Between the Buried and Me Cram Jazz and Prog Rock Into Their Version of Extreme Metal

Lots of bands talk a good game when it comes to mixing styles and genres; North Carolina prog-metal outfit Between the Buried and Me do more than just talk. Over the course of four albums' worth of original material plus a 2006 covers-only record entitled The Anatomy Of..., the band has mixed extreme metal, jazz, ambient music, and sounds from all over the spectrum of rock.

And in doing so, BTBAM has made records that, while still initially challenging to the unaccustomed ear, are ultimately listenable and coherent, without the jarring incongruities and sonic muddle that so often afflict genre-blending progressive rock.

"We were influenced by a lot of metal bands, but more than anything we're influenced by all kinds of forward-thinking music—jazz, Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, progressive rock," says BTBAM bassist Dan Briggs. "That's helped us draw a wider kind of audience. We draw people from my dad's generation, who grew up listening to Frank Zappa or King Crimson. There's something about the new wave of interesting bands, like us or Mastodon—they have their roots in metal, but clearly have influences from '70s music and '60s psychedelia."

Emerging from Winston-Salem in 2001, BTBAM has undergone a slew of line-up changes since its founding, with vocalist Tommy Rogers and guitarist Paul Waggoner now ranking as the only original members. Briggs has been with the outfit just over three years, having played on the last three BTBAM releases, including the 2007 CD Colors.

An old friend of Rogers and Waggoner, and a music performance major—as an upright bassist—at Penn, Briggs was a natural choice when the band's bass chair came open in 2004. "I was a fan of the band since they started," Briggs recalls. "I thought they were the most exciting band going at that time. I heard little bits of Dream Theater in them, which was very subtle at the time. My joining was kind of a no-brainer; I was a forward-thinking musician, and they were a forward-thinking band."

Forward-thinking, and exceptionally broad-minded in terms of musical assimilation: The sophistication and scope of the band's expansive musical palate is evident on The Anatomy Of..., which includes songs from the likes of Depeche Mode, Smashing Pumpkins, and Counting Crows (from whom the band takes its name, by the way, having appropriated a lyric from the song "Ghost Train") as well as expected heavies and prog-rockers like Metallica, Pantera, and King Crimson.

The band's latest release, Colors, has been touted as its most diverse yet (band members have cheekily referred to it as an album of "adult-contemporary progressive death metal" and "new-wave polka grunge"). It encompasses all of the expected indie-metal maneuvers—screamo vocals, hardcore tempos, and noodly metal-head virtuosity—blended, with sometimes startling effectiveness, with trad-jazz interludes, ambient passages, and pop-sweet melodies.

The kind of variegated experimentalism that marks the band's approach is risky, to be sure; in the hands of lesser musicians, it would likely do no better than offend BTBAM's core following of metal-heads while confounding everyone else. Yet Colors now looks to be the band's most successful record to date, as it cracked the Billboard 200 charts in the first week of its release, a landmark in the band's history.

"I think Colors is the record for us, a good album for—I don't want to say crossing over—but for helping to attract a different kind of audience," Briggs says. "I think the elements that are in this record have always been there. It's just that now we really front-and-centered some of that stuff. We didn't limit ourselves. There's quirky, weird heavy stuff, melodic stuff, virtuosic playing. I think what separates us from a lot of bands we look up to is that we have this huge arsenal of dynamics and styles.

"I think there's something that's changed about the average music fan now," says Briggs, speculating on the musical climate that has enabled a quirky little Winston-Salem indie-metal quintet to move more than a quarter million records, to date, in the U.S. alone. "They're kind of expecting a little bit more. We've seen the reemergence of the long concept record, the long song. All of that is more acceptable now. Look at Tool—an extremely huge band that just writes weirder and weirder stuff. That bodes well for us, because it means we can always push ourselves. We can do something creatively different, something that is 'progressive' by nature."