Whenever I doubt the current state of music, whenever I get pessimistic and think that fewer and fewer musicians exist who have actual talent, whenever I grimace at terrible lyrics and assume that people are running out of things to say… those are the times I turn to COHEED AND CAMBRIA. This four-piece progressive rock band hails from Nyack, New York, and they’ve been making music since 2001. Since then, there have been five studio albums released and a bit of shuffling in the line-up department, but the band has only grown stronger through trying times. Now, with their sixth and seventh records out (being the first and second parts of a double-album), I’m here to review this most recent addition to their catalog, and to their sci-fi narrative as well. I intend to be thorough.
[for more on the truly epic concept which ties all the albums together, check out my older post]
The first half of this double-album, The Afterman: Ascension, was released last October. The second half, The Afterman: Descension was just released a few days ago. Although I considered writing two separate reviews at their respective times of release, I ultimately decided against it. That would be unfair, as well as incomplete, in my opinion. I mean, what if PINK FLOYD had released The Wall in two separate volumes, rather than in one package? Those two halves would not stand as strongly on their own, and the same is true of The Afterman. These two records, while enjoyable individually, are meant to be listened to together, and that’s what I’ve just done, as I now have both on vinyl. The album was also released in a deluxe box set, which I also have and which I will talk more about later. Right now, let’s focus on the main album*.
*I am considering this as one long album divided in two, rather than as two separate albums. To me, there is a distinct difference between the two, and one need look no further than into the past discography of COHEED AND CAMBRIA to find it. The albums Good Apollo, vol. I and II could technically be looked at as halves, like The Afterman: Ascension and Descension, however, they each stand on their own and don’t really depend on each other to the same degree that the halves of The Afterman do.
The Afterman works on two levels: there are the musical elements, obviously that’s the primary level, and then there are the narrative/thematic elements, which have had different degrees of prominence on different COHEED AND CAMBRIA records. First I’ll talk about the music, because that’s what will draw in the new fans, and what the old ones will be judging first and foremost.
I’ll come right out and say it. I think this is the album that longtime fans of the band have been waiting for. It feels like it really cuts to the core of things, it’s simultaneously a logical progression while also being a return to form. How could that be? Well, every time I hear new music from COHEED AND CAMBRIA, I’m thinking of it in the context of what’s come before, as I suppose anyone would with any band that they’ve loved for a long time. Thus, I think it’s safe to use two categories to define elements of their sound. There is ‘classic’ and ‘contemporary’. By ‘classic’, I refer to aspects found on the first three albums (the ones that seem most venerated by longtime fans), such as their brilliant sensibility in writing catchy, even sometimes bordering on poppy, choruses and melodies. There is also their intrinsic ability to bring heavy intensity and emotion into their songs musically, while rarely ever hitting upon the clichés that many other artists crash up against time and time again in lyrics about love, loss, despair, revenge, etc… And then there is what I called ‘contemporary’, which could more easily refer to the two more recent albums preceding The Afterman. These took the ‘classic’ aspects of COHEED, and built new elements onto a well-established base. The most prominent newer aspects are the inclusion of electronica elements, the likes of which can also be heard in Claudio Sanchez’s side project, THE PRIZEFIGHTER INFERNO, and more vocal effects on Claudio’s voice. The other is a departure, to some degree, from the uncommon time signatures and erratic, drawn out riffs that initially helped define COHEED as a progressive rock band, in favor of songs that were, shall we say, a bit more digestible to the mainstream. I would attribute this latter change to the fact that the band, during that period, were probably under heavier pressure from their major record label, which we all know tends to care about only one thing. They are free of this factor now, since The Afterman is self-released on the band’s own new label (Hundred Handed). I think that the other major contributor to the difference in these two eras of COHEED music is the line-up creating them.
