious soul that flits between social circles, trying a bit of this, refusing a bit of that and steadfastly going against the grain. A perfect example of this rebellious predisposition are Between The Buried And Me. The likes of Opeth, Cynic, Devin Townsend or Mastodon were never their reference points when they started out. There was no ‘We want to make a record like Watershed’ or ‘Mom and dad brought me up on a diet of Rush and Pink Floyd’. It just happened that way. Like a duck-billed platypus being discovered for the first time, they crawled onto the scene to a mutter of ‘What the hell is that?’ A band that fused all manner of genres from jazz and blues to polka and lounge-rock, spliced with sci-fi math metal and bludgeoning death metal screams?
Nah, it’ll never catch on.
Tommy Rogers, singer of the band and pivotal songwriter, explains the roots of BTBAM: “When Paul [Waggoner, guitarist] and I started this band, we were in another band that was a mixture of metal and hardcore and was real heavy, and when that band disbanded we were like, ‘Well we obviously like this kind of music, this is naturally what we write when we pick up our guitars.’ But we wanted to add to the elements and not hold back. We didn’t want to be cornered into this one type of music. I think that’s what’s helped us because from day one, we were never like, ‘This is what we sound like and we’re not going to stray from this.’ We’re not afraid to have this super, super mellow part that doesn’t sound like it should be in a song like this and I think from our early fans to now, people expect that from us and want to be surprised. They want to put on a record and not know what’s going to happen.”
Due for release in October is The Parallax II: Future Sequence, their seventh studio album and the follow-up to their EP The Parallax: Hypersleep Dialogues, released earlier this year. It’s unarguably their proggiest record to date, with more clean-sung vocals and a shift away from chunky metal riffs towards more intricate guitar lines. As ever, the album is characteristically unpredictable, using pronounced melodies and class-A production to augment the rhythmic interchanges and quirky stylistic obstacles. Throughout are Tommy Rogers’ acerbic screams and blissful vocals. Certainly their most cohesive album to date – due, Rogers says, to the fact that they’ve all improved as musicians – The Parallax II is remarkably seemless for a record that should sound more disjointed than Houdini.
“We’re a little bit more picky than we were in the past,” says Rogers, as he explains the writing and recording process. “We probably spend more time than we should over-analysing everything. I guess we get a bit OCD about it sometimes.”
Once the writing was done, the band laid down the music before actually recording the album. This helped them to smooth out any kinks and get to grips with the flow of the songs, thus making the recording relatively plain sailing. From the sounds of it, so was everything else…
“This record was a good all-round process: the writing went really well, the recording flew by, it was great. There were no kinks anywhere. We’re very happy. As long as people enjoy the record, we should be good.”
It sounds like child’s play, but BTBAM have been plugging away for a decade, building upon their portfolio of work to create albums of greater and greater accomplishment, spending a sizeable portion of their career as an underground band and gradually growing in status, aided by the increased popularity of progressive metal and tech metal from bands like Meshuggah, Protest The Hero and Periphery. Now tours with the latter, as well as Cynic and TesseracT, have helped forge a scene that has been welcomed by a sect of their fanbase hungry for complicated time signatures and songs rich in progression.
“We’re all huge music lovers, we all came from different places,” Rogers explains. “A lot of us have the 90s alternative in our roots and we all listen to different kinds of music. When we write we kind of just go for what feels right. We never really try to force ourselves to sound a certain way or write a song a certain way. You know, it’s weird – as chaotic and as intricate as our music sounds sometimes, it’s a very natural process. That’s why writing and recording is very exciting for us because we never know what to expect from each record. It’s like a fan waiting for a record – for us, it’s like we can’t wait to see what Paul or Dan [Briggs, bass] or any of us are going to write next. We always surprise each other and that helps us along even more.”
Tommy Rogers plays keyboards and piano both live and on the record. His dexterity suggests a man with a classical upbringing but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Rogers started going to rock concerts at an early age, beginning with Mötley Crüe and working his way up to New York hardcore. He just happened to be a natural at the ivories.
“I never really touched piano or keyboard until our second record, actually. I’ve never really been taught how to play things classically – I just look at instruments as a means to make music sound cool. It’s all about finding the right sound or the right notes for the part, and that’s what I try to do with my voice as well.”
Speaking to Prog from Knoxville, Tennessee, Rogers is in the midst of the US Summer Slaughter tour. Now a permanent West Coaster, spoilt by the perfect weather conditions, he’s not accustomed to the searing heat he’s met by on this leg of the festival tour. Neither is he particularly accustomed to festivals.
“It’s a pretty cool mix at this festival, and more diverse than I expected it to be. But it’s definitely a full day of in-your-face metal and it’s very impressive that people can stand there and watch bands all day. It’s been cool, it’s been very long days and we’re not used to these tours. We hardly ever do festival stuff, so it’s kind of weird just having to hang around all day, because normally we have a few bands on set and play a long set. But I think it’s cool to do something like this, to step outside of our comfort zone.”
To align themselves with the heaviness of their current tour, they’ve put out gutsy, riff-heavy song Telos as a preview. Though not an indication of the overall sound of Parallax II, Telos caters for the fans that rejoice at the band’s hardcore leanings. At the same time, there are enough stylistic shifts to assuage the prog heads – the sci-fi jazz jam, the spine-tingling clean-sung part – but we’re not talking Mr. Bungle meets The Beach Boys. That happens elsewhere on the album.
So far, reactions to Telos are favourable, with some fans comparing it to their 2005 album, Alaska – considered their opus by some. But if the preview isn’t enough to whet the appetite then surely the prospect of purchasing a personalised space suit is! Any hot-off-the-press BTBAM merch should be enough to sate hungry fans, but there does seem to be a bit of a buzz about their new initiative.
“We were thinking, ‘Would people actually want this? This is so ridiculous.’ But we wanted to make it customisable so you can have your own name on there if you want. But it’s just something different. We wanted to create a buzz around the record and make people see how more out of our minds we are. On our next tour we’re going to have all our tour guys wearing them when they set up our gear.”
Another move that might have BTBAM fans chomping at the bit is the inclusion of TesseracT’s Amos Williams on the new album. Listen to the title track, a segue piece formed of a spoken-word narrative over atmospheric guitars, and the richness of Williams’ voice will have you wondering if he moonlights as a voiceover artist – it’s that good.
“When we toured with them [TesseracT], we’d say to Amos, ‘Man, your voice makes you sound like you should be narrating Planet Earth or something,’ and we always joked that if we ever did a spoken word track, his voice would be perfect.”
It’s not the first time Rogers has stepped outside his comfort zone – a few months ago he became a dad for the first time to son Max. Rogers’ fatherly duties have been stretched, especially since he took off for the tour.
“It’s tough,” he says. “You really don’t understand what it’s like to be a dad until you are one. It’s still early in the tour and you have good days and bad days but luckily we have technology that allows us to see each other, so that makes it a lot easier. I get to see him more often. I’ve actually seen him a few times on the tour; he’s actually seen a few shows already.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a younger gig-goer than a three-month-old baby and something tells us Max will grow up with music in his veins.
It’s all part and parcel of a significant time for Rogers and, indeed, his band. It’s one in which progressive metal is at its zenith and BTBAM are reaching new heights of popularity. And with a London show with Periphery locked in for November, we’ll have our chance, once again, to get the full mind-bending, ear-shattering experience. And believe me, it’s worth it.
This article originally appeared in issue 30 of Prog Magazine.