Not So Grim: Three Underdog Coheed and Cambria Albums
Several days back, I resurrected the storied So Grim, So True, So Real format with Coheed and Cambria -- my absolute favorite band. In my look back through their discography, I identified their The Afterman double album as the grimmest.
However, I realize that the concept of a least-amazing Coheed and Cambria record is a hotly contested area. And so I wanted to follow up by addressing three other records that other fans might instead posit as the band’s grimmest, and discussing why I don’t feel like any of them deserve that title.
Year of the Black Rainbow (2010)
Ardent fans who read my Coheed & Cambria edition of So Grim, So True, So Real are probably frothing at the mouth at my refusal to name Year of the Black Rainbow as the grim. It’s the canon black sheep in the group’s catalogue for three primary reasons:
1) Coheed and Cambria veered down a significantly different path in terms of their sound and songwriting style.
2) The production is markedly different from their other work, and not in a great way.
3) It’s one of two albums not to feature original (and now returned) drummer Josh Eppard (the other being Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume Two: No World for Tomorrow, with drumming written by Chris Pennie of The Dillinger Escape Plan and performed by Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins).
Despite these issues, Year of the Black Rainbow hooked me immediately upon release, something I never experienced with the more well-loved No World for Tomorrow or the Afterman double album. But since the album is near-universally regarded by fans as the band’s worst, I wanted to avoid choosing it myself, both because I genuinely enjoy it and wanted to enforce a deeper dig.
I’ll address the first criticism by acknowledging it and viewing it as a positive. I like the fury of this record. I like the directness with which it focuses this darker side of Coheed and Cambria’s songwriting, and I like its consistency in energy. Vocalist and guitarist Claudio Sanchez spits venom across the album, in both the downtempo surges of “The Broken,” “This Shattered Symphony,” and “Here We Are Juggernaut,” and in the stampedes of “Guns of Summer,” “World of Lines,” and “When Skeletons Live.”
This is a cold and dark record, especially when juxtaposed with the relative lightheartedness of The Color Before the Sun and The Second Stage Turbine Blade. But it’s also the home of “Pearl of the Stars” -- one of the band’s gentlest, sweetest, and most melancholic songs across their entire career. Even in the midst of their rage, Coheed and Cambria retain the clarity of mind to find these precious moments of contemplative stillness.
I can’t argue with the claim that the production on Year of the Black Rainbow is a weakness -- it’s true. The mix is blown out and crowded across the board, with overinflated low end, maxed-out drums, garbled guitar leads, and Sanchez’s overly reverb'd vocals. But production is only one facet of a record, and in light of the songwriting strengths found here, I can’t justify letting the mix alone sink the ship.
Eppard’s absence is noticeable, and if you believe, as I do, that his drumming is an essential component of what makes Coheed and Cambria the band that they are, you’ll likely have some difficulty embracing this record. Chris Pennie brings his frenetic style to bear in full force, and in the record’s throes -- “Guns of Summer" and “In the Flame of Error” -- his playing is an ideal complement. At the same time, one of Eppard’s greatest strengths as a drummer is his ability to lay in a groove without overembellishing it. While Pennie is a phenomenal drummer, his performance here represents an alternate tack for the band.
Eppard’s return on The Afterman is like slipping into a comfortable pair of sneakers after a day spent on your feet in rigid work boots or unforgiving dress shoes. His drumming just feels so right. Contrast this difference to that between original bassist Mic Todd, with Year of the Black Rainbow as his last record with Coheed and Cambria, and current bassist Zach Cooper, to observe how a replacement member can fit in and enhance a group’s sound without changing it outright.
So why, in spite of all this, do I believe that Year of the Black Rainbow is good? Simply put, it’s packed with amazing songs, and these songs speak louder than any of the above perceived flaws.
The Color Before the Sun (2015)
Choosing The Color Before the Sun as the grimmest would be a lazy way out because it's the sole album that strays from the Amory Wars saga. It’d be easy to isolate that album, already an outlier, as the weakest in the band’s catalogue -- but to overlook The Color Before the Sun for its lyrical focus is to hand-wave Coheed and Cambria at their sweetest and most cleverly syrupy, as with The Afterman: Descension’s closer “2’s My Favorite 1.”
From the opening choral bombast of “Island” to the cynically bubbly vitriol of “You’ve Got Spirit, Kid,” The Color Before the Sun holds some of Coheed and Cambria’s catchiest and most efficient power-pop compositions. Penultimate track “The Audience” convincingly and admirably holds its own against, though by no means exceeding, the group’s heavier work in “Welcome Home,” “No World for Tomorrow,” or “Gravity’s Union.” And with genuine odes to Sanchez’s son (“Atlas”), his wife and frequent creative partner Chondra Echert (“Here to Mars”), and even his old family home (“Young Love”), the album provides a construct-free glimpse into the artist behind the characters who occupy the rest of his creative output.
The Color Before the Sun is a finely honed, deftly edited, and highly concentrated dosage of "Pop Coheed," showcasing this one side of the band as a multifaceted and complex medium unto itself. And it’s the album’s consistent quality in its compactness -- it’s arguably their tightest record overall -- that precludes it from consideration as the most grim of all the band's albums.
Vaxis – Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures (2018)
As the newest album, Vaxis – Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures could be a tempting choice for their grimmest. It’s easy to let nostalgia for a band’s earlier work color your perception of it as you hold newer albums against a much stricter set of standards.
I’d give their latest effort a bye here due to its newness alone, so as to force myself to grapple deeper with the band’s oeuvre, but Coheed and Cambria’s latest escapes nomination on its own merits. After the (fantastic) departure that was The Color Before the Sun, fans wanted nothing more than a return to the sprawling epics the band is known for with a renewed dive into their Amory Wars mythos, and with Vaxis – Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures, Coheed and Cambria met these demands.
Album hallmark “The Dark Sentencer” is a brilliant return to form, kicking off with an energizing chant before unfolding into the heft that had begun to shape some of the band's songs beginning on their third record Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness, but not quite becoming a full component of their arsenal until Year of the Black Rainbow.
Meanwhile, “Toys” and “Old Flames” see Coheed and Cambria reaching to the unbridled joyousness of “Island,” pouring on a heaping serving of prog, and incorporating the sound into their ongoing lyrical narrative. “True Ugly” is a venomous rampage that erupts out of nowhere into a trademark soaring chorus, while “Love Protocol” and “The Gutter” take that latter sensibility and flesh it out into entire songs on its own.
While there are a handful of valleys across the album, the ratio of greatness to dull zones is highly skewed in favor of the former, placing Vaxis – Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures far from consideration as a career low. Perhaps most exciting is the inclusion of the marker “Act I” in the album’s title, hinting at much more in this renewed vein to come.