Baumann and Burch Conversations #10: Coheed and Cambria

Original image links back here

 

Tim: It’s been like, four months since our last music conversation. And we return today to talk about Coheed and Cambria, who you probably know best as the guys who roasted Antonin Scalia. (The Decemberists one really feels like it happened like, last week.)

Matt: That Scalia roast is definitely a top ten song. We musn’t forget their roast of McConnell as well. Coheed, always doing the good work.

Tim: Now’s as good a time as any to tell you that in lieu of any Simpsons illustrations of those guys, a screenshot from the Scalia song is the banner image for this conversation.

Matt: Perfect. They shot that in Milwaukee, which is a fact I will never forget. I saw them either the same night or the next one and I so wish they had played the song.

Anyway, I asked you a random question about Spotify plays for the Decemberists Conversation as a (limited) way of assessing their cache. I’m not using Spotify this time, but I have looked up Coheed’s album sales. They’ve had five albums debut in the top 10 of the billboard 200. Tim, name those albums and the highest charter.

Tim: Well, for one thing I accidentally looked up the Spotify tracks when I was scrolling through their page listening to Unheavenly Creatures, so it’s good you’re not asking about that.

Matt: I had a feeling. I also reckon that list is a bit off right now with recency play bias for Unheavenly Creatures. But continue.

Tim: Yeah, four of five. Hm. I’m going to guess that Unheavenly Creatures is one of them.

Matt: Nope! Peaked at #14

Tim: Deeply surprising. I also had in mind that Good Apollo Vol. 1 was one of them.

Matt: Yep, peaked at #7, which is not their highest mark. I also lied, they’ve had 6 in the top 10.

Tim: And I still managed to whiff on Unheavenly Creatures? That’s not great.

Matt: 14 is still close and solid.

Tim: I mean for me more than them : p I’m going to guess out of sheer perversity that Year of the Black Rainbow is in there, and not so much out of perversity that Good Apollo Vol. 2 and Color Before the Sun are in there too.

Matt: All correct. In reverse order, Color Before the Sun peaked at #10, No World for Tomorrow at #6, and Year of the Black Rainbow at #5, which is tied for their highest chart.

Tim: Completely unsurprising to me.

Matt: Severely incorrect, but not all that surprising, no. Chart numbers tend to lag behind the best work (which is in no way a shot at the band). Both Afterman albums also made top 10 – Descension at #9 and Ascension as the other #5. I think all I’m trying to illustrate here is that, once again, the arbitrary measures of popularity don’t jive with what I think both you and I have in mind or what Coheed diehards in general have in mind.

Tim: I think that before we go anywhere we ought to say something about this band’s fanbase, which is…”unique” is a strong word, but there are certainly a large number of gates to keep which obviously go beyond the music itself.

Matt: I hasten to add, of all the fanbases I consider myself part of, Coheed’s is the most welcoming and one of the most sincere.

Tim: I’m sort of an odd duck, I think, because I’ve been around forever but I have never picked up an Amory Wars book.

Matt: He’s writing new ones! Jump on the wagon! That’s probably the first key to this band’s general image and the fanbase, Claudio (lead singer and guitarist) writes comics with his wife, and 8 of their 9 albums are based on said comics.

Tim: I am curious to see if that ends up playing a role in the way we rank albums, which we’ll get to later on. I’ve got a reasonable handle on what happens in this storyline (thanks, Wikipedia), but I’m sure that there are things one wants to play up or de-emphasize in the music based on how closely one follows the comic books.

Matt: The books definitely have more. It can be difficult to pick up the story thread in the music at times if you haven’t done a quick Wikipedia of what generally is happening in the comics. Coheed’s greatest strength, I think, is their ability with this type of long term storytelling and how they tell both a comic book epic with songs that any listener can connect to with or without the context of the extended universe. Rob Harvilla described them in an article once as, and I’m paraphrasing, for rock fans who want to pump their firsts while clutching D&D dice.

My anecdote about the fanbase is that nearly anytime I wear one of my Coheed shirts someone will stop me and want to chat about the band, and those are always fun moments. I’ve also had at least three instances where me and someone else have shared our band-based tattoos (I have one of the logo of their fictional universe) which is an immediately weird moment to anyone outside the fanbase but makes perfect sense to us. So unique is a word for it, but I want to shave any negative connotation from that.

