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Information overload: BTBAM at Northern Lights.

Photo: Julia Zave

Highly Improbable

By David King

Between the Buried and Me, Devin Townsend Project

Northern Lights, Jan. 29

Between the Buried and Me shouldn’t rock like they do. They shouldn’t send crowds surging forward with fists in the air, in thunderous storms of noise. They are too complex; they don’t have the proper metal formula. And metal purists and scenesters would likely insist the band don’t play “real metal, dude.”

In an era of nonstop communication and instant gratification, Between the Buried and Me play music like children of the information age. The fact that they play power chords soaked in overdrive and shred scales like your worst nightmare is an afterthought—a complement to their schizo, claustrophobic art. They chop up their influences like some of the prog-rock greats and spit them back out in grandiose songs. Jazz, metal, heaping mounds of jam-rock, Southern blues, techno and few dashes of Radiohead to taste are what make up the band’s art-damaged jambalaya.

BTBAM are, technically, a metal band, but vocalist Tommy Rogers isn’t a metal lyricist of either of the two dominant schools—he doesn’t sing about bad relationships as bands such as Killswitch Engage and Dillinger Escape Plan do, and he doesn’t hiss about entrails, abortions and demonic possession like the Goatwhores, Opeths and Children of Bodoms of the world. He sings about—get this—anxiety, social structures, the creative process and, yes, sometimes, aliens! Weird, right?

So none of this should, in theory, a good metal show make. But does it ever! The band showed off their new-found songwriting skills early in the show. They even showed . . . restraint. New track “Disease, Injury, Madness” went from deathcore to Pink Floyd space-rock and back again before breaking down into Southern-jam-band jamboree. “Alaska,” from the band’s 2005 album of the same name, was a testament that the band’s grandiose ideas can be delivered in precise, thick slabs of metal, and still retain spirit and intelligence.

The last 40 minutes of the night really blew the lid off the joint. The band broke out “Swim to the Moon,” the nearly-18-minute-long album closer from their most recent disc, The Great Misdirect. Featuring guest vocals from Nightbear singer Chuck Johnson, the song quickly transitioned from hardcore to an almost classic-’50s crooner’s chorus before devolving into a marching-band breakdown—followed by an Afrika Bambaattaa-style drum groove, then back again into a fit of guitar soloing and Rogers’ roaring. And then back to the soaring, sung chorus, “Slide into the water/Become one with the sea/Life seems so much smaller/Swim to the moon.” It was exhausting, but exhilarating.

The encore brought “White Walls,” the lengthy closer to 2007’s Colors. Like King Crimson fighting Iron Maiden and the Dillinger Escape Plan, the song brought the crowd to an absolutely fevered pitch. When Rogers, his hands raised up over the crowd like a metal messiah, delivered the lyrics “This is all we have when we die . . . We will be remembered for this,” the crowd surged forward, their hands outstretched as if with some sense of triumph. And they deserved to have that kind of feeling, because they had survived and were still standing on two feet.

Mad scientist Devin Townsend, former leader of Strapping Young Lad, brought the pop-metal stylings of the Devin Townsend Project (not to be confused with the Devin Townsend Band or the many other iterations of his solo project) to the stage. The band played what seemed to be an abbreviated set. The new material felt a little too poppy at some points, but that was quickly made up for when Townsend broke out more experimental/ ambient material from the crowning achievement of his solo career: Physicist. The lush, multilayered sounds of “Kingdom” made it clear that Townsend is capable of much more than his more recent flirtations with the straightforward. He then hammered the point home by playing “Ziltoidia Attaxx,” the title track from his epic space-metal album about an alien who attacks earth to capture “Earth’s finest cup of coffee.” If the show had ended after that song—if that one song had been the only song played that evening—it would have been worth the drive to Clifton Park.

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