Over many years, the boundaries of music genres have been slowly eroding against the crashing waves of evolution to create a world of music that is rich in experimentation and brimming with wonderment. Artists are getting harder and harder to pigeonhole through music that refuses to be categorised, from the musicians at the top of the charts to the ones at the heart of the underground.
As one of the success stories of the New York rock scene, Coheed And Cambria have been storming airwaves for more than 15 years with a sound very much their own. Recent times have been somewhat turbulent for the band, from seeing a member get arrested for armed robbery to bringing back their original drummer, as well as changing labels. Now the quartet are back with the first part of a double album, The Afterman: Ascension, which looks like a move into more progressive territory.
So what made them decide to write a double album? Claudio Sanchez explains: “When I started writing the music there was no album idea. This time around I was just allowing life to inspire what the music was going to be. As I started to catalogue this music, I realised there could potentially be a double album here. I was a little apprehensive in releasing a double record because I feel that a lot these days are often quantity over quality, like, ‘Here’s a ton of songs, let’s just utilise them and deem it a double album,’ but it’s never quite a masterpiece like Pink Floyd’s The Wall.”
The art of song-crafting perfected by Pink Floyd is something Sanchez admires. “When I listen to The Wall, the entire record feels like one concise experience. Some of their songs are just a minute and a half long, but it creates this beautiful journey,” he gushes. “It’s similar with our new record: there is a concise storyline as well as full-bodied songs. Some are eight-minute epics and some are shorter interludes. Maybe the comic-book writer inside me decided to create two albums and have the first create a sonic cliffhanger.”
The love for suspense born out of the singer’s passion for comic books is something that quickly seeped into the very heart of the music he writes. Every Coheed And Cambria album thus far has told Sanchez’s story of The Amory Wars, the science-fiction tetralogy set in Heaven’s Fence, a collection of 78 planets bound by interconnecting beams of energy known as The Keywork. Sounds confusing? Admittedly it’s not the usual kind of topic you’ll hear the bands of today tackling when you switch on the radio. Then again, Coheed And Cambria aren’t your average rock band.
“I’ve always loved the medium of comic books – I like graphic storytelling and being put right into the scene,” reveals Sanchez. “It’s a natural love that grabs my attention and makes sense to me. I wanted to approach the double album like that, to leave the listener wanting more, as opposed to drowning them in too much before the page turn, as I like to call it.”
The decision to release one body of work in two volumes was something that registered profoundly throughout the group, who looked to decades past for inspiration on creating something unique, intricate and monolithic. “The 70s had some monster double albums and music from that era really inspired us,” nods guitarist Travis Stever. “Like what The Who did with Tommy and Quadrophenia. And then there’s all the great progressive music from that decade, like Selling England By The Pound by Genesis. Did you know the original drummer and keyboard player from King Crimson made an album together [McDonald And Giles] just after In The Court Of The Crimson King came out because they weren’t happy with it? That record is amazing, it’s pure prog! We’ve been like a rolling ball collecting our influences since we grew up.”
“There’s something about how those records were made back then,” agrees Sanchez. “Even if there wasn’t a conceptual thread travelling from start to finish, you could certainly create one. Was Fragile by Yes a concept record? I don’t know, but it could be! Night At The Opera by Queen is another that comes to mind.”
In the months building to release, a trailer for The Afterman left Coheed And Cambria fans scratching their heads, wondering what the band were going to come up with next. The electronic ambience of album opener The Hollow was heard against film noir footage of a lone spaceman on board a ship sailing through the galaxies, signifying that a step further into the avant-garde was imminent.
“I went to see Mastodon a couple of years ago in Manhattan,” says Sanchez. “Behind the band they had this silent 40s movie and it looked like original content made specifically for the tour. I thought, ‘Wow, that looks great!’ and was curious about who had done it for them. When it came to working on the trailer for our album, Rob Schober’s name came up and our manager pointed out that he was the guy that did the Mastodon stuff. We stripped our original science fiction idea back a bit and went for a film noir version instead. It came out looking really classic.”
The album that followed certainly lived up to expectations – Coheed And Cambria were embarking on a new adventure through the sonic galaxies. But with all this talk of distant planets, spacemen and vintage concept records, do the band feel their fans are looking for something beyond the music?
