Friday, December 28, 2012

Album Review: Coheed and Cambria - "The Afterman: Ascension"

Of all the things I'm passionate about, the one thing I've probably talked about the least on this blog is music. I do love music a great deal, but perhaps the reason I don't talk about it as much is because I'm not really all that good at it. I mean, pretty much all of my teenage years were spent learning about music, but I wouldn't say I ever really had a particular gift or talent for it. I worked at it, sure, but not nearly as much as I should have if I wanted to be serious about it. So once I got into college, I stopped performing and now music is something I enjoy privately. Perhaps that will change at a later point in my life, but for now, I've got enough to keep myself busy.

Music as Abstraction

One of the reasons taking music seriously has always been difficult for me is because I'm always apprehensive about showing an unfiltered version of myself to people I'm not 100% comfortable with. I can perform on a stage fine so long as I've practiced and prepared. I can practice in an isolated room with other people that I know without problems because they are usually playing with me and we are all learning the piece together. But performing music at home by myself where other people can hear me make mistakes and replay the same problem area over and over is really difficult for me. It was hard enough when I was at home with my family, but as soon as I started living in dorms and apartments, the idea of practicing music where complete strangers could hear me just petrified me.

Of all art, music is one of the most transparent in regards to its creation. In order to develop a finished product, you must first develop a series of imperfect versions. If you make a mistake, you have to play the entire piece from the beginning to know whether or not you've got it down. At least with writing, you're able to keep it to yourself until it has gotten to a point where you are ready to share it. With music, anyone within earshot will hear your growing pains. If writing shows you at your most refined, music shows you at your most vulnerable.

For that reason, serious musicians tend to be very open people. They tend to be confident, passionate, daring, and honest. This comes with the territory of being able to develop and practice music while other people listen. However, interestingly enough, the opposite tends to be true as well. Sometimes, musicians are very reserved and can only express themselves through music. This was actually one thing I liked about the earlier episodes of "Glee". The characters were marginalized and socially awkward so they depended on music that resonated with them to express themselves. They sang the things they couldn't say. This was of course before their song choices were determined less by character necessity and more by the Billboard charts of that week, but I digress.

The point is, sometimes we need a certain level of abstraction to express ourselves or talk about our thoughts and feelings, and music is no exception. I also think this is why sci-fi/fantasy tends to be popular with young, awkward people. It's hard for us to explore our feelings, so we need a level of unreality to separate ourselves enough to be comfortable with it. A down-to-earth drama about a boy finding himself and taking up his estranged father's legacy? Sounds like it could be an Oscar nominee, but it's a little too "real" for me. Turn that boy into a space-faring psychic with a laser sword and turn his father into a cyborg? Suddenly you have "Star Wars". A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

Enough Of That, Talk About Coheed!

This brings me to Coheed and Cambria, one of my personal favorite bands. I know a lot of people who don't like them, and it's for good reason. Front-man Claudio Sanchez has a very strange voice. I'd be inclined to call his singing "bad", but I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it. He has an impressive amount of control over his voice, he generally has a good sense of tone, and he has a great deal more passion than almost any other living singer I can think of. His voice may be tight and squeaky, his pronunciations may be bizarre, and he may put far too much strain on his vocal cords, but dammit, his voice is his. He absolutely owns his bizarre vocal quality and is completely unashamed of it.

Other than the voice, it's also reasonable to criticize CoCa for having nonsensical lyrics. Sentences will change tenses at the drop of a hat, certain words will be used again and again in song after song, and some of the imagery is Insane Clown Posse levels of what-the-fuck. Beyond that, CoCa's albums all center around a mythology called "The Amory Wars" and even if you do fully understand what is happening in each album, you still won't completely get how each song connects to it. I've read all of the Amory Wars comic books and I still can't for the life of me figure out what the hell is going on in some of those songs.

So why do I love them so much? Well, first of all, go ahead and fault the vocals all you want, but no one can deny that the instrumentals of pretty much all of their albums are fucking amazing. Even people who absolutely hate CoCa still can't deny how awesome the opening instrumentals on "Welcome Home" are. Second of all, I don't generally like listening to individual songs. I'm more of an album person. And when it comes to CoCa, you pretty much HAVE to listen to their stuff in album form. Each album has a different story (or a part of a story) and many of the songs bleed into one another. Sure, certain songs can stand well enough on their own, but most of their songs only work within the context of the album as a whole. I love the crap out of "Wake Up", but only if it comes directly before "The Suffering".

