Hopefully you read my “5 Concept Albums That Don’t Suck” piece, yes? If so, you’ll have seen that I touched on Coheed and Cambria and their forays into the world of science fiction with “The Amory Wars”; a tale of action, love and revenge that spans all of the albums and singer/songwriter Claudio Sanchez’s side project The Prize Fighter Inferno.
Here we take a much closer look at all of the Coheed albums from a musical standpoint. I’m going to try to avoid concentrating on the story too much although it’s largely unavoidable. There are three good reasons for trying to avoid getting entrenched in the storyline anyway. Firstly, it will take way too many pages to write that. Secondly, it’s considerably better documented and debated on t’Internet than anything I could produce, namely on fansite Cobalt and Calcium’s forum. And thirdly, I haven’t got a goddamn clue what’s going on past the second album.
With the combination of Claudio Sanchez’s high pitched vocal, 20 minutes of an album on only two songs and multi-song suites, it’s not difficult to see why so many people are quick to compare the band to Rush. To an extent they’re not without some merit, though it would be most unfair to dismiss the band due to this. There’s so much more that isn’t like Rush and as the catalogue progresses in fact, it would be an absolute crime to wrongfully discount them and you’d be missing out on perhaps one of the finest bands of the last decade. So let’s begin with the opening chapter of the epic adventure.
The Second Stage Turbine Blade (2002)
So right away I’ve gone and made a mistake by calling this the opening of the saga. Although this is indeed the first release, the band pulled a kind of Star Wars move by not starting at the start. This is in fact chapter two, hence the confusing name. The Second Stage Turbine Blade is a reasonable start to the bands discography regardless of it narrative position, although far from the best of the catalogue. It does contain some good tunes that are still common parts of the band’s live set, but over all it lacks the variety and polish of later material. It all sounds a little muted and missing much needed vibrancy. The vocal also has a tendency to disappear behind the music, especially in softer moments.
Probably due to the combination of age and less than stellar recording, it’s a little bit too rough around the edges for my liking, meaning that it’s personally my least favoured album of the lot. I do enjoy tracks in shuffle with the rest of the discography and there are a couple of highlights in “Everything Evil” and “Time Consumer”, but to listen to it start to finish is a little difficult and I find myself getting bored of it if I’m honest. Unless you’re a particular fan of the record there’s not a lot to tell one track from another.
I realise to the die-hard fans this is probably a blasphemous statement, but if this had been the first album I’d ever heard then I probably wouldn’t have bothered with the second. Thankfully it wasn’t, as that would’ve been one of the biggest mistakes of my entire musical life as the next album absolutely blew me away.
An important point of note is in the introduction track plus the final moments of closer “God Send Conspirator”. This little refrain becomes a sort of signature that ties together all of the albums.
Add To Playlist: Everything Evil, Time Consumer, 33
In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 (2004)
Starting with an odd introduction that features the aforementioned signature, the album begins proper with the title track which is an 8 minute multi-chaptered behemoth. This song alone is perhaps the perfect sampler of Coheed and Cambria. That’s not to suggest that it’s the best song they’ve ever created, more that its scale and chapter like structure is a fine example of a lot of the bands catalogue. It’s not even the longest track on the album mind you with the last two tracks clocking in at over 9 minutes each.
There are also some fine examples of the other side of the band, and that’s in creating slices of perfectly crafted radio friendly pop-rock. “Three Evils (Embodied in Love and Shadow)”, may be a song featuring the physical reconstruction of a character that died in the first act and a gloomy end with the lyrics “Pull the trigger and the nightmare stops”, but it’s delivered so light heartedly you can easily miss the darker lyrical content of the whole song. The same goes with the excellent “Blood Red Summer” too with its superbly chirpy sing along bit and childlike chorus section.
Silent Earth also contains the first of the multi song chapters that occur throughout the discography in the “The Camper Velorium” suite. Although the songs don’t run together, they do make sense in a story context, but without advance knowledge of the story you’d likely be left with no understanding of how they tie together. For example, the chances of you guessing The Camper Velorium is in fact a spaceship are pretty slim. The suite starts fairly upbeat but becomes quite dark in its middle before a peculiarly crafted ending.
The final track “2113” contains elements of Second Stage which are a nice reference to the earlier material. Overall though I find that last track a bit of an unnecessary addition as I feel the album comes to a great close by using a glockenspiel (I think) version of the refrain to top it off.
Add To Playlist: In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3, Three Evils (In Love and Shadow), Blood Red Summer, The Camper Velorium I: Faint of Hearts, A Favor House Atlantic
Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness (2005)
One of the things I love most about this band is the absolutely insane album titles. The beginning of the end story wise, this begins the build up to the finale, but takes a twist even madder than the album title. Moving away from the main characters it turns out a mysterious Writer outside of the whole story is writing is and to steal a quote from Wikipedia, “Through a series of delusional conversations with his ten speed bicycle about an unfaithful former lover, The Writer decides he must kill the Prise Ambellina to properly end his story”. As a result lot of the lyrical content is quite vindictive which results in quite a sombre album regardless of the musical tone of the songs.
Opening with instrumental “Keeping the Blade” which features a strings rendition of the now common signature theme, it gives way to the beautiful “Always and Never” which feels like a second introduction. It’s an unusual opening, but does only take up around 4 minutes so it doesn’t feel like it’s dragging on at all. The album starts good and earnest with its third track “Welcome Home”, which is undoubtedly one of my favourite songs of the entire discography. It’s dark, brutal, brooding, violent, and angry and contains some excellent guitar solos in its second half. It would’ve been a good enough way to start the album itself, but perhaps coming after the two gentle openers gives it even more gravitas.