They held strong to their original line-up through the first three albums (what I termed ‘classic’); that is, Claudio Sanchez on vocals and guitar, Travis Stever on guitar, Mic Todd on bass, and Josh Eppard on drums. Then, between 2006 and 2007, the band started to change. Josh left, as did Mic, although Mic returned again before the next record. Meanwhile, the drummer’s seat was filled by Chris Pennie, formerly of THE DILLINGER ESCAPE PLAN (a New Jersey math-core band that I also enjoy). I was sad to see Josh go, but because I was familiar with Chris’s style and skill, I felt confident in him as a replacement. However, the situation was complicated by contract issues, and Chris couldn’t perform on the next COHEED record (I’m referring to Good Apollo II: No World For Tomorrow), so although he wrote the drum parts, a surrogate drummer, Taylor Hawkins, had to perform them for the recording, and because of this, they came out sounding downright boring, unoriginal, and bland. Even though the songs on that album were good, the generic drumming hurt the record, making it, at least in my opinion, their weakest album to date. Chris remained in the band though, and when the time came for another new record, he was able to actually record his own performance. This was Year Of The Black Rainbow, probably the most controversial in the COHEED discography. It was heavy, and more so, it had a very dirty-sounding production style, which made it border on industrial rock at times, with interesting noisy interludes and the electronic sounds I mentioned previously. Chris’s drumming was intense, lightning fast at times and always very technical, as anyone who has heard DILLINGER ESCAPE PLAN would expect. But the changes were too much for some fans, and many people can still be heard complaining and referring back to it negatively as a low point. For the record, I enjoyed it and found it to be, while unarguably different, a logical progression that served the concept. It was a little while after this that the line-up began to have problems again. Chris Pennie left, and Mic Todd’s presence in the band, regrettably, had to be terminated after a bad breakdown. Thus, half the band was gone, and their future was in question. To the surprise and joy of many longtime fans, Josh Eppard returned to play drums again, having beaten the problems with addiction that initially forced him out. A new bassist come into the fold, Zach Cooper, and so we come to the current line-up. I apologize for the long biographical tangent, but it works to serve my point. One original member of the band left, but another returned, a switch-around which enables the dual old-meets-new atmosphere which makes The Afterman so strong. So how does the fresh group compare? While I think that, in his time, Mic Todd was a good bass player, it’s hard to deny that his playing became weaker as his personal addictions consumed him, and so Zach Cooper is a breath of fresh air. Similarly, there are bound to be arguments about who is the better drummer: Josh or Chris? I am not a drummer, but I’ve heard it said that drummers can, very generally, be put in two categories: groove-based, and technical. Josh is the former, while Chris is surely the latter. Chris’s insane drumming made Year Of The Black Rainbow stand out the way it did, it brought an unprecedented intensity to COHEED, but it was Josh’s grooves that defined COHEED from the start, and to have him back recalls that era.
Now, to return to what I was getting at, about ‘classic’ and ‘contemporary’ COHEED music.
The Afterman takes the aspects that worked most effectively on Year Of The Black Rainbow while combining them with the best traits of the ‘classic’ albums. Between Ascension and Descension, hints of both ‘classic’ and ‘contemporary’ COHEED music can be heard interplaying together in ways that are thoroughly satisfying. There is something here for old and new COHEED fans alike, which I think will work in their favor to unify their fanbase.
“One among the Fence”, indeed.
For fans of the ‘classic’, there are songs like Domino The Destitute, Vic The Butcher, Sentry The Defiant, and Gravity’s Union, which all recall the glorious heaviness COHEED can produce. Then, songs like Away We Go, 2’s My Favorite 1, and Goodnight Fair Lady all remind me of poppy COHEED classics like Blood Red Summer, A Favor House Atlantic, and The Suffering. For fans of the ‘contemporary’, songs like Mothers of Men, The Hard Sell and perhaps even Pretelethal seem to recall the No World For Tomorrow style (but of course, with better drumming!); a style, in terms of the guitar work, that I think reveals the influences of PINK FLOYD and other classic rock acts. Songs like Subtraction, Dark Side of Me, and Iron Fist have the more mellow, electronic atmospherics that resemble PRIZEFIGHTER INFERNO. Finally, there’s songs like Number City and Evagria The Faithful which definitely have the ‘contemporary’ sound, but they take it even further and add new, interesting variants to the band’s style. I especially love the horns and the heavy fuzzed-out bass in Number City; if this is the direction COHEED will be headed in, I would be more than okay with it.
I would also argue that The Afterman has the best overall flow, song-to-song and between the two halves, of any COHEED album since Second Stage Turbine Blade. Yeah, that’s right…I said it. First off there’s the beautiful symmetry of this album; the first song on Ascension and the last song on Descension create a bookend effect with eerie piano vibes, and in the intro, The Hollow, one can hear what I’ve always referred to as ‘the COHEED theme’; that tune that is also heard, in variations, in the intro tracks and interludes of the first three albums. Also, the gap between the two halves is bridged well; Subtraction ends with a gentle acoustic guitar fading out, and Pretelethal begins with that same style guitar fading back in. Each song moves into the next gracefully, and when there are sections of dialogue, these also greatly enhance the mood and sense of immersion. Even In Keeping Secrets Of Silent Earth: 3 didn’t have these kinds of smooth transitions, at lest not all throughout the record, the way The Afterman does. That being said though, this album’s songs are -sometimes- [that is to say not in all cases, but the dialogue and interludes complicate this] less effective when taken piecemeal, compared to, say, In Keeping Secrets or the other albums that followed it. But I’d say that it’s only the more casual fans who would find stand-alone songs more appealing. The die-hards who equally appreciate the songs and the story will know the importance of the album as a whole and, when listening, will likely be listening through the whole thing. That’s how it’s meant to be heard, after all. When taken as a whole, The Afterman is easily on par with Good Apollo vol. I, dare I say even In Keeping Secrets. It’s most certainly stronger than No World For Tomorrow, and more diverse than Year Of The Black Rainbow. In my humble opinion, Second Stage will never be equaled, but this is as close as any COHEED record has come yet, which is great news now, and bodes quite well for the future.
