I’ve never been into The Amory Wars, the epic sci-fi saga told through Coheed and Cambria’s records. I know some vague details, like what the Keywork is and that the protagonist’s parents were tricked into killing his brothers and sisters, but other than that, I’ve left it up to obsessive fans of the band to decipher the story from the meager clues contained in lead singer Claudio Sanchez’s lyrics.
What I have been into, however, is the band’s music – a fascinating cocktail of prog, pop, post-hardcore, and straight-up rock ‘n roll. Coheed and Cambria has always been a little smarter than their peers, reluctant to pigeonhole themselves as an “emo” band. That reluctance has led them to create some incredibly ambitious music, such as the “Willing Well” suite from Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through The Eyes Of Madness, but it has also occasionally led them astray, like on previous effort Year of the Black Rainbow, when the band gave themselves over to producers Atticus Ross and Joe Barresi to remake themselves as a quasi-industrial metal outfit. (It didn’t work.)
Now, Coheed and Cambria is back with original producers Michael Birnbaum and Chris Bitter and original drummer Josh Eppard for The Afterman, a double album, the first half of which is called Ascension. (The second half, Descension, will be released next year.) This is likely good news for fans of the band’s older albums, but it’s also good news for those who enjoy their more recent work. Coheed hasn’t indulged in atavism here. This is, in many ways, a logical progression of their sound, even as they shed the gloomy electronic trappings that hobbled their last album. The result is the band’s most eclectic record yet, despite also being their shortest.
There’s a lot of variety here, from the hard-hitting metal of “Key Entity Extraction I: Domino The Destitute” and “Key Entity Extraction III: Vic The Butcher” to the catchy pop-punk of “Mothers Of Men” and “Goodnight, Fair Lady” to the folksy dream pop of “The Afterman.” Some might characterize that kind of variety as a mess, but Ascension never feels desultory. The track-by-track progression has logical rises and falls, and so listening to the album feels more like a sonic journey than an unconnected series of songs.
Speaking of the songs, they’re some of Coheed and Cambria’s best. “Mothers Of Men” might be the catchiest tune the band has ever recorded, kicking off with a face-melting riff before exploding into a chorus with layered male/female vocals. “The Afterman” features a gorgeous, delay-laden guitar riff. “Key Entity Extraction IV: Evagria the Faithful” has the band at their proggiest, with a snaky bass line underpinning the chorus, courtesy of new bassist Zach Cooper. The musicianship on display is complex without ever being indulgent. Eppard’s drum work in particular is excellent, featuring many intricate rhythms and tasteful fills. There are very few guitar solos this time around, but Sanchez and guitarist Travis Stever haven’t forgotten their penchant for furious riffing, as evidenced by “Mothers Of Men” and “Key Entity Extraction III: Vic The Butcher.” All of the music is expertly produced, with the drums sounding crisp and the guitars sounding warm and bright, a stark contrast to the sludge of Year of the Black Rainbow.
Lyrically, the album is, as usual, nearly impenetrable. I don’t really have a clue what’s going on in the wider Amory Wars mythology, but Sanchez has managed to string words together in a way that is both catchy and endlessly singable. Moreover, many of the tracks reveal dual meanings, as Coheed tracks are often wont to do. As Sanchez himself has said, “Goodnight, Fair Lady” was inspired by a real-life incident where a woman was coming between him and his wife at a bar. It’s also difficult not to think of “Key Entity Extraction I: Domino The Destitute” as referencing former bassist Mic Todd’s drug troubles.
If there’s a problem with the record, it’s that it feels too short. Forty minutes is a decent runtime for an album, but it seems as if there’s something missing from the record. Closing track “Subtraction,” while pretty in its own right, doesn’t feel like a grand finale. This is to be expected with a double album, but I wish that Ascension could stand on its own as a complete work that is also part of a larger whole.
Nonetheless, The Afterman: Ascension is a fantastic record. There’s nary a dud on the album, and while it doesn’t aim to sound like the band’s past work, it recalls the same energy they had in their old days. It’s my favourite album so far this year, and any fan of the band owes it to him or herself to pick up a copy.