Coheed & Cambria – The Afterman: Ascension

While many of their contemporaries have disbanded completely, splintered off into various side projects, or – all too often – broken up only to reunite a few years later in what might lovingly be called a nostalgic tribute (and cynically, a cash-grab)1, Coheed and Cambria have simply kept at it. With a few lineup changes here and there – none of which affected the core elements of the band’s songwriting or signature style2 – Coheed have been continuously plugging away with a new album every few years since their début full-length, The Second Stage Turbine Blade, all the way back in 2002. Considering the duration of time over which they’ve been putting out fresh material, it would be anything but surprising to for Coheed to have fallen into the ever inviting trap of homogeneity, causing each of their albums to blend into the next until they were nothing more than ridiculously titled carbon copies of each other. But that hasn’t happened. Even Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Vol. II: No World For Tomorrow3 and Year of the Black Rainbow,4 neither of which I much enjoyed, managed to have their own unique sounds.5 So I wasn’t terribly surprised that Coheed’s newest release, The Afterman: Ascension6 (Coheed’s shortest album to date, clocking in at under 40 minutes), had a sound of its own. What did surprise me, given my generally negative reception of Coheed’s prior two albums, was how much I’ve enjoyed Ascension.7

Also: Check out how spectacularly prog this cover art is. King Crimson would be proud.

Like literally every single Coheed release before it, The Afterman: Ascension begins with a short introductory track. At the 45-second mark of the ‘The Hollow,’ it becomes clear that the humorless ways of Year of the Black Rainbow have been left behind: over some eerie key-and-synth lines, two heavily distorted voices exchange a few snippets of hack science fiction dialogue in a way that is at once both hilarious and endearingly Coheed-ian.8 And with the emergence of that simple Coheed hallmark, Claudio and Co. usher the listener into what is probably Coheed’s best record since Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Vol. I: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness.9

After ‘The Hollow,’ a simple guitar riff loops and mutates for just over a minute, until the full band enters and the listener is reminded of the type of power-rock that Coheed and Cambria is uniquely capable of creating.10 The first of four tracks on the record to bear the “Key Entity Extraction” label, ‘Domino the Destitute’ has everything that we’ve come to love about Coheed over the years: an intricate palm-muted guitar riff, a rolling drum groove, and a powerful melody with strategically placed harmonies. This combination of hard-rocking instrumentation and a powerful melody gleefully calls back to Coheed’s bombastic earlier works like ‘Welcome Home.’ After an album that was perhaps too heavily pop-influenced (Good Apollo, Vol. II) and one that was too far removed from pop-hooks (Year of the Black Rainbow), Coheed seems to have once again found a healthy middle ground. But don’t mistake ‘Domino the Destitue’ for a pop song. As the song chugs along to the finale of its seven-minute span, it finishes with a fantastic flourish: a violent gang chant and some heavily blasted syncopation close out the track.

While ‘Domino the Destitute’ is probably the best example, it’s not the only track on Ascension that smacks of earlier Coheed albums. ‘Mothers of Men’ has an excellent only-Coheed-could-pull-this-off line, as Claudio screams “Another cog in the wheel, just another cog in the wheel,” and ‘Key Entity Extraction III: Vic the Butcher’ features childish yelping background vocals (one of Coheed’s stranger obsessions that show up across multiple albums). Such moments cause both songs to be reminiscent of the classic-rock-tinged-with-a-modern-hard-rock-edge sound that Coheed mastered on In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 and Good Apollo, Vol. I. And while neither song ever picks up into a full-throttle climactic moment, it’s hard not to think that both songs – with their strong verses and decently catchy choruses – work on a level that puts them above the dreaded ‘album filler’ label.

Not quite as heavy as either of those two tracks, ‘Goodnight, Fair Lady,’ like ‘Ten Speed (Of God’s Blood & Burial)’ before it, opens with a riff that is truly the kind of guitar-work that Coheed alone can pull off. The paced, semi-jangly harmonized riff walks that strange line between hard rock and goofy, feel-good pop-rock that only Coheed seems capable of toeing without sounding completely ridiculous. But that feel-good attitude is short lived, as the album follows with a sharp turn towards darkness, funnelling the listener into the dark and dissonant first half of ‘Key Entity Extraction II: Holly Wood the Cracked,’ which strives to be disturbing in much the same way that ‘The Velourium Camper III: Al the Killer’ did nearly a decade ago.11 And just like ‘Al’ before it, ‘Holly Wood’ bursts out of its darkness into a soaring melody. Admittedly, while Coheed seems very attached to this mock-grotesqueness, I can’t say that its my favorite of their traits. As such, ‘Holly Wood’ ends up being one of my least favorite tracks on Ascension – its hilarious lyrical metaphors about poker and insanity notwithstanding.