The albums song selection continues is much like Silent Earth 3, containing a mixture of long variety filled tracks, shorter catchier poppier songs, and again features a 4 part suite to close off the album. With the rather distressing and solemn nature of the lyrics, it’s in the gentle tracks you notice is so much more. “Wake Up” begins soft and affectionate, by its end it twists around. It’s still a beautiful song though. The pop flavour is best tasted in “Ten Speed (Of God’s Blood and Burial)” and “The Suffering” in particular.
One of my favourite tracks on the album is “Apollo I: The Writing Writer” largely due to its menacing tone combined with a catchy chorus section. What’s great though is that the song reappears later in penultimate track “The Willing Well III: Apollo II: The Telling Truth” so I effectively get to hear it twice. It’s not the only reprise in that song as it also features elements of “Blood Red Summer” from the previous album. Both Apollo’s are undoubtedly some of my favourite from the album.
Overall, I think it’s a superb album from start to finish. There’s no filler material and even with long songs they aren’t padded to make them longer for no real reason. The band are much more like Iron Maiden in that respect, clarifying the unfair Rush comparisons I touched on in the introduction of this article.
Add to Playlist: Welcome Home, Ten Speed (Of God’s Blood and Burial), Apollo I: The Writing Writer, Wake Up, The Suffering.
Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume Two: No World For Tomorrow (2007)
Despite not being the final album in the discography, volume two completes the story started back in The Second Stage Turbine Blade. At the time of writing there is no detailed story synopsis and so I’m left with a small void in where lyrical inspiration comes from. The album feels quite angry to me and so I’m assuming that protagonist Claudio is off destroying everything that’s plagued him in the last three records or his arch enemy has finally had enough and is erasing the solar system as evil self declared deities tend to do.
For the first time the signature theme isn’t present at all on this album which I was quite surprised with as it had become such a common thread running throughout the series. It’s hardly vital, but its absence is noticeable. The light acoustic opening sounds like half threat, half promise that the end is coming, and this feeling is only reinforced in following track which shares the albums shorter title “No World for Tomorrow”. This is a blistering song full of ominous danger. I’d love to read the story behind this one as I can imagine the scale of it being awesome in the truest sense of the word. Still, since the story is indecipherable throughout the series listening to the music alone, it’s of no odds to this one.
The whole album shares similarities with its predecessor, but at the same time it’s more of a straight forward rock album and probably the most accessible of the entire catalogue. It doesn’t feel as mixed as previous releases, but that is in no way an indication of a drop in quality. If you’ve enjoyed everything up to now then you will definitely enjoy this record. With the exception of 6th track “Mother Superior” it’s not really until the final 5 track closing suite “The End Complete” that much of the epic feeling returns.
Before that though are some great rock songs. “Feathers” was released as a single and you can see why as it’s probably one of the poppiest songs the band ever created. Likewise “The Running Free” was also released as a single and was in fact originally written for the first Transformers movie soundtrack before being rejected and then adapted into the Amory Wars saga. “Gravemakers & Gunslingers” is a superbly raucous track with some stunningly cool guitar. I suspect they enjoyed letting loose on that one.
It’s difficult to decide which of the Good Apollo albums I enjoy more. I don’t if I ever will be able to. Volume one is a little more varied, but volume two is rocking it up a gear.
Add to Playlist: No World for Tomorrow, Feathers, The Running Free, Gravemakers & Gunslingers, Justice in Murder, The End Complete III: The End Complete
Year of the Black Rainbow (2010)
If No World For Tomorrow is the most accessible album, Year of the Black Rainbow is easily the least. On first listen I really didn’t enjoy it too much, but like any good record it grows on you the more you listen to it. It’s even more complex and at times bewildering than anything that has come before and as far as this band is concerned that’s really saying something. In case you’re wondering, it also fits into the Amory Wars saga as a prequel.
There is a sub 2 minute piano based introduction before first single “The Broken” which is one of the easiest to listen to track on the album. Musically it’s a sometimes jarring mixture of playing. There’s some fret smashing guitar, but it’s so low down in the mix it’s sometimes difficult to pick out until it’s brought forward within the last minute. Describing this as complex is nothing though when you hear following track “Guns of Summer”. It’s outright insane.
Between the two Good Apollo‘s Claudio Sanchez released an electronic based album under the name The Prize Fighter Inferno. I have a feeling that although Black Rainbow is significantly different he brought a lot of what he’d learned and other ideas into this album. For example, “Far” is quite a light track, but it especially in the drumming it sounds more electronic than real kit. There are also some peculiar effects too.
Despite changes in sound, catchy choruses are still featured throughout the album. One highlight I really need to point out is the excellent “Pearl of the Stars”. It’s a very gentle song with a marked change in the vocals at times and again contains effects and backings, but it all makes for a beautiful song. Truth be told I largely ignored it on first listen, but gave it a few more plays and it’s become one of my favourite songs.
Year of the Black Rainbow is far from my favourite Coheed and Cambria record, but it does have its individual moments that suddenly push it higher in my estimations, but with a few lower impact songs and little of the grand scale of the Good Apollo series it slips back down the rankings.
Add to playlist: The Broken, Here We Are Juggernaut, Far, World of Lines, Pearl of the Stars.
UPDATE: Since this article was written, Coheed and Cambria have released their sixth studio album The Afterman: Ascension. You can read my review here.