Coheed and Cambria is, as far as I can discern from a lot of self-reflection, the band most important to my musical development. They’re not my favorite, as that dubious honor goes to the Clash, and they’re not who I would consider the objective best (if there is such a thing). But at a time when I was just beginning to consider creating my own music, Coheed’s brand of progressive rock mixed with elements of metal, punk rock, and pop melodies, enticed me, and has played a tremendous role in shaping the kind of music I choose to make. I have bought every one of their albums.
Therefore, it should go without saying that at this point in the band’s career I am heavily invested. The news of a new Coheed project is automatically enticing, but a couple red flags went up in my brain when I first heard the news. The first was the revelation that this would be their first non-conceptual album; up until now, all of their albums have revolved around this dorky space-opera/comic book storyline called the Amory Wars. Not that I distrust Coheed to write more personal songs, as I’m quite sure that the narrative has been guided by the real-life experiences and feelings of the lyricist; it concerned me largely because the band has stuck to a particular lyrical style for a long time: geeky and overdramatic but very quotable and entertaining.
The other warning was the disastrous first single, “You Got Spirit Kid”, a pop-rock tune with an obnoxious chorus and profanity in lieu of cleverness. The song is an indictment of some arrogant jerk that lead singer and lyricist Claudio Sanchez believes is in need of being taken down a peg, but it just feels petulant rather than cathartic. On the other hand, the music is as ever, solid, and on the album version, the song closes out with an uncharacteristically smooth and bluesy solo.
But despite my concerns, Color Before the Sun is actually quite a good album – a little disappointing, but for contextual reasons rather than any flaws of its own. Coheed, as a progressive rock outfit, has done a remarkable job of maintaining progression across most of its studio albums, always hinting in one way or another at what would new creative ground they’d break on the next record. Their first was a slice of emo-influenced pop-punk with some progressive influences; the sophomore album more progressive in song structures and sound; the third turned closer to metal at times. Their latest album (and my least favorite), The Afterman: Descension, ramped up the pop influences. And in that sense, this is a disappointing record, as the musical progression seems to have hit a wall. Sonically, it sounds exactly what I expect a Coheed album to sound like, both based on their last project and their entire output; grandiose, very melodic and poppy but with a lot of technical proficiency and instrumentation, occasionally lapsing into heaviness but with a radio-friendly ear to the ground. “The Audience”, the penultimate track, calls back their heavier side, but even that song is far less complex and progressive than anything from their first two albums. But some new ground is broken; “Ghost” is an acoustic and finger-picked track where Claudio, who often receives criticism for his high-pitched voice, dips into his lower register, and it works very well. “Colors” is one of the more indie-influenced songs reminiscent of the work on The Afterman: Ascension, but is largely driven by Zach Cooper’s bass.
The album’s mark of distinction is in the lyrics, but more in terms of content rather than style. Claudio is touching on very personal topics but can’t resist infusing sci-fi nerdiness into the comparatively mundane and human. On single and album highlight “Here to Mars”, the musical element recalls Year of the Black Rainbow, with a grimy main riff, pounding drums, and even some shouted background vocals that remind me of their earlier emo-tinged work. But the verse soon lapses into a soaring chorus of “Honey, it’s in the stars/And you’re my everything from here to Mars” that I can’t help but smile to. Opening track “Island” sets the tone for the album, with cherubic background vocals and an acoustic lick that explodes into some heavier chords, and that song would have you believe it’s about someone trapped on a distant island due to self-sabotage, but it’s actually about Sanchez and his family having to hole up in a crappy apartment in Brooklyn. What I’m saying is that Coheed’s lyrics haven’t gotten any less obtuse or any more down-to-earth, but a listener’s awareness that they’re focused more on domestic concerns does have a grounding effect, and does make the album stick out in their catalog in that sense.
Newcomers to Coheed will probably find the more simplistic and pop-oriented sound appealing, providing a nice jumping-off point for the whole of their discography. Fans, on the other hand, might see this as a betrayal, though not a totally unexpected one. But it’s a well-produced and well-written project, and while there has been some stylistic stagnation, the more upbeat and smaller-scale lyrical content has its own appeal.
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