Another notable flaw of the album is that two tracks (‘The Afterman’ early and ‘Subtraction’ later), enter the frequently hazardous domain of the token “slow” or “acoustic” song12, and only one of them really escapes alive. ‘Subtraction’ is submarined by the dismal vocal performance of Travis Stever13 who, in place of usual frontman Claudio Sanchez, sings the lead vocal for the song’s verses. Claudio comes marching to the rescue for the (primarily falsetto) choruses and outro, but it’s not enough. Stever spends a good portion of the song singing a poor melody that’s beneath his vocal range, none of which accounts for the song’s particularly cumbersome lyrics. Claudio’s appearance provides some relief, but even his melody is not without flaws.14 ‘The Afterman,’ however, is actually a fairly solid track. The song’s composition is all very straightforward but the snare-roll-based drum beat, the plucky guitar line, and a quality melody work together to culminate in a deceptively powerful final chorus. More than anything though, ‘The Afterman’ is notable for not really sounding like any prior Coheed song. There are elements borrowed from their earlier work15 but ultimately ‘The Afterman’ does something new for them.

And it’s not alone. Possibly the most unique song on the record, and probably its second best track overall (just behind ‘Domino the Destitute’) is the final ‘Key Entity Extraction’ track, ‘Evagria the Faithful.’ It’s a strange Coheed song, in that it’s built almost entirely around vocals and drums. The main guitar riff is an echoey line that disappears into a wash of sustain during the chorus – and while there is a pseudo guitar solo, even that ends up with vocals draped over top of it. Keys, backing vocals, and a few other pieces of instrumentation flit by in the background but nothing pulls the focus from Claudio’s harmonized vocals and the constant patter of the drumbeat. It’s a long and evenly paced walk through another original Coheed sound (with – of course – some recognizably Coheed-ian elements), and it works very well. The chorus is wonderfully catchy with an interesting line break in the lyrics that adds some, ‘What did he say?’ intrigue.16 And, while the song is rather long (we are talking about Coheed and Cambria, after all), it doesn’t feel drawn out.

So this is where we are with Coheed and Cambria. They’ve been plugging away for a decade now and seem to be a band that’s comfortable enough in their own skin that they can put out an album that seems as if it’s both intimately tied to the band’s past while still forging a new path forward. The Afterman: Ascension often sounds like the Coheed of old, but ‘Evagria the Faithful’ and ‘The Afterman’ show that old dogs can still learn new tricks. Coheed has managed to borrow from their past, to lean on their own heritage, without plagiarizing themselves, and while it probably shouldn’t be surprising, it is still quite refreshing to hear a band that has been releasing albums for a decade take a few risks. Count me among those eagerly looking forward to The Afterman: Descension.

Footnotes

1Blink-182Taking Back Sunday, and Further Seems Forever, for example.

2. Sorry rhythm section players everywhere, but treble rules the day on this one.

3. This many-titled album offered up what might be the worst cover art of all time.

4. An album that abandoned much/all of the campy levity found on Coheed’s preceding albums in favor of a darker – and ultimately less melodic – sound.

5. They just weren’t good sounds in the ears of this critic.

6Ascension is the first half of a two-part album. The predictably-named second half, The Afterman: Descension, is to follow in February 2013.

7. If you want more info on where Ascension sits in the seemingly never-ending and needlessly-winding tale of the The Amory Wars that runs throughout Coheed’s releases, I’ll refer you here since all I’ll be discussing in this space is the album’s musical offering.

8. Full disclosure: the first time I listened to the album and those goofy science fiction voices began to read those wonderfully absurd lines of dialogue, I had to check my stereo to make sure it wasn’t picking up errant radio signals.

9. God, these guys really do go a little nuts with the titles, don’t they?

10. Want to talk about campy sounds? A goblin-y voice panned to the far right and buried in the mix repeatedly chants ‘ya-ya-ya, ya-ya-ya-ya’ in the moments leading up to this.

11. Which is to say that neither song strives too hard to be disturbing – just a little dissonance here and a little vocal manipulation there.

12. Even though neither “slow” nor “acoustic” is a particularly accurate badge for these songs to wear – perhaps “mellow” or “moderately paced” would be more apt, albeit less common, descriptors.

13. Or at least, I believe it to be Travis Stever – no official statement is made in the album’s liner notes or online.

14. The most irritating of which occurs during the outro’s line of, “Misery, I digress, no recourse, no remorse.” As you can clearly read, the rhyme scheme is based on rhyming ‘recourse’ with ‘remorse’ which amounts to an ABCC rhyme scheme in the song’s lyrical and melodic framework. The problem with this is that an ABCC rhyme scheme, especially when combined with a melody that wants to draw its cadence to a close, is not pleasing to the ear – it’s a rhyme scheme that is rarely used because it doesn’t offer a sense of satisfaction. What drives me nuts is that Coheed could simply have gone with an ABCB rhyme scheme (which is pretty universally satisfying – see, ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’) by using the word ‘regret’ instead of ‘remorse.’ So. Yeah. Nerd-freak-out over. (For now.)

15. I think that a case could be made for ‘Wake Up,’ ‘Mother Superior,’ and ‘Pearl of the Stars,’ but none of those are terribly close to the mark.

16. The lyric in question reads: “My darling, whether I was everything you thought I’d be or not, I was a bad man…” but the line is broken by the melody after ‘whether’ so that the middle portion of the lyric stands on it’s own. This interpretation reads quite differently (and rather humorously): “I was everything you thought I’d be. Or not.” This double-entendre may not be intentional, but it is interesting none the less.


Banner image taken from the lovely site over at Cardinal Playlists.


This post originally appeared at Type In Stereo.

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