The last reason I love Coheed and Cambria is because... well, remember what I said earlier about levels of abstraction? CoCa has about three levels of abstraction going on. First of all, Claudio Sanchez is a pretty reserved guy. He's changed a bit in recent years, being a little more open about his inspiration and separating himself from being just a musician, but he still isn't big on talking during a concert and when he tries it usually ends in embarrassment. Plus he's kind of a huge nerd (in case the sci-fi and comic books weren't a dead giveaway) so it makes sense that he talks about his feelings through music in the context of a space opera. Pretty much all of the CoCa albums are inspired from his real life, then he takes the basic elements of those personal stories or feelings and changes them around so that they fit into the Amory Wars narrative. Then that narrative is, by itself, abstracted through the comic books and other media that explain the narrative in a simpler, chronological context. You can't really listen to the albums and get a clear understanding of what the hell is going on in the story and, inversely, reading the comic books doesn't give you a complete understanding of the songs either.

To use a song from the recent album as an example, "Key Entity Extraction I: Domino the Destitute" is about the departure of band member Michael Todd, who got addicted to drugs and convicted for armed robbery (yeah, that was pretty fucked up). If you take away any names and specific mythology from the song, it's fairly easy to see the connections. In the context of "The Amory Wars", however, it's about a character named Domino who becomes a famous prize fighter but gets swept away in drugs and mob bosses and ends up getting his brother killed before killing himself, becoming absorbed into a mystical energy force called the Keywork (more on that in a second). And the only reason I know all this is because the deluxe version of this album came with a little book that explains the mythology (probably because Claudio knew that it would a long time until this stuff got covered by the comics) and because Claudio did a thing on where he talked about the real-life inspiration for each of the songs.

A Brief History of Heaven's Fence

Just to help you understand things a bit better, I'm going to give a quick run-down of the story behind "The Amory Wars" and the band itself. Essentially, all these stories take place in a planetary system called Heaven's Fence. It's a system of 78 planets that do not orbit around a star. In fact, they do not move at all. They are instead all held together by the aforementioned Keywork, a cosmic force made up of the souls of the dead. The Keywork binds them together, keeps them stable, makes life possible, keeps the stars from obliterating them, etc. The bulk of the stories thus far have followed Claudio Kilgannon (gee I wonder who he's supposed to represent), the child of the titular Coheed and Cambria Kilgannon. Coheed and Cambria were cyborgs developed to be used as weapons for... look, it's a long story, but suffice it to say that they escaped their lives, had their memories erased, and started a family. Then shit caught up with them and they were forced to kill all their children except Claudio and then died in a massive fight that fucked with the Keywork, allowing 9 planets and one of the suns to go free, turning into a solar system. This was all orchestrated by a dude called Wilhelm Ryan who is basically Alien Space Hitler. It turns out that Claudio is destined to defeat Ryan and then destroy the Keywork, in turn destroying all life in Heaven's Fence.

The first four albums all focus around Claudio's journey, which at this point is finished, though I honestly have no clue how it all pans out. Claudio Sanchez has been pretty tight-lipped about the specifics regarding the fourth album and we likely won't know how it all turned out until he gets around to writing the comics for it, but if I was to hazard a guess, I'd say that he either ends up fulfilling his destiny and destroying the Keywork for the sake of the souls trapped within it, leaving only the 9 planets which end up becoming our solar system (making this story essentially an origin for the world as we know it) or he ends up sacrificing himself and using his limitless power to fuel the Keywork on his own, allowing the other souls to go free and saving Heaven's Fence.

The fifth album acts as a prequel, detailing the lives of Coheed and Cambria before they lost their memories and started a family, as well as Wilhelm Ryan's rise to power.

The newest album, "The Afterman: Ascension" is the first part of a double album and it is also a prequel, but more on that later.

It's a very weird universe, at once very dark but also completely bonkers and pulpy.