If you’ve read this far, you probably already know a bit about the concept underlying the albums of COHEED AND CAMBRIA. So how does this album fit into the series? Well, in a sense, it’s a prequel to a prequel. In terms of a plot timeline, The Afterman takes place before any of the other records. It follows the life of scientist Sirius Amory, namesake of the whole saga (“The Amory Wars”), and the man who first discovered the true nature of the Keywork; the cosmic energy force that holds the planets in their places. Sirius, along with an A.I. construct called the All Mother (which he’s created), begins a journey into space to study the Keywork, to discover its make-up. This is something that no one in all of Heaven’s Fence (their galaxy) has ever endeavored before. However, Sirius had to leave his wife, Meri, back on their home planet Valencine. He asked her to come with him, but she refused. She was too afraid of the danger the expedition could present, and in fact tried to keep Sirius himself from going. Their last encounters before he left were arguments. Ascension begins with Sirius already in space, approaching the blue glow of the Keywork and preparing to enter it, via his unique space suit, with the All Mother accompanying in its mainframe. What Sirius discovers is that the Keywork is more than just a blaze of energy; it is another plane of existence, it is an afterlife for the departed souls of Heaven’s Fence. Sirius becomes trapped in the Keywork; outside it, his ship is destroyed and within it, he becomes possessed by a series of Entities, which forces him to relive their lives and fatal mistakes. Meanwhile, back on his home planet, little is known, except for the fact that the ship was destroyed. Thus, logically Sirius’ wife, Meri, assumes he is dead and tries to go on with her life. In the beginning of Descension, Sirius is escaping the Keywork, only to find himself drifting in open space, with only his space suit protecting him. Time passed differently within the Keywork, and the All Mother informs him that 547 days have passed. He drifts until he is intercepted by another vessel, which returns him to his planet. Back home, things have changed. His wife, Meri, in the year-and-a-half interval since his alleged death, has found a new lover, and while she is extremely proud of Sirius’s achievements, she is unable to simply forget all that’s happened since. While Sirius is lauded, given a new award founded in his name (The Sirius Amory Award, granted from The Scientific Alliance of Heaven’s Fence), he is devastated by these changes in Meri. While on a drive together, she tells him she’s pregnant, and the shock takes Sirius’ attention off the road. They veer into the opposing lane and get in a head-on collision with a large truck. Meri and her unborn baby are lost, but Sirius survives, now full of near-suicidal guilt. Finally, he makes the decision to acquire a new ship, with funds granted him for his discoveries, and return to the Keywork, in hopes of perhaps finding Meri’s spirit and helping her transcend.
This story is told so creatively and coherently through the songs, and through the use of interludes, dialogues, and sound effects. Many of COHEED’s earlier albums were very difficult to decipher, with the lyrics being incredibly cryptic and with little added material available to help clarify and expand the fiction. Later, the release of graphic novels and a prose novel greatly helped in making the story accessible. The Afterman makes this experience easier, or at least, the option was there from the beginning, to those who purchased the Deluxe Box Set. I obtained one of these, and before I conclude this review, I’ll briefly talk about the cool goodies it included.
THE DELUXE BOX
Obviously meant for the more devoted fan, the Deluxe Box includes a few bonus goodies, some of which are quite useful, and some of which are merely neat trinkets, the likes of which only nerds like me would appreciate. The best part, by far, is the hardcover book included. It features a foreword by Claudio, and then is broken down in a song-by-song basis, with one painting, the lyrics, and a chunk of prose fiction for each track. The artwork is captivating, done is a very colorful and surreal style, while still clearly depicting interpretations of the songs and story. The prose fiction, co-authored with Peter David (who also co-wrote the Year Of The Black Rainbow novel), gives a complete run through of the story; although it is not novel-length (it can be read in the time it takes to listen to the album), it is still thoroughly enjoyable.
The box also includes the album on two CDs, another two CDs of bonus songs, being the demos of album songs and a handful of acoustic B-sides which are all very interesting. Random Reality Shifts, The Homecoming, and Carol Ann are the titles of those songs. There is also a DVD with live footage, interviews, and behind-the-scenes views of the album being made. Finally, the box includes a certificate which is made to look like The Amory Award, as well as a bronze coin, which to me is just a really unique thing to have. All of these fit into one sleek black slipcase, with metal Ascension/Descension triangles on the front.
So finally, in conclusion, I am enamored with this record. It has made me fall in love with COHEED all over again, and I think that it also has the potential to be a very convincing jumping-off point to introduce the band to new listeners. I’d recommend this to anyone who likes progressive rock, science fiction, space, PINK FLOYD, and just generally creative and unique new music. COHEED are starting up a huge US tour right now, I highly encourage you to go. I will be seeing them in Philadelphia in March, and that night cannot come fast enough.