Review Summary: Simultaneously a return to form and a step up.
It's been an eventful couple of years for neo-prog/post-hardcore outfit Coheed and Cambria. Their last album, Year of the Black Rainbow
, was received to mixed reaction from fans and critics alike. It was still moderately enjoyable and technically proficient, but was bogged down by that same proficiency, overly grandiose stylings (and when dealing with a band whose music revolves around progressive-rock complexity, influences from all over the rock spectrum, and lyrics based on a ridiculous and original sci-fi/fantasy storyline, that is definitely saying something), and a general lack of emotional investment behind the music. And that's without mentioning their recent lineup changes, with both drummer Chris Pennie and bassist Mic Todd departing (one for the usual reasons, one because of a bomb threat brought upon by his pill addiction). But with their former drummer Josh Eppard signing up again and new bassist blood in the form of Zach Cooper, Coheed and Cambria have come out swinging once more with the double album The Afterman, produced after about a year of writing and seven months of recording. The first half (Ascension) will be released in October, the second (Descension) in February.
Straight away, it's clear from a single listen that Coheed was able to understand the failings of YotBR
. One could argue that that album's problems stemmed from how the band had suddenly started taking themselves very, very seriously. Even the more enjoyable songs were weighed down by immense amounts of melancholy, a sharp departure from their self-awareness and sense of humor from previous albums. But on TA:A
, they've returned to their previous, relatively light-hearted attitude. Which is not to say the music or lyrics are light-hearted, but that they are no longer so oblivious to themselves that they wind up being off-putting, as was the case on The Afterman
's predecessor. Considering that their lyrics are, at their essence, science-fiction in the form of poetry, the last people that should be taking Coheed and Cambria seriously are the band themselves. Speaking of the lyrics, they're just as indecipherable as always unless you're reading the storyline as you listen, which can be something of a bother. In spite of that, they still retain relatability in many spots, which makes them tolerable, as does Claudio's ever brilliant voice.
The music is truly prime C&C. The album's opener, "The Hollow", is the traditional instrumental/nearly instrumental style that has opened all of their studio albums. Following on that song's heels is "Domino the Destitute", which just may be one of the best songs they've written in a while. It contains all of the elements that attracted punks and metalheads alike to them: lengthy but still attention-holding, with an assortment of pieces that fit well together and are influenced just as much by classic heavy metal as they are by punk in the style of Fugazi or At the Drive-In, layered underneath Claudio's borderline maniacal, very emotional vocals. And then it's followed by the title track at the opposite end of Coheed's traditional spectrum, with quiet yet strong guitars and reflectively soft vocals. There's a healthy balance throughout TA:A
of their usual styles: hard and powerful progressive metal, soft and mystical pop-punk, and a couple of combinations of the two in the form of "Mothers of Men" and "Goodnight, Fair Lady". It's a strange fusion of musical styles, but it works incredibly well for them. And when it comes to the instruments, nothing is pushed out of the picture - the bass is audible and groovy, the drums are excellently done, the guitar takes dominance but still lets through its counterparts, and the vocals...I must break formality here and say that I love Claudio's vocals so much. Nor are there songs that feel superfluous or boring. The whole "Key Entity Extraction" series is fantastic, "The Afterman" is a well-done foray into indie pop, "Subtraction" makes an excellent ending/bridge to the next album...nothing here is weak.
Still, it's not an album without its issues, though they're few and far between. The first is the impenetrability of the lyrics, although that can be taken either way and isn't too much of a problem thanks to their versatility. The second, worse offender is the length. TA:A clocks in just under forty minutes and lasts for nine songs. As "Subtraction" fades out, the listener is left feeling hungry for more. This is probably thanks to the decision to bridge the gap between the halves of The Afterman
by five months, rather than release them as a double album. Regardless, it's bothersome, and might just have been better if the album had been released as the full eighteen songs instead of the first nine now and the last nine later.
But despite the brevity, The Afterman: Ascension is a huge improvement over Year of the Black Rainbow
, and stands on the same level as their first four albums while offering up some of their best material they've ever written. It's a perfect blend of Coheed's dual sides - those being their metal/punk fandom and their pop sensibilities - and the songs sound like the band is enjoying what they do again. Just as importantly, most fans of the band will love this as a return to form, and those new to them will find this a good place to pick up.