Back in 2009ish, (before they were our monolithic corporate overlord), Amazon used to do something kind of cool on their website.
Once a week, on their digital music page, they’d have a, “deal,” that saw them offer a digital download of a new or classic album, at a bargain price— somewhere between $1.99 and $4.99.
I would check in on this page RELIGIOUSLY.
I know there were many others as well, but the greatest amongst them was Between the Buried and Me’s, “The Great Misdirect.”
Now, before stumbling across BtBaM (as they’ll be referred to henceforth) on this page, I’d never heard of them.
In retrospect, I’m somewhat surprised I bought the album, because save for Mastodon, (who a few months earlier had released their crossover hit album, “Crack the Skye”) metal was not really a part of my life back then.
For the most part, my musical philosophy at this point revolved around asking 2 or 3 questions before listening to something—
1. “Did this person play with Miles Davis at any point in the late 60s or early-mid 70s?
2. “Is Robert Fripp involved?”
3. “Is this some, “scene,” shit? Some Prior Lake or Zumiez shit? Some, “skinny jeans and can’t play a guitar solo,” shit?”
If the answer was, “no,” to the first two questions, or, “yes” to any of the last three, I wasn’t going for it.
Naive, and outrageous, I know, but when you’re 22 years old at art school, naive and outrageous are your bread in butter.
In any case, BtBaM’s album was going for a steal at 5 bucks, so I grabbed it.
I’ve been listening to the album for just over ten years now, and it’s become one of my all-time favorites.
Most likely, it’s the only metal album that sits in my top 10.
As an aside, metal is a weird thing for me.
I love it, but I don’t.
Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Slayer, Mastodon, Deftones, and Megadeth, are all near and dear, but outside of that, things can get spotty, and go on a song-by-song basis. It’s hard to me to stay consistently engaged with with the genre, due to things that a band like BtBaM both does and does not do.
As someone whose gateway drugs into the genre were Led Zeppelin, and Metallica, it took a long time for my ears to adjust to (and appreciate) harsh or screamed vocals. Sometimes, I kinda love them now, but the “cookie monster voice” that a number of bands (including this one) choose to employ can be a bit much.
Coming back around though, BtBaM are particularly unique amongst their peers as their brand of metal pulls from a LOT of different genres.
Over the course of the six songs found on this album, the band manages to run through polka, contemporary (smooth?) jazz, country, bluegrass, prog, and something that approaches Indian raga Rock?
That sounds absurd, I know, but they pull it off, and they manage to not sound silly in the process of doing so.
The album opens with, “Mirrors,” a tune that perhaps, serves more as a device than a song— a ruse to lull the listener into a false sense of safety.
It’s a serene tune: one that features no screamed vocals or distorted guitars. Tommy Giles Rogers, the band’s lead vocalist throughout, (save for one song) sings beautifully. He could probably do the white boy R&B thing if he wanted to, but thankfully he doesn’t.
In any case, his short vocal intro gives way to a jam the features some magnificent polyrhythmic jolts, a funny time signature, especially nimble bass work from Dan Briggs, and wonderfully uncommon resolutions from guitarists Paul Waggoner, and Dustie Waring.
Things turn foreboding in the last 40 seconds, and segue directly into, “Obfuscation.”
Obfuscation sees the band kick into high gear with spiraling guitar lines, time signature changes, and some particular rough vocal work from Tommy Giles Rogers.
The song is frequently a dizzying spasm of guitar that alternates between sounding spastic and groovy.
Throughout the album, there are a number of motifs that would not sound out of place, coming from Robert Fripp’s guitar amplifier. Figures ascend and descend, not unlike the gamelan-inspired parts that he played alongside Adrian Belew in the early 80s. Needless to say, I love this, and I think a great part of my appreciation from the album stems from the fact that many parts of this music call so clearly to 80s Crimson, albeit from the realm of metal, as opposed to Talking Heads-influenced New Wave.
In any instance, halfway through the song we get a wonderfully out-of-box guitar solo from Paul Waggoner, whose note choices are not predictable in a single instance, and are frequently, delightful.
Metal guitar players like to lean on funny scales, and sometimes, things just sound too dissonant or clever for their own good, but that’s never the case here.
Disease, Injury, Madness, follows. While it begins as a rather blunt exercise in brutality, it shortly gives way to a floating section that features lots of guitar swells, fairy dust, and some drumming that wouldn’t sound out of place coming from Dennis Chambers’ kit, during his tenures with Santana.
There are perhaps shades of Tool here too, but the vocal harmonies, are a bit prettier, and the basslines are rooted more in Jaco-Pastorius-era Weather Report.
Particularly lovely flamenco-indebted guitar gives way to a return to the bludgeoning business, and it’s glorious. Shortly thereafter, a horse’s neigh is used as a transitionary device to a section that might be best described as a West Arkansas, “still chopping, still cooking,” hoe-down: one that needs only a cowbell to send things fully overboard.
The last bit of the song leans hard into a kookie carnival thing that features some swirling organ, and demented choir vocals that wouldn’t be out of place in Danny Elfman’s score for, “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
“Fossil Genera- A Feed From Cloud Mountain” is another exercise if genre-hopping that goes all the way from ragtime or Polka-esque piano to jazz-country?
The metal bits pop up in there too, of course, but the songs closes with a section in which we’re treated to fully soaring vocals from Tommy Giles Rogers, and a string accompaniment delivered via synthesizer or the real deal.
It’s a magnificent closing blow-out, one that transitions effortlessly into the album’s most unique piece of music, that’s also the first song from the album that I fell in love with.
“Desert of Song” is the lone track from the album to feature vocals from lead guitarist Paul Waggoner. His voice is truly magnificent, one that’s in the mold of the down-home country singer.
I see it as the aural equivalent of watching a lone tumbleweed roll through a desert landscape: one replete with off-brand orange earth tones, and sparse greenery, completed by a sky that grades very cleanly from a dark brown in the sky, to orange, to yellow at the horizon.
That’s a surreal sight to be sure, but this is also a very particular respite from an album that’s tended more towards brutality than beauty at this point.
It’s a necessary, kind moment, that also happens to feature a guitar solo from Waggoner that’s rooted in good old-fashioned box blues, but with more informed note choices.
The song ends with the same set of notes that it began with, and leading the listener towards their final trek, the album’s sprawling finale “Swim to the Moon.”
“Swim to the Moon” runs 6 seconds shy of 18 minutes, and to go through the song as a whole would be a daunting task.
As a general rule of thumb, I don’t like to use the word, “epic,” as it’s overused: fully at risk of parody at this point in time.
Here though, it’s the best word for the job.
The song has more twists, turns, and segues than you can shake a stick it. It’s almost disorienting, and hard to keep up with. It’s also wildly hypnotic, so you’re kind of locked in your seat as the music marches forward.
A masterful closer, and a fairly effective summation of everything that’s come before, it’s one of the greatest closings I’ve heard on an album. Mastodon did a similar thing in the same year, in closing their album, “Crack The Skye,” with, “The Last Baron,” but “Swim to the Moon” is more impressive for my money, ascending to the heavens, and disappearing into the ether.
In closing, “The Great Misdirect” is not an album that will be met with an initial warm embrace by all ears.
It can be a rough and tumble experience in certain places, and listeners who are turned off by the harsh nature of the vocals in certain instances are well within their right to not dig the screams and growls.
If you give it a chance, and try to absorb the album as a whole though, it’s a really magnificent thing.
I can’t recommend the investment highly enough, and hope new listeners find as much to love in the album as I have, these last 10+ years.