Boy, That Sounds Really Fucking Stupid

Now it's easy to call this pretentious, and you might not be wrong. If Claudio wanted to write a song about Michael Todd, why dress it up into some thinly-veiled meta-narrative? Or if he just wanted to write songs about a sci-fi mythology, why not be more explicit and make that narrative the focus of the album? Make it more like a rock opera in the same vein as "The Protomen" or something.

It might seem like everything is really half-baked, and I can't really blame you for thinking that. After all, an author shouldn't have to sit down and explain to you what he meant when he wrote something in order for you to enjoy it.

But that's just it. Yes, understanding all the little details of each album is difficult and requires a great deal of material outside of the context of the album itself, but you don't need to understand those things to enjoy the album. The album is still great even if you haven't the slightest clue what is going on. If you can get used to Claudio's unique vocals, there is some undeniably excellent music here on the surface.

All of the extra levels of abstraction don't detract from the work. They actually give it a greater sense of depth. When I listen to a good song (or even a great song), once I learn all the lyrics and pick up on all of the imagery and fully understand the emotion behind it, I'll likely put it down for a long time and probably only listen to it occasionally. But with CoCa, there's always a sense of mystery or discovery surrounding each and every song. Understanding what each element represents for Claudio Sanchez and what it also represents in his fictional universe is an unsolvable puzzle that will leave me forever mesmerized. Even though the comics fill in a lot of the blanks, there are a lot of things left unsaid that will always allow the albums to retain their sense of wonder.

On top of that, the levels of abstraction allow Claudio to be very open and honest in a way that few musicians are. My personal favorite album from CoCa is "Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness" because it's Claudio's most emotionally vulnerable work. In it, he writes himself into the story as The Writing Writer, who is essentially the God of Heaven's Fence, who has to decide whether or not to kill the character Ambellina, partially to make his story work but also to help him get over his recently failed relationship. The Writing Writer ends up writing himself into the story as an omnipotent being that kills Ambellina and forces Claudio Kilgannon to accept his destiny. In real life, Claudio Sanchez had hit a rough patch with his then-girlfriend (they eventually worked things out and now they're married). So basically, in order to deal with his own relationship issues, he wrote himself into his story as a character who writes himself into a story to take vengeance upon an analog for his lost love in order to deal with the pain and to help a character who ALSO acts as his analog to accept his destiny. You can't get much more convoluted than that, and yet it somehow works specifically because Claudio allows enough space for reflection and self-assessment. Rather than just write his girlfriend into the story and kill her, he chose to write a writer who would do it for him. This extra layer of abstraction allows us to see his full intention while also acting as a barrier to keep him comfortable and emotionally honest. It creates a separation between the art and the artist without cheapening the raw emotional power of those feelings.

When a singer writes a song about a bad relationship, it's hard for them not to sound petty. Some musicians can work it out if they're clever. Gotye managed it in "Somebody That I Used To Know" by including the perspective of the woman. Jonathan Coulton managed it in "Not About You" by using heavy amounts of irony, emphasizing how petty it is. But in general, it's hard to write a song about a bad relationship without it coming off as pathetic or mean-spirited. The songs in "Good Apollo" are not really all that nuanced on their own. They are every bit as petty, pathetic, and sometimes downright misogynistic as any other stupid emo break-up songs. But because of the context of the album, I don't come away from it feeling like Claudio actually hated his then-ex-girlfriend. I simply see it as a side of the pain he was going through at the time that he expresses through song. It's a snapshot of who he was in that moment rather than just some vague emotion surrounding it.

OK, We Get It, Review the Album Already

Which brings us to "The Afterman: Ascension". Probably one of the shortest album names CoCa has ever had. It is also the first part of a double album, the second half of which comes out in February.

The in-canon story behind this album is actually relatively easy to sum up, at least when compared to some of their other work. This is the story of Sirius (pronounced "SI-rus" because Claudio sometimes pronounces words weirdly for reasons I can't quite comprehend) Amory, the man who learns about the nature of the Keywork. His wife asks him not to go investigating it, but he does it anyway. In the first album he falls into the Keywork. In the second album, he falls out of it. While in the Keywork, he discovers that it's inhabited by all of the dead souls from Heaven's Fence, a number of which temporarily possess him and force him to experience their lives.

