Year of the Black Rainbow is - probably – my least favourite album in the discography. This will be unsurprising to anyone who has heard it.
“The Running Free” was embarrassing to me, but it was forgivable. It was an unfortunate misstep in an otherwise untouchable discography. Every band slips, right? But Year of the Black Rainbow was truly the moment the magic bubble burst – this band became fallible, their flaws incontrovertible. There were skippable Coheed songs in the past, especially in No World For Tomorrow, but never before had there been an entirely skippable Coheed album.
At least, that was my initial reaction. I listened to it for a few years, every now and then, and I’ve come to appreciate a lot about the album through sheer effort. This is a violent, claustrophobic, loud, messy collection of songs, each built on a foundation of pain and anger. Even the ballads on the album like “Far” are drenched in distortion and crunch, the guitar solos stopped being melodic and precise and Claudio’s vocal takes seem imperfect, occasionally weak. Both the pop-punk elements and the prog-rock ambition are all but removed from their repertoire. What we’re left with is, basically, a metal album.
Where their prior albums felt precise, even patient, Year Of The Black Rainbow is urgent and insistent. So many chord progressions fail to resolve, the choruses are massive, and (as always) the hooks are abundant. It gets same-y, but the excellent moments do reveal themselves. “Guns of Summer” and “Where Skeletons Live” are great, “This Shattered Symphony” sounds a little too much like Muse for my liking but still has the best chorus on the album, plus this acoustic version of “Here We Are Juggernaut” is pretty much a different song:
If I sound conflicted, it’s because I am.
Incidentally, I saw Coheed for the third time when they toured this album in 2011, playing a festival sideshow with nu-metal luminaries Stone Sour and Sevendust, as well as 36 Crazyfists. It was a terrible bill and I left the moment the guys finished their set. In retrospect, they performed one of the most interesting and cohesive sets I’ve ever seen of theirs, despite it’s short 7-song length. It was focused on the kind of music that might appeal to the attendees there to see the other bands, so leaned predominantly on their heavier material, and only contained one song from YotBR (“Here We Are Juggernaut”) three songs from IKSSE:3, two from NWFT and one from GAIBS4 (“Welcome Home”, still their go-to set closer).
Coheed and Cambria - “The End Complete II: Radio ByeBye”
Not much to say about this, other than the fact that it’s another easy highlight from No World For Tomorrow, the bridge containing maybe my favourite drum solo from the last couple of decades of music (as much as “giving space to highlight the drums” can be counted as a “solo”). Taylor really did a great job here.
OR - HOW I LEARNED TO START WORRYING ABOUT THE BAND I LOVE
In 2007 Coheed ceased being unpredictable, in fact swung to “completely predictable” almost to the point of self-parody. Not that you can blame them - with GAIBS4:V1 they really had reached a peak in terms of songwriting and technical ability, Claudio’s live voice had improved and his confidence seemed to be following suit. No World For Tomorrow is supposed to be Part 2 of Good Apollo I’m Burning Star IV, but has almost nothing to do with it musically, save for a few shallow similarities: the acoustic introduction track, the opening “heavy” song, the album-ending song cycle. There’s a reason fans refer to the first volume simple as Good Apollo and this second volume as No World For Tomorrow.
In reality, this album shares more sonically with IKSSE:3, which would be fantastic if they had retained any of the raw energy from that album. Instead we have a band falling into patterns for the first time in their career, and releasing the first album of theirs that sounded like what had already come before.
Not to say that the album isn’t good, or that I don’t enjoy it, because I definitely do. Mic rejoined in time to record his bass parts, which are as great as ever, and Taylor Hawkins was a great fit as a fill-in for Josh (much better, in my opinion, than their fixed replacement Chris Pennie, who was unable to record on the album but joined the band to tour with them onwards). There are plenty of awesome songs too. Unfortunately, the first single from the album “The Running Free” was not one of them.
Coheed and Cambria - “The Running Free”
A friend of mine - and fan of SSTB, but no other Coheed release - started making fun of them around the timeGood Apollo came out for their lyrical use of the phrases “coming home” and “going home”. “Junesong Provision”, “In Keeping Secrets…" and "The Suffering" all featured this lyric prominently (his parody Coheed song, from memory - “I’m coming home / To kill the babies / Battleships!”. It’s not a bad approximation, to be honest).
So when “The Running Free” came out and “You’re going home / You’re running free” was the first lyric in the chorus, I was embarrassed. I’d been beaten. Maybe this has happened to you with some other band you love, that the worst parodic impersonation any of your peers could make actually come true, while you’re still in the middle of your devotion to them. Maybe you’ve never experienced this. It’s hard! For the longest time, this was the only Coheed song I ever skipped when listening to their albums, and coming from someone who withstood “Wake Up” on every playthrough of Good Apollo, this was really saying something. I still can’t remember the last time I played it on purpose.
The highlights exist though: “Gravemakers and Gunslingers” is the bands best Iron Maiden impression to date, and the way the pre-chorus rolls so effortlessly in the chorus is a stroke of genius. “Feathers” is maybe the bands best straight-up pop song, and shows how well Taylor slipped into the same role Josh was able to maintain in the band - simple grooves punctuated with fantastic complimentary fills.
Coheed and Cambria - “Mother Superior”
The best moment from NWFT, for me, is “Mother Superior”, which was also the first song that Claudio and Travis started playing live during their acoustic sets, prior to the album’s release. When the leaked bootleg appeared on YouTube it was the only thing I ever wanted to listen to.
The 2006 departure of Mic and Josh was tragic, but it wasn’t entirely unforeseen. On this DVD cover, released right before the band had to find fill-ins for their festival touring, the two are practically out of the band already. It’s called The Last Supper, for crying out loud.
This was the beginning of a new stage for Coheed and Cambria, one that found the band in a different kind of spotlight, with a level of popularity they hadn’t experienced before. It was also one fraught with drama, rotating band members, and one serious drug problem which culminated in an arrest.
The Prize Fighter Inferno - “Who Watches The Watchmen?”
It’s a testament to Claudio’s ambition during this time that, immediately following Coheed’s biggest artistic achievement, he was able to release another album of serviceable melodic folktronica written and recorded over the years while on tour. Released under the name The Prize Fighter Inferno (the nickname of a prominent character from the C&C story), it tells a vague prequel to the main narrative of his other albums.
There’s a split between more electronic and more acoustic songs on this album, with the acoustic tracks for the most part a lot stronger than those with electronic production. The whole thing is unpolished, and unsurprisingly shares quite a lot with the Shabutie and early Coheed demos. A lot of these could even pass for Coheed songs, with the right treatment. “The Fight of Moses Early and Sir Arthur McCloud” contains a lot of the same guitar interplay that Travis and Claudio enjoy so much, and “Run Gunner Recall Run The Town Wants You Dead” has bouncy pop precursors in “The Lying Lies…” from GA:IBS4 among others.
The Prize Fighter Inferno - “A Death In The Family”
“A Death In The Family”, on the other hand, is a sickly-sweet, almost entirely percussionless pop song that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Owl City record. It makes up for it with an infectious second verse that employs a very cute stereo-vocal technique, which actually went a long way to helping me understand how Claudio structures his harmonies. Because of this, I’ve probably listened to it more times than any of the other tracks on this release.
Claudio resurrected the project the Half Measures EP in 2012, which upped the production value, but kept most of the instrumentation fairly similar.
In the early 00s I spent a little over a year living in America. I attended middle school in the small town of Muncie, Indiana, and while I was there I received, essentially, my first exposure to hip hop. Of the first three albums that I can remember making an impression on me, two of them were by rappers (Nelly’s Country Grammar and Ja Rule’s Pain Is Love) and the first video-clip that I can remember obsessing over was for “The Whole World” by Outkast. Upon moving back to Australia, and bringing my newfound love of the form with me, I was mercilessly teased by the friends that I returned to. They didn’t understand it. At this point in time, there wasn’t much exposure to hip hop in Australia, especially amongst my generation, and so it was seen as dumb and unmusical. Certain friends spent significant time “re-educating” me, gifting me albums and teaching me the names of the members of classic rock bands, and I absorbed it all. In retrospect, it was kind of weird how keen they were to program me, but I guess I’m still grateful. A lot of what they showed me remains in my favourite music to this day. Still, this entire time I continued listening to rap, only this time it was a secret.
(This anecdote has a point, I promise)
After rap came pop-punk and emo, because, duh, I was a teenager and this was the mid-00s. Save for a few fellow angry young white men that I felt comfortable talking with about it, this was kept mostly to myself as well. Then it wasn’t long before I first heard Close To The Edge and Foxtrot and Wish You Were Here and my love affair for progressive rock began, which (can you see a pattern forming?) was rightly seen as pretty lame by a lot of the new friends I’d made leaving high school (though perhaps ironically, the only people who accepted this side of my taste were the ones who had shunned the rap music I had continued to secretly love), so it was a side of myself I shared with select friends, and completely hid from everybody else.
What I’m saying is, for most of my music-listening life I’ve had to keep the whole sphere of my listening-habits almost entirely to myself. It wasn’t even until maybe 2009 or ‘10 that I began to talk openly and honestly to people about these facets of myself they were unaware of - that same girlfriend who knew I loved dorky prog-rock music, for instance, wasn’t aware that I could rap every lyric to “Bitches Ain’t Shit” until I met another rap-loving friend who could as well. I don’t think I’m alone in this - many have already written and spoken about how the internet awakened a more omnivorous consumer, so I’m sure plenty of you reading have had similar experiences with hidden loves, being able to find places to express them without fear of reprisal, or even just finding the confidence within yourself to admit to it.
ANYWAY, the thing about Coheed and Cambria, which should be brutally obvious to you if you’ve been paying even the smallest amount of attention at all so far, is this: despite all the great things that you can find in their music, and how talented they are, and how open most people are to different kinds of music in 2014, you’re still dealing with four goofball dweebs, wailing on double-neck guitars, wearing baggy blue-jeans and donning unacceptable facial hair, and most music fans will not abide. Like I said in my intro, the intimacy of personal-taste be damned, Coheed sit firmly in the abhorrent intersection between pop-punk and progressive rock and in a world of defining yourself through image and coolness and enjoying the right thing, it can be difficult navigating conversations about this ridiculous band when you’re a fan. Man, the amount of eyerolling and sarcasm I’ve encountered just since I started writing this week would have been absolutely nonexistent if I were to be writing about any of the other music I care deeply for. Is that dumb? I don’t know. I’m kind of numb to it by now.
So: if you find yourself in the same camp as me, whether you’re a long-time fan, or just happen to be enjoying what I’ve posted so far this week, here are the three super-obvious things that you’re going to have to do to continue. And if you can’t stand Coheed and Cambria, I’m sure you’ve got a band or two in your record collections that you can apply this to (I hate the term “guilty pleasure”, but if that’s how you view it, no worries). This might be lame, but I’m already spending a week talking in depth online about Coheed, so screw it, there’s no way I could look worse at this point:
Laugh - It’s fucking funny, man. People get so uptight, and when they think you like something that they already decided was dumb they’re going to make jokes. So get in there first and make better ones. I did just then, like 2 lines up.
Learn - Yo, you know that shitty feeling you get when the music you love is teased? Yeah, don’t do that to other people! It’s way too easy. Instead, leave yourself open to understanding whatever gets their tick of approval, what they measure quality by, and you’ll probably be exposed to amazing discoveries. And if you don’t get it, who cares? Let it rest, chuck on “Ten Speed (Of God’s Blood and Burial)” and just air-guitar to the motherfucker.