Tim: In a perfectly neutral sense. The list of bands where you say, “This is good, but it will make more sense if you read the lead singer’s comic books” is pretty slim. I think. I admit to not being as hip as I used to be.

Matt: Gerard Way wrote comics once and a MCR album follows suit. That’s the only example I have offhand.

Tim: I’ve always been a much bigger fan of Claudio than Gerard, so I will assume this is sheer outrageous copycatting.

Matt: Gerard was smart enough to not attempt a space epic, which would have been bad. I have a weakness for My Chemical Romance but what they’re doing isn’t nearly the same as what Claudio is up to, which is approaching two decades of a concept album series.

Tim: Can I ask a dumb question?

Matt: I have a neutral response for that question when a student asks, but I forget what it is so go ahead.

Tim: Mine is “Ask a stupid question, etc.” Would we like this band as much if they were still Shabutie? Or, indeed, would they have been able to last for two decades as Shabutie?

Matt: My understanding is that the name change was largely a record company demand, although they were different projects at the time. There’s certainly a unique allure to the universe and the interconnectedness of all the albums, but I still think they could have carved out a similar niche as a band who doesn’t have that. They’re incredibly talented musicians. Would it be the same? Probably not, but I think Shabutie could still have been a respected mid-tier rock act.

I guess part of what I’m saying is that the particulars of what Coheed and Cambria is and means draws a certain type of fan while, not turning away but…potentially giving pause to others.

Tim: I like to think that Coheed and Cambria is a much better advertisement for the kind of music they play. Like, if you asked me what their sound was just from the name, I could probably approximate it, but I would be straight off on Shabutie.

Matt: That’s true. And part of the actual reason they changed. Shabutie would have gone down as a classic example of a bad band name.

Tim: I’m sure I’ll never say this again, but bless the record companies.

Matt: Buh. Is there more context we should set up? Or is it time for rankings?

Tim: Before we do this, I want to mention that you referred to the band as “consistent” in a different actual human being conversation we had earlier, and that’s the reason ranking these albums is way harder for me than ranking The Decemberists’ output. That sound carries over, with a few diversions here and there, and it’s hard to say “This is the fourth-best and this is the seventh-best and I am totally sure about that.”

I also want to assure everyone at home that I worked harder on making sure I wasn’t too influenced by bonus tracks this time around.

Matt: Luckily not too many bonus tracks to go around. I know we have the same “last” album for Coheed and I’m somewhat confident we have the same one on top, too, but their middle space does not lend itself to tiers in the way the Decemberists’ catalogue does. Coheed regularly updates small things and incorporates new or tweaks existing styles, but there’s no radical shift in who they are a la The King is Dead.

Tim: Obligatory male sports reference: the middle is sort of like the Western Conference last year, where Portland was the 3-seed and Denver was like, three games back and out of the playoffs altogether. Except our “last” album is more like last year’s Lakers in this metaphor.

Matt: The promise is there, but it’s confused and not ready. I actually really like that, because I do think the bottom album is straddling two areas and not committed enough to either. But yes, major point being I don’t feel nervous about new Coheed output potentially being bad. They do their thing and do it very well and will continue to for years. (Unheavenly Creatures is the first of a planned pentalogy, is what I’ve read).

Tim: Remind our readers how many of these albums are on your Top 100 Rock Albums of 2000-2010 list again?

Matt: Three.

Tim: I was going to ask for which ones they were, but that’s no fun at all.

So, Year of the Black Rainbow is last for both of us, and I dunno, maybe you should find something uplifting to say.

Matt: It has 3 (maybe 4) solid songs.

Tim: I like “Pearl of the Stars,” personally. I don’t know that it’s their most characteristic song, but it’s solid.

Matt: “Pearl of the Stars” is actually indicative of what’s wrong with this album, for me. Which I need to hedge a lot. I don’t think many of these songs are individually bad, they’re still talented compositions. But the big problem with Black Rainbow for me is the band sort of lost its sense of identity.

Tim: I am here for this take which compares Black Rainbow to a casserole. Or, rather, which I am co-opting to make it more about casseroles. It definitely feels like a lot of stuff that just got dumped onto a single album.

