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Audio Reviews
Year of the Black Rainbow
by Coheed and Cambria
Columbia (2010)
Year of the Black Rainbow
Metalheads are a strange breed, and an admittedly mixed one at that. You have your operatic dramatists and your fantastical lyricists, your screaming leather-fetishists and your acid-washed power-balladeers, your self-taught speed-freaks and your classically-trained technicians, your nihilistic misanthropes and your born-again proselytizers. Horn-throwing headbangers with a shared passion for eardrum-bursting volume and epic guitar heroics, long-haired sonic aesthetes who owe as much to Paganini and Vivaldi as they do to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Heavy metal, hair metal, glam metal, speed metal, thrash metal, black metal, death metal, doom metal, Christian metal, nu metal, metalcore, metal this and metal that—it’s a remarkably diverse genre with an equally varied listenership that could, even on a slow day, easily be called fanatical.

I’m just not one of them.

Which is not to say that I have not listened to my fair share of metal bands over the years; who hasn’t rocked out to classics like Zep and Sabbath, or enjoyed a song or two by touted atavists like Wolfmother and the all-too-ironic The Darkness? Still, I’m far cozier with metal’s distant cousins than with its progenitors and direct descendents, and I generally prefer my instrumental-, post-, and prog-rock to be less strident with their disjointed riffs and chromatic progressions. But that’s just me.

In spite of this general distaste for the acrid tang of pure metal, I do have a long-standing interest in the Nyack, NY foursome of Coheed and Cambria—who, for all their critical/commercial/touring associations with subgenres like emo, post-hardcore, prog, and the arch-umbrella of alternative rock, have always been, at their core, a metal band. The gigantic hair? The sharp-edged guitars? The fantasy-friendly lyrics and staccato riffs? Yeah. That’s epic metal with a capital \m/

I mean that both literally and figuratively. There is, of course, the sheer epic volume and sonic largesse of Coheed and Cambria’s compositions: frontman Claudio Sanchez’s impressive vocal range rising to Viennese choir-boy heights before burrowing down into gravel-gargling growls, guitarist Travis Stever’s heavily chugging and brightly wailing riffs, bassist Michael Todd’s motile arpeggiations fleshing out rhythm and melody alike, and Dillinger Escape Plan alumnus Chris Pennie’s drumwork crashing, thumping, and blasting to keep the band moving at a rapid pace—not to mention the odd choral and orchestral embellishments. It can be quite a lot to take in, really.

More accurately, there is the epic nature of the story behind the music. Beginning with the proto-Coheed outfit Shabütie and continuing into his solo work as The Prize Fighter Inferno, singer-songwriter-guitarist Claudio Sanchez has devoted more than ten years of his life to authoring an extensive sci-fi saga, the characters and plot of which figure prominently in his songs. Supplemented by the occasional graphic novel, Coheed and Cambria’s entire studio output thus far has been a closet rock-opera in serialized form, individual songs shedding light, however vaguely, on the trials and tribulations of a variety of ill-fated characters and their interweaving plot threads.

It’s just nowhere near as coherent as one would nominally hope. There’s a narrative aspect missing from the albums themselves, milliseconds of between-track silence where the contextualizing dialogue of a staged musical would normally be, enigmatic images in the album booklets where a libretto or synopsis could justifiably reside. Absent that, there is a lot of guesswork and speculation involved—painstaking tasks best left to the diehard fans and their Internet forums.

Even without the fine details set firmly in place, Coheed and Cambria’s albums are designed to be cohesive and interdependent, and it is this inherent interdependence which gave birth to the “Neverender” concert tour in 2009, during which Coheed and Cambria performed a series of four-day-long concerts in four separate cities (for a grand total of sixteen dates), with each night in a four-part gig being dedicated to a different album. That is: to a different chapter in the saga.

Ambitious? Yes. Epic? Well, they’re getting there.

For the uninitiated, Coheed and Cambria’s central storyline is constructed as a tetralogy, with previous albums The Second Stage Turbine Blade, In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3, and the two-volume Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IVFrom Fear Through the Eyes of Madness and No World for Tomorrow, respectively—covering, in a roughly chronological manner, the final three chapters of Claudio Sanchez’s cryptic four-part sci-fi saga. Without going into too much detail, the main story follows the surviving son of two superhuman parents, an unwitting young man who is sent by the Powers That Be to overthrow the supreme ruler of the galaxy, and in doing so avenge the deaths of his parents and siblings… and maybe destroy the universe while he’s at it. Fun times, yeah?

Released in April, Year of the Black Rainbow is Coheed and Cambria’s fifth studio album dealing with the inhabitants of the planetary system known as “Heaven’s Fence”, and it serves as the official prequel to “The Amory Wars” saga first encountered in 2002’s The Second Stage Turbine Blade. The new album is, quite literally, the first and final chapter in Coheed and Cambria’s story, and the special edition comes complete with a 352-page companion novel, co-penned by Claudio Sanchez and best-selling sci-fi author Peter David. Talk about your added context.

As the twofold beginning-and-ending to Coheed and Cambria’s Amory Wars saga, Year of the Black Rainbow has a lot to live up to. And, considering the lackluster and rather forced-feeling 2007 finale of No World for Tomorrow, it also has a lot to make up for.

To their credit, Claudio Sanchez and company have yet to lose their flare for the melodramatic, as the eerie piano and thunderous ambient noise of “One” provide a slow but steady build-up to the rousing guitar swells and dire accounts of unnamed offenses and emotional desolation found in “The Broken”. It’s a dour opening for an album that dwells heavily on the dysfunctional, self-doubting, and oft-violent relationship between the band’s namesakes: Coheed and Cambria Kilgallon, a problematic couple whose riotous past and ill-fated future are hinted at in the affected guitar riffs and Bonnie-and-Clyde-esque last-stand imagery of “Guns of Summer”.

Heaping vagueness upon vagaries, Sanchez has openly admitted to injecting quasi-autobiographical content into his Amory Wars epic. To wit: the tragic hero and surviving son of the band’s titular characters is bluntly named Claudio, and much of the romantic angst and lingering affections surrounding his character have been acknowledged as self-referential. That, and there are telling meta-narrative references to Sanchez’s other, quite literal identity as the “Writing Writer”—an omniscient entity tasked with constructing, curating, and ultimately resolving the story’s central conflict.

Despite all of this daunting thematic baggage, most Coheed and Cambria songs remain wholly listenable when divorced from the mythology behind them. One need not be a rabid fan well-versed in the fine details of the Amory Wars story in order to enjoy the head-bobbing rhythms, buzzing and cutting riffs, and infectious chorus of “Here We are Juggernaut”, an ear-blasting track which, at a blind pass, comes across as the vented spleen and antipathic musings of your everyday disaffected youth. Likewise, the spacey percussion, four-string rumblings, and bright riffage of “Far” support a ballad that is sombre and lovelorn regardless of how much or how little one knows about the doom of Coheed and Cambria. Strip the song down even further (à la a solo acoustic performance in a New England comic book shop), and the inherent appeal of Sanchez’s emotional investment becomes all the more readily apparent.

This duality of heavy contextualization and emotional immediacy is somewhat commendable for its ability to make Coheed and Cambria’s work accessible and engaging to listeners both old and new, even if it does occasionally smack of poor songwriting (vis-à-vis questionable syntax and all-too-vague poetics in the vein of Cedric Bixler-Zavala) and even poorer lyrical storytelling. After all, an accidentally indecipherable narrative isn’t artistic; it’s nonsense.

In this sense, Coheed and Cambria’s aforementioned “Neverender” tour feels like a missed opportunity, or perhaps a test run for something grander. Considering the mainstream success of alt-rock concept album adaptations like Green Day’s American Idiot, it is entirely plausible to envision a second “Neverender”-type concert series taking place as a fully staged rock-opera divided into five parts. Think Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, but geared towards the disaffected teenaged and twenty-something set, with spaceships, robots, evil empires, supernatural beings, and potentially world-ending cataclysms backed by righteous rock-n-roll riffage—Star Wars with a heavy metal twist—and with actors who can finally bring the amorphous characters and mostly alluded-to events of the Amory Wars to life.

Moreover, this overarching need for added context stays true to the literally epic nature of Coheed and Cambria’s multi-album undertaking. Though generally as elusive as it is allusive, the paranoiac talk of conducting “the great disaster” in the ominous “This Shattered Symphony” and of “hidden truth”, misunderstandings, and words “lightly thrown in a world that’s caught in the writer’s web” in the forceful “World of Lines” nevertheless manages to shed a hazy light on the characters’ heightened emotional states, even if it does leave their root causes unnamed.

Ambling forward with heavy footfalls of kick, toms, and bass guitar ‘neath grittily affected and drawn-out six-string riffs, “Made Out of Nothing (All That I Am)” acts as a sort of palate cleanser for “World of Lines”—literally, the first words out of Sanchez’s mouth are instructions to “Never mind all the lines”. And, again with the dualism, the song works as both a character’s confession of hopelessness and as a sort of self-aware assessment of the Amory Wars-as-story. “I’ve given up on all I love for an honest moment of clarity. I need to feel alright, please, let me breathe in a life I made out of nothing to cleanse this useless identity”, Sanchez croons, “Will you hear all the world and its whys? Just wait… Will the latter half be as good?”

“Pearl of the Stars” eases back with acoustic guitar, breathy vocals, booming percussion and bass, and underlying chimes, guitar fuzz, strings, and scattered spherics, all in service of further lovelorn balladeering with hints of apocalyptic foreshadowing and self-medication.

In contrast, ending trio “In Flame of Error”, “When Skeletons Live”, and “The Black Rainbow” amp things up for a grandly theatrical finale. First up, the menacing tone and murderous intentions of “In Flame of Error” pulse forward with blazing riffs, pounding bass, and thunderous percussion as Sanchez lends his voice to a conflicted and eerily Macbeth-esque soliloquy of avowed violence and pained regret—regret which comes to the fore in the urgently remorseful “When Skeletons Live” and finds its resolution in the elegiac balladry and narrative dissolution of “The Black Rainbow”. “It’s over… it’s over. It’s all coming apart”, belts Sanchez to the tune of Stever’s ringing guitar as Todd and Pennie propel the song toward its abrupt, noise-ridden end and tacked-on echoing outro.

It’s not the most triumphant of endings, but, then again, it’s not really the ending, is it? Though ostensibly the final album to deal with Coheed and Cambria’s established Amory Wars saga, Year of the Black Rainbow is nevertheless the first chapter in that story. Despite its high production values and ominous portents, Year of the Black Rainbow is little more than a decent album with the modest goal of bringing a series of epic events full circle, mainly by elaborating upon (if not totally explaining) the origins of the band’s namesakes.

If you were expecting a grander finale, then you’ll need to cross your metal horns and hope for a second “Neverender” tour—or, better yet, a fully staged Amory Wars rock opera.
Posted by: Tom Körp

Audio Reviews (May 5th, 2010)

Tags: audio, reviews, coheed and cambria, year of the black rainbow, columbia