Own That Shit - just, seriously, fucking own it dude. Rock music is dumb, the whole thing is grotesque, guitars and power chords and amplifiers and logos and cover art, ugh, it’s all so boring. It’s not just rock, either. You boil any genre down to it’s basic elements and it’s the most boring, obvious shit ever. But goddamn, I have a fun time with these guys, and their music gets my heart racing, and singing along is really the very best. That’s what matters to me.
Coheed and Cambria - “The Willing Well I: Fuel For The Feeding End”
While there were guitar solos occasionally throughout SSTB and IKSSE:3, GAIBS4 was the first album to feature them prominently. For a long time, I wasn’t really sure which guitarist was soloing at any given time, but now when I hear new Coheed material, even without seeing it live, I’m able to tell. Typically, Travis’ solos come across as more improvised to me, which always seemed to be a byproduct of the fact that he plays lead in so many of their songs during verses and choruses, and these lead lines are very solo-esque anyway. When it’s his time to shine in the spotlight, he takes the opportunity to show off his blues chops.
Claudio’s guitar solos, on the other hand, seem to centre around repetition and strict melodic accompaniment. They’re very ‘lyrical’, in a way, which - again - makes sense. So, Claudio’s solo at 4:26 of “Fuel For The Feeding End” is the ultimate example of that, in my eyes. Travis finishes his fantastic lead line in the section immediately preceding, and suddenly everyone pulls into rank, completely focused, tempering some of the bands tendencies to fill every moment of a song with activity. It’s a rare, impactful moment, and the result is unequaled in this 4-part opus at the end of the record. It’s a two-chord progression and the only variation is the lead part that Travis throws in during the last bar and chord change, which Claudio even leaves room to hear in almost every phrase. Again, none of this even mentions the monster job that Josh does on drums, right from the beginning of the song. It’s important to remember that the Willing Well song cycle is the last set of Coheed songs he appeared on until he rejoined the band in 2012.
And what a way to go out, possibly the most impressive and important tracks on any Coheed and Cambria album. Remember, Good Apollo is 40 minutes long without the “Willing Well” suite. That’s album-length already! It’s still insane to me how much raw material the band were working with, and no wonder that there don’t seem to be any b-sides from the sessions. They put everything they had into Good Apollo, and it shows.
Also, something for the Coheed fans: have you heard this acoustic demo of “The Willing Well II: From Fear Through The Eyes of Madness”? It’s suprisingly hard to find. It used to be on YouTube, but now the only place that is hosting it is the MTV website. It’s fantastic to hear the elaborate arrangement and ornate production reduced to just something so simple and low-budget, and shows just how great the song is at it’s core. There are whole sections, too, that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Second Stage, funnily enough.
And so we make it to Good Apollo I’m Burning Star IV: Volume I - From Fear Through The Eyes Of Madness. My favourite album by my favourite band.
To me, this was the ultimate refinement of what Coheed had been striving towards - a perfect synthesis of their different sounds, with their strongest set of songs written to date. Looking critically, there are weaknesses that I’d rather not admit - it’s a long listen, clocking in at just over 71 minutes, but in my opinion every moment is crucial. For instance, there are two intro tracks, which seems unnecessary, but the opening “Keeping The Blade” is a clever combination of the orchestral interludes from prior LPs. The only track here I think I could do without is “Wake Up”. It’s… nice, if a little boring. They would go on to write much better ballads, so perhaps the passage of time has been less than kind to their first proper effort. Still, it’s perfectly sequenced and breaks up the two halves of the record really well.
“Crossing The Frame” is one of these crucial moments, as much as Claudio doesn’t believe so. From his Reddit AMA last year, the last line in particular:
This whole album is just serious ear-candy. The drums are especially crisp and crunchy, and I think Josh has never sounded like he’s had as much fun behind the kit as he does on Good Apollo. Like, just listen to “Crossing The Frame” and the way those fills come in during the chorus midway through the melodic phrases, punctuating the lyrics, or the snare fill at 1:24, God damn. They’re not overly technical of show-offy tricks, but Josh is capable of these unique little moments that so many modern drummers wouldn’t have the finesse to pull off.