That is pretty much the whole story. An astronaut falls into a big glowy thing, weird shit happens, and then he falls out of it. Most of the songs are about individual characters (the "entities") that possess Amory during the middle bits and have little to no relevance beyond that one song.

Similarly, each song has a very specific correlation to an event in Claudio Sanchez's life. Rather than making the whole album about a certain aspect of his life story, this album comes off as more as a series of short anecdotes that often share a similar theme of love and loss. As such, this is one of those albums where Claudio is very open about specifically what each song means in all contexts.

From a musical side, this is the first album without Michael Todd on bass (because drugs and prison) and it's also the return of former drummer Josh Eppard since his departure after "Good Apollo". As a result, this album feels very light on the bass, but it also feels more rhythmically familiar than the previous two albums did. I loved Chris Pennie ("Guns of Summer" is a fucking powerhouse because of him), but he was perhaps a little too aggressive to really match the tone from CoCa's earlier years. The return of Josh Eppard feels right and I hope he sticks around. I also hope that either Michael Todd gets his act together or CoCa finds a new bassist that they're comfortable enough with to let him/her experiment a bit more.

Like most CoCa albums, each layer of "The Afterman: Ascension" works well enough on its own. The music by itself is definitely a step forward in terms of style and I very much look forward to heard the second half come February. The story is simple and interesting, which is rare for CoCa, but it doesn't sacrifice the level of emotional honesty that we're used to getting from Claudio. I actually think it would work well as an entry point for anyone interested in learning about the band. It's certainly more accessible than most of their other work. The songs work well enough on their own and the occasional robot voice talking about the entities is just enough to give the casual listener the impression that something deeper is going on beneath the surface, begging to be discovered. And that's really the strength of this whole "concept album" approach that Claudio takes with his writing. If you just want to listen to the music, you'll be fine, but if you want to go deeper, there's pretty much no end to how complex it will get.

If I were to find fault with this album, my first complaint is simply that it's too short, but that's understandable since it's part of a double album. My only other complaint is just that I don't get the impression that Claudio tried very hard with most of the lyrics. Some songs are better than others, but I'm starting to get tired of him using "hurt" as a noun rather than a verb. Dude needs to crack open a thesaurus more often is all I'm saying.

As for the individual songs, it's hard for me to pick standouts since I generally judge CoCa albums as a whole, but obviously they are very proud of "Key Entity Extraction I: Domino the Destitute" since it's the second song on the album, despite being the first part in a four-part sequence that doesn't come until later (not that CoCa has ever been known for chronological consistency), and since it deals with touchy subject matter. It also has a decent music video.

As a fan, it's obviously tough to deal with the loss of another long-time member of the band, particularly now that Eppard is back, and a part of me hopes that in a few years, the whole family will be back together again, but at the same time, what Mic did was far worse than what Josh did and I wouldn't blame Claudio if he refuses to work with him again, particularly since this seems to have cut a lot deeper than the situation with Josh did.

It's also a testament to the style of the band that they can deal with such fresh wounds in a way that doesn't burden the music with uncomfortable drama and still manages to feel genuine. So if I was to pick a favorite song, it would probably be Domino.

If I was to pick a least favorite song in the album, it would probably be a toss-up between "Goodnight, Fair Lady", which is a really catchy and enjoyable song about...a date-rapist (-_-) and "Key Entity Extraction II: Holly Wood the Cracked", a rather lackluster song about a psychotic and obsessive fan. I'd probably go with "Holly Wood" just because it's kind of the low-point of the album for me musically (it's very atonal for the most-part and a little overproduced), but "Goodnight, Fair Lady" is one of those times where learning more about the underlying story of the song actually lessened my enjoyment of it. I mean, Claudio's had songs about creepers before, but "Goodnight, Fair Lady" makes me feel guilty for enjoying it. Ah well.

So would I recommend the album? Well, yeah. If you don't care about the sci-fi bullshit, that's fine because if you don't get too caught up in the lyrics, there's still some really solid prog rock music here. If you want to get into the mythos, this is probably a decent entry point. If you're just fishing for singles, I'm not sure if you're looking in the right place, but there's a couple standalone gems here too.

Is it for everyone? No. But the great thing about music is that it's very easy to know whether or not you like a song. Just listen to it. Like it? Don't like it? It's up to you. But I definitely recommend you give it a try.