“Definitely,” states Sanchez. “That’s why we create complete packages with the music first and then add the background storylines. I wrote this concept years ago, in 1998, when I took a trip to Paris. The furthest I’d ever been from New York was New Jersey so this trip felt very foreign, almost like visiting another planet. I feel like I learned a lot there, so the idea of going far away and exploring other worlds really called to me. A lot of the music is a reflection of my life – I just colour it here and there with pieces of fiction. It’s nice to have all of those dimensions and see how they transcended from my life to their part in The Amory Wars.
“For example, if you listen to Holly Wood The Cracked, you would understand how the character is reflected in the music, how this entity is completely obsessed with the idea of celebrities to the point that it drives her into cracking herself and being utterly insane. You can hear that in the music – the way the vocals are delivered, the way the guitar sludges through with boutique fuzz pedals to make the song feel insane. There’s actually a break in the middle that has a Beach Boys vibe!”
It’s not as if the alternative rockers are short of inspiration – life in the band has been fairly difficult in recent years, especially with former bassist Michael Todd’s downward battle with his drug addictions. The band were on tour in Massachusetts with Soundgarden last year when it all came to a head and Michael was taken into custody for armed robbery and possession of drugs; a day which Sanchez looks back on with great sadness.
“We were on tour and I saw police officers gathered around our bus – some were even going through my comics! Unfortunately, Mike was a drug addict and we knew what we were getting into when we brought him back. There were moments he was relapsing and we knew something was going to happen.”
Sadly, this was not Sanchez’s first experience with the effects of drug abuse. “I’ve had heroin in my close family since I was born – I understand the battle he was fighting,” he reflects. “We knew what the consequences were but we thought we could help him by keeping him under a watchful eye. As long as he was with us, we could try to keep him safe. But he figured a way around it and that’s the reality. It was really sad and I wish things had panned out differently. The second half of Domino The Destitute, ‘I implore you brother, don’t walk away,’ is like a message from us to him, saying, ‘We’ll meet you halfway, we will combat your issue but you have to meet us in the middle.’ But unfortunately it didn’t work out that way.”
The past year has marked a new dawn for Coheed And Cambria, with original recording drummer Josh Eppard settling in back behind the kit, and the addition of a new bassist in Zach Cooper. This part-new/part-old rhythm section has re-energised the quartet. After a rocky few years, the band seem eager to move on to better days and leave the past behind.
“Now there’s bass in the band, which helps!” laughs Sanchez. “Zach is an amazing bass player and the guys that helped produce the record actually suggested him. He plays with such aggression but at the same time he’s articulate with very clean notes, which is perfect for delivering the bass lines we need. And then we brought Josh back on drums. I’d been writing this material for two years and starting to demo the songs. I didn’t feel the beats were sitting quite right and emphasising the message. I knew Josh would be the right guy because he’s the original guy and, as a friend, I love him. There’s an unspoken understanding: we all work well together, we’re brothers and we’ve come from nothing to this point today.”
Eppard sounds more than ready to be back in the band he helped build, having faced and conquered the demons that forced him out in 2006. “It feels awesome to be back!” exclaims the drummer. “I was in this band for the first three records and dedicated those years of my life to playing with Travis and Claudio. This has been like going home. I don’t want to disrespect anybody, but this new page in the band’s history will definitely take things to the next level. I’m the new guy and the old guy,” he concludes with a grin.
It seems all the newfound positivity within the band has paid off – not only does The Afterman look like being a landmark in the band’s career, but The Amory Wars is set to be adapted for the big screen by Mark Wahlberg and Leverage Productions – a dream come true for any comic-book fanatic.
“We’ve been in touch with Leverage for a year or so now,” says Claudio. “They are known for their work on HBO shows Boardwalk Empire and Entourage. So at this year’s Comic Con convention we decided to go public with the news. Just before we did it, some of the guys over there asked if they could bring it to Mark Wahlberg’s attention as he was affiliated with them. I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ Then I got a call saying he wanted to get working on it. I thought ‘Holy Moly! This just got legitimised big time!’ It’s really exciting – the fact it’s getting that kind of attention is amazing. At the moment we are trying to find a director that is interested and the right actors, and take things to the next level.”
And with that, Coheed And Cambria take their leave, together as a band of brothers with a renewed determination to bring progressive sounds even further into the mainstream.
This article originally appeared in issue 31 of Prog Magazine.