Matt: Excuse Tim while he writes a casserole cookbook. “Pearl of the Stars” feels like an attempt to redo “The Light and the Glass,” which, to preempt a potential audience question, is not something I say about every slow song Coheed attempts, they do those very well.

Tim: Matt’s going to do that and I’m going to think about their slow songs for a bit and report back.

Matt: Woo! Similarly, something like “Guns of Summer” feels like a driving prog style they hint at elsewhere but never commit to in quite the same way. It sounds closer to (obscure band touchstone) The Fall of Troy, which is not what Coheed excels at. There are also several electronic flourishes on Black Rainbow, which aren’t inherently bad but don’t quite work here. That said, the most recent albums incorporate electronics and synths much better. Black Rainbow feels both exhausted and unsure of where it’s going to me, and I think that shows in its weaker attempts to reimagine things the band had done before and slight missteps in experimenting with where they would go next. Overall, it just sounds angry and kind of lost in ways their other albums don’t.

The songs I do like are “Here We Are Juggernaut,” “World of Lines,” “Far,” and if you catch me on the right day “The Broken.” I’ve just realized the commonality between these songs is they have the good choruses on the album.

Tim: That in itself feels like a weird connection for this band, because my favorite songs of theirs will repeat words here and there, but I don’t think about those songs having choruses in the traditional sense.

Matt: They excel at the terminal climactic form, which is just a music theory way of saying the songs build to an coda that blows the roof off (technical language). Black Rainbow doesn’t really try that at all and the good hooks here are in choruses. Which is to say, choruses are not what I look for on their other albums, they just seem indicative of what does and doesn’t work on Black Rainbow.

I am curious that we both have this album at the bottom but apparently a different sense of which songs are worth relistening to.

Tim: As a listening experience, I just think it’s sort of dull on the whole. The musicianship as ever is still there, but I feel like it never gets very far in the ways I’d gotten used to hearing it advance. I also can’t help but compare “Here We Are Juggernaut” to other singles and feeling like it’s not nearly as interesting or exciting as the stuff off of either Good Apollo or the other albums preceding it. And I say that as someone who has never been the world’s biggest “Devil in Jersey City” fan.

Matt: I think the production on “Juggernaut” is tetchy in interesting ways and Claudio stretches his voice in a few ways that remind me of “Delirium Trigger,” which is the shit. It’s not a top 10 or 20 or maybe even 30 song for me, but it’s solid and I still listen to it. It also hits like a ton of bricks live, which is good. “Far” makes for a lovely acoustic song, which is not how they play it on Black Rainbow.

Tim: That’s one that I feel like would be a better acoustic song.

Matt: When I saw them in 2011 they opened for themselves with a handful of acoustic tunes, “Far” and “Juggernaut” among them. They are sneaky good at reimagining their own songs and I’d totally be in for an acoustic album if they wanted to make one.

Tim: That sounds like a fabulous way for Claudio to stave off writer’s block somewhere…just put it all down for a minute and rearrange some songs.

Matt: I have a feeling he has a vault of alternate versions of songs that I desperately want access to.

Tim: Reporting back on the whole slow songs business – I think “Wake Up” is still the iconic one, but “Neverender” is my number 1 and I can’t imagine that one being knocked off the pedestal.

Matt: “Neverender” is the correct answer. You passed the test. “Key Entity Extraction IV” isn’t slow in the same ways, but is always hella good.

Tim: I am going to have many things to say about the Key Entity Extraction songs.

So once upon a time, I had this absolute brick of a laptop, and the screensaver was usually just rolling text, so I changed that to “In savoring sleep, what do you mean?/I toss and turn everywhere.” Roots run deep.

Matt: I just sat forward in excitement for talk of Key Entity Extraction. And also Second Stage Turbine Blade, which is one of the albums embedded in my soul.

But we’ve gone away from Black Rainbow. Anything more to say on that album, or should we move to number eight?

Tim: I figured that was our cue. I hate myself for my number eight…I’ve got The Color Before the Sun there, even though I really enjoy that album and I feel like it looks like I’m rejecting this pop-punk aesthetic thing, which I’m not, and which they’d already done before a whole bunch of times. So I’m sad, basically.

Matt: I get that. I also have The Color Before the Sun at eight.

Tim: So I didn’t have to self-flagellate that much. (That is the name of my autobiography.)

Matt: No, but I was worried something else was about to happen so I let you go. And you discovered your book name, so small miracles.

It has some really fun songs and others that aren’t that fun, and that’s more or less my assessment.

Tim: “Island” is a blast. I don’t have a lot of analysis about that either, but when I listened to that one I remember thinking the album would be more like that on the whole and I was about to have my mind blown by their versatility, and that didn’t really happen.

Matt: That’s the best one here. “Island” will live in their greatest hit collections, which is good and right. It’s also the only song from this album that seems to have stuck in their concert rotation, so there’s that. I like “Eraser” and “The Audience” too. “Peace to the Mountain” is interesting in some ways. And “Atlas” also bangs, but I’ve heard an acoustic version of it that I can never get out of my head so I’m always torn on which version of that song should exist on record.

Tim: I was going to say that “Atlas” is probably the second-best song on that album, and I am not encumbered by having other versions of it in my brain.

Matt: It is the second best. My problem is it’s the second and shadow-third best. “Here to Mars” and “You Got Spirit, Kid” were the major singles in pre-release and I don’t care much about either. The former is alright, the latter actively annoys me (which I don’t feel great about, because it’s an earnest, uplifting song for an audience with a share of people in need of that)

Tim: It’s a little cute? The chorus is just a little pat in ways I’m not used to these guys being pat.

Matt: Yeah, more or less. There’s no depth to it. Which is not what everyone needs, but it makes it tougher for the song to hold up on repeated listens. For me, the beginning and end of Color Before the Sun are good, but besides “Atlas” the middle sags.

Tim: That’s the difference between my high-middle and low-middle Coheed albums, mostly. If the middle loses me, then it’s going to drop, but heaven knows I generally listen to these albums for the end. The culmination by definition just has to build from something in the heart of the record.

Matt: We might should also mention this is the only album not set within the Amory Wars universe. Which isn’t an inherent demerit.

Tim: It was one of the reasons I wanted to like it more when I first listened to it.

Matt: I’m actually glad they took a minute away to reset and think about something different. There’s a fun alternate history where they do the pop-punk thing, but they lose the thread for a minute here.

Tim: So I imagine we’ll start diverging here…what do you have seventh?

Matt: Here’s where it gets really tough for me, 5-7.

Tim: That was 2-7 for me!

Matt: I know my 2-4 are above my 5-7, but both of those runs get real messy real quick. I just had to look back at my (mental) list to make sure I feel good about this. I think No World for Tomorrow is 7 for me.

Tim: I have that sixth.

Matt: Close! So what’s seventh?

Tim: I’ve got Unheavenly Creatures there.

Matt: I have that sixth!

Tim: This is about a million times smoother thus far than I expected. And I think I flip-flopped those two about as much as I did for any other two albums.

Matt: There’s a chance I flip these two in the next five minutes. Also yeah, I really thought we’d hit a bunch of snags around this part of the list. So tell me about Unheavenly Creatures (their latest release which you should go purchase now, dear readers).

Tim: For me it’s mostly that consistency business. I love that this is a fifteen song album—surely this must be their longest by minutes—but I wish some of it had been left behind. “Toys” doesn’t really stand up for me, for example, even though I very much enjoy “The Dark Sentencer” and “Old Flames.” It’s not way behind most of the other stuff they’ve done, but it’s a little quantity over quality for me.

Matt: They could have edited some out, especially in the run from “Toys” to “True Ugly.” To be clear, all the songs in that run have something interesting happening, but they don’t always feel necessary when I listen. Speaking of, I’ve been listening to this album on repeat since it came out which means something, I think. It’s a fun, easy listen.

Tim: It is certainly that. And it feels more like the pre-Black Rainbow stuff than anything else they’ve done since then.

Matt: In my series of Venn diagrams, Unheavenly Creatures is No World for Tomorrow meets Ascension. It’s an album that realizes some of the stuff they’d been experimenting with earlier and nails a tone throughout. The opening of “Dark Sentencer” and “Unheavenly Creatures” absolutely bangs, and the ending run from “The Gutter” to “Lucky Stars” has been burned into my brain in the best of ways. (“Pavilion” and “Night Time Walkers” I also like and are right before “The Gutter”).

Tim: I was about to say nice things about “Pavilion,” so glad you threw that in there.

Matt: I really enjoy “Pavilion.” Things just hit a new level for me at “The Gutter.”

Tim: There’s a different gear it hits at that point, which I think is pretty clear just in terms of tempo, and then it pulls back really nicely at “Old Flames.” No, the funny thing about “Pavilion” for me is that some of the chord progressions weirdly remind me of Christian pop-rock from the early-mid 2000s, except the actual song doesn’t make me want to set myself on fire.

Matt: Please bring water. (which is a joke that will not leave the Coheed subreddit)

Tim: I knew there were subreddits I should be visiting.

Matt: /The Fence

Sorry. But actually wait, mid-2000s Christian pop-rock should be on your bingo card. Now I’m sorry.

Tim: Somewhere Relient K, Sanctus Real, and Mae are pricking up their ears in the hopes that someone still loves them.

Matt: Narratively, too, the album starts to make more sense at the end (somewhere around “Pavilion” and “The Gutter”).

Tim: I will take your word for it. I have to say, I probably listen to Coheed less for lyrics than any other band I care about this much.

Matt: I should clarify, I wasn’t really paying attention to the story until the third or fourth listen, which is my usual for Coheed albums. It’s a real simple find love and break out of galactic prison narrative, and it coalesces near the end. My understanding is that ensuing albums will be the couple’s adventures among the Fence. (Go check that Wikipedia page, everyone)

But! More to the point, Unheavenly Creatures is fun and they sound energized. That’s the real draw for me.

Tim: What puts it ahead of No World for Tomorrow for you? (he asked, being a jerk.)

Matt: It’s more adventurous in a weird way? Maybe I just need the fun aspect more at this point in life. No World for Tomorrow is sort of like “what if Coheed were a classic rock singles band” to me. They’re good at that, but it doesn’t feel cohesive in the ways that my favorite albums do.

Tim: I’m glad you came up with that classic rock singles band thing, because I think I now have the language to justify why I’ve got that sixth.

Matt: Différance!

Tim: I listened to it for the first time in a really long time (because I’ve spent so much of my free time listening to the ones I like more) and I was struck by how much I enjoyed the first four songs. “The Hound (of Blood and Rank)” just really worked for me, and it does have that older vibe going along. I’ve got it lower than the majority of their oeuvre because the last five songs on that album have never affected me in any serious way.

Matt: “Radio Bye Bye” does it for me, but otherwise this is definitely a front-loaded album.

Tim: That’s the best one of the bunch, as far as I can tell.

Matt: I will also say “The Running Free” is still fun, so the first five songs. Nevermind, I forgot the opener is one of their short instrumentals.

Tim: I’m always torn about whether or not I “count” those, for lack of a better word. I was going with “No World for Tomorrow” to “The Running Free.”

Matt: I go case by case, “The Reaping” doesn’t do the work that other ones do. I also sort of like “The Road and the Damned,” which has some nice anthemic qualities but isn’t essential. No World for Tomorrow is the culmination of the initial foray into the Amory Wars, and has some real highlights, but also feels like Coheed was running out of gas a bit at that point in their career. It’s definitely scaled back from Good Apollo Vol. 1. I think the best thing about it is that it drives home how good these guys are at making hooky rock songs no matter how much mythology is layered on.

Tim: Hooky?

Matt: Catchy. Full of hooks, memorable melodies and such.

Tim: I thought you were saying “hockey” in Canadian. Like, full umlaut business.

Matt: [extreme Canadian voice] sorry

Tim: I probably ding No World for Tomorrow a little more than I should because you don’t have to read the comics to feel that this story is like, going somewhere, but the actual execution on the album really does not measure up to…however we’re abbreviating Vol. 1.

Matt: I usually refer to that one as just Good Apollo, which is wrong since it’s just the first volume. But Fear Through the Eyes of Madness does not have a good shorthand.

Tim: What’s fifth?

Matt: The Afterman: Ascension.

Tim: Oh, good, we’ve diverged.  

Matt: You?

Tim: I have Descension there.

Matt: Interesting. You’re wrong, of course.

Tim: We always knew that would happen. Descension has the best song and I think Ascension is a better album on the whole.

Matt: My shorthand reading of the two together is that Ascension has a few essential songs but wanders a bit in the middle while Descension has probably the two best songs across them and is more consistent. But tell me what’s “weak” about Descension. Actually, first tell me what the best song is.

Tim: I didn’t say the word weak anywhere…best song is “Gravity’s Union.”

Matt: I know you didn’t. Those quotation were meant to signal my lack of faith in that word, not to mock you. Both albums are incredibly strong.

Tim: “Lack of faith in that word” is the most grad school phrase I think we’re going to churn out today.

Matt: Don’t challenge me. Also yes, “Gravity’s Union” is the best. I would say “Sentry the Defiant” is second best. Which, maybe this is the time to talk about the Key Entity Extraction series?

Tim: Like, from both?

Matt: Yes, from both.

Tim: I would push back on that one a little, though “Sentry the Defiant” is great. I think what pushes Ascension ahead for me is that among those actively connected series of songs, the Key Entity Extraction series is the second-best of them all, and four of them are on this album.

Matt: I’d agree with this portion of the satellite ranking of song-series. I think we diverge here, then: I loved “Holly Wood the Cracked” and “Vic the Butcher” when Ascension came out but now I don’t, and that’s two of the K.E.E. series.

Tim: The former still does a lot for me, though part of this how much I’m willing to prioritize vocals over everything else. The latter is good, but I think I’d leave that last among the five.

Matt: On Ascension, “Mothers of Men” doesn’t move the needle much for me, and “Goodnight, Fair Lady” feels a bit done. “The Afterman” and “Subtraction” are both really good and really different for them. The highlights for me are “Domino the Destitute” (which cannot be listened to without “The Hollow,” speaking of weird album openers that do important work) and “Evagria the Faithful” which features, of all things, some jazz piano.

Tim: “Domino” and “Evagria” are standouts for me. I like “Mothers of Men” a lot, which would be a difference maker on an album with like, nine songs. I think Ascension does more in terms of buildup, and Descension falls away for me pretty hard after “Away We Go.” Even if the middle of Descension is better, it’s got for my money the worst song on both albums in “Iron Fist” hanging around in the back third, and it doesn’t get way way better.

Matt: “Iron Fist” isn’t great, but I will stump for “Dark Side of Me” and “2s My Favorite 1” (dumb name aside). For one, the beginning of “Dark Side of Me” calls back to “Time Consumer,” which I’m a sucker for. There’s an emotional punch I get on Descension that I feel less on Ascension and that sets them apart for me. The latter feels haunting and mysterious (which is a compliment), the former starts to tug at me more.

Tim: That may be a difference for us then, too, because Descension doesn’t rope me emotionally. Not that Ascension spends all of its time doing that either, but I suppose neither album is one that I’d listen to to get into my feels.

I just realized that we have not actually said where we put Ascension and Descension, respectively, though you should say a thing if you had something in mind before I had this small epiphany.

Matt: Our respective interests in lyrics might be at play here. Descension is more interesting lyrically to me, and that goes a long way to the connection I feel throughout. Like “Dark Side of Me,” super interesting lyrically both in terms of the larger story and as an individual song.

Tim: It’s as big a reason why “Iron Fist” doesn’t really do it for me…that one gets old real quick. Though I’d say you’re right about the lyrics idea generally.

Matt: That’s a small run on Ascension for me too. To be clear, though, both albums really good. Just that Descension is objectively better.

I have Ascension fifth and Descension third.

Tim: Hysterically, when this averages out they will be tied.

Matt: That is peak us.

Tim: So, for those keeping track at home: agreed outright about two albums, and four albums have been flipped in such a way that they’ll be tied. And actually, I think it’s about to happen again, because I know you don’t have Second Stage fourth.

Matt: I just had that same thought, and you’re correct. I have In Keeping Secrets fourth.

Tim: Which I, true to form, have second.

Matt: Yep, they’ll tie. Which, also for those keeping score at home, you now know what first place is.

Tim: (So that’s: Good Apollo, Vol. 1 in first, Second Stage and In Keeping Secrets tied for second, Ascension and Descension tied for fourth, Good Apollo, Vol. 2 and Unheavenly Creatures tied for sixth, Color Before in eighth, and Black Rainbow ninth.)

Matt: I’m not actually doing this to be a jerk, but I feel like I have the (slightly) unpopular opinion on In Keeping Secrets so tell me why I’m wrong to have it fourth.

Tim: I think the only weak point on the album is “Blood Red Summer,” basically. The four song run of the title song, “Cuts Marked in the March of Men,” “Three Evils,” and “The Crowing” is stunning. There’s a lot of violence in this album, which isn’t like, special to the band, but the evocation of it is really impressive. I’m a believer in the Velourium Camper songs as well, and maybe that’s not for you?

Matt: “Backend of Forever” is decidedly not for me.

Tim: Actually my favorite of those three.

Matt: To the violence point, this opens with — well technically it opens with a phone ringing — a giant war at the Fence in the title track and unfolds from there. “In Keeping Secrets” is the second best song here and absolutely stunning live, it’s maybe the best example of how well Coheed builds songs that are actually enhanced by crowd participation. More generally, I don’t like “Blood Red Summer” or “Backend of Forever,” and I appreciate “The Light and the Glass” and “21:13” in a removed way but have never felt particularly connected.

Tim: Those are emotionally important for me in a way that “Dark Side of Me” isn’t, but I’ve had that percolating since I was fourteen or something.

Matt: Was this the first Coheed album you heard?

Tim: I think so? It was either that or Second Stage. Not more than month’s difference or so.

Matt: I’d be curious if we just attached more strongly to whichever of the two we listened to first, but that’s probably too reductive. In Keeping Secrets has some unimpeachable songs in the Coheed canon but at least a third of it just doesn’t grip me in the same ways. Should we talk about “The Crowing”? I feel like we need to give some shine to “The Crowing.”

Tim: Is it the best Coheed song? I’ve always thought so, but maybe that’s me. I still think it is.

Matt: I was about to ask the same thing. I think so. I have a couple that I might be closer to, and I wonder if there’s a different choice somewhat regularly, but I think it’s “The Crowing.” It kicks a titanic amount of ass, is probably a perfect summation of why Coheed is about, and hits the balance between narrative importance and allowing listeners to relate in a (very) general way. And that slight lull before the ending salvo is beautiful.

Tim: I have always appreciated the way that song is broken up into three discernible parts, and each of those parts feels essential to the song and is brilliantly done. And then of course the end of the song has that great three-part round/harmony/I’m not a music major business, and it just unites so smoothly.

Matt: Shout out to Josh Eppard, whose artillery fire drum beat ties together the three-part vocals. R.I.P. Ambelina

Tim: Whoa-o-o-o.

But yeah, for me the album just has the single weak song and the rest of it is between “really good” to “top 10 Coheed song.” Add in a little nostalgia, or maybe it’s the longer amount of time I’ve had to pay attention to it, and that’s the winner for me I’d say. Second Stage has “Junesong Provision” and that is not my thing.

Matt: Go on.

Tim: “Time Consumer” and “Delirium Trigger” also belong on the list of top 10 Coheed songs. “Delirium Trigger” is actually the first song of theirs I’d ever had, and I felt like it had come from another planet. I can’t recall a lot of other experiences like that.

Matt: “Delirium Trigger” still gives me chills. Second Stage also has “Everything Evil,” “Neverender,” and “God Send Conspirator” which are also all great. “Heartshot Kid Disaster” and “33” are great punches mid album and “Devil in Jersey City” has been overplayed but shows this band could have been big time in a time that actually cared about rock music (he said, old and from his rocker). The story on Second Stage is straightforward but not simple. Thematically, a lot of songs about neurosis, depression, and parenting. Basically, the characters of Coheed and Cambria have been infected by a despot and are destined to pass to both go mad and pass the disease to their children. My next think piece is on why this is the perfect album for our current ecological crisis.

That sense you got from “Delirium Trigger” I got from this whole album, and it’s one that I could listen to at any time no matter what’s happening. Claudio has some vocals here that he’ll never be able to hit again (“Everything Evil,” “Heartshot Kid Disaster” and, in particular, “Delirium Trigger” stand out in that regard).

Tim: I don’t know how we managed to get this far without saying “falsetto,” and that was definitely one of the things that drew me in in the early years. It’s really crisp, which is tough to pull off for most singers, but it’s never ceased to amaze me that he just lived up there for four albums or so.

Matt: His voice is incredible. And, thankfully, he’s learned ways to adjust as he loses some range. They’re such a distinctive band in general, especially cutting their teeth in the 2000s when most rock bands had discernible categories. No frontmen or women are quite like Claudio, no bands have quite the same mix of prog and pop-punk (and even hardcore in places, only the Dear Hunter has the same long-term storytelling aspect but their’s isn’t an entirely fictional universe. All of that uniqueness is what makes them one of my favorite bands in general, and it’s all evident on Second Stage and drew me right in.

Tim: At the risk of sounding like we’re done, we do have the unanimously agreed upon best Coheed album remaining.

Matt: Everything I just said culminates on [deep breath] Good Apollo I’m Burning Star IV, Volume 1: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness.

Tim: Easier to hold your breath in a tunnel than say all that in one breath.

Matt: For the lay audience, this is the one with “Welcome Home.”

Tim: Which, fun secret, is one of the rare really good songs in the first like, eight on that album. “Ten Speed” is good, and the rest of the first half of that album really doesn’t do much for me. You should probably argue the opposite side of that.

Matt: Luckily I think you’re wrong. Not totally, The Willing Well is what makes this album, but all of themes and motifs are set up in the first half of these album. We know from this Conversation that Coheed are great world builders, here they show they’re also great at building music across albums. Snippets of nearly every preceding song show up in one of the Willing Well jams. I also irrationally love “Once Upon Your Dead Body.”

Also “Ten Speed,” real quick, is about the fictional narrator going mad and being attacked by his bicycle. That’s the conceit. I love this band.

Tim: I think that’s the single biggest question I have about the comic books. Reading it on Wikipedia makes it sound awful, but I take it the execution is not.

Matt: No. This album is fundamentally about insanity and any description of it is going to sound as much. “Ten Speed” is kind of a weird digression in some ways, but it’s meant to illustrate this writer’s conflation of real world and his story world as he begins to take the negativity of his creation out on real people. This is the meta Coheed album. It’s also, if I remember correctly, the one in which Ambelina actually dies.

Tim: Aside from the fact that the back half of this album is absolutely splendiforous, I think part of the reason the structure works so much better than it does on like, Unheavenly Creatures is that it pulls back in the middle a little bit. There’s more contrast, if not in the music, then in the way it’s deployed. As individual songs, “Crossing the Frame” and “The Writing Writer” don’t thrill me, but the fact that they work as steps up to the Willing Well (and the deeply underrated two songs before that sequence) makes the album more cohesive.

Matt: It’s the terminal climactic form I mentioned earlier taken to the album level, and it works beautifully. The run of “Once Upon Your Dead Body” – “Wake Up” – “The Suffering” – “The Lying Lies and Dirty Secrets of Miss Erica Court” is four different types of songs altogether in the middle of the album, which is both refreshing in the midst of a long album (I think this is actually their longest run time) and also even more impressive when you get through the whole thing and see/hear how it all comes together. I think this is also key to your point about the mid album stepback, those are also the shortest songs besides the intro, which is important from an organizational standpoint.

Tim: Pacing. (Now I feel all warm and movieish again.)

Matt: …………….Amory Wars movies……………………

Tim: I would watch the crap out of that.

Matt: I legit don’t have a follow up thought there, I just want it. What’s the best song on this album?

Tim: So I know what my favorite song on the album is, because it is, maybe a little weirdly, my favorite Coheed song. “Fuel for the Feeding End” just fulfills something in me. I love songs that have songs in them, or that seem to have parts, and “Fuel for the Feeding End,” like the Crowing, combines that sort of musical language almost like it escaped from a musical. It sounds nothing like “Now/Later/Soon” from A Little Night Music, but the premise is there, and this has to be one of the odder comparisons I’ve ever made. Might even be weirder than the casserole thing.

Matt: The whole album borrows that sort of musical language with aplomb and great success. I also watch the crap out of a stage production of this.

Tim: With the money you’d need you could just make the movie.

Matt: Truth. We’re actually close on “best” song. I have “From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness” (part two of the Willing Well, for  those at home), which I think contains elements of nearly every part of Coheed’s style and the types of songs they make. That it gets from the springy riff in the first verse to the “In Keeping Secrets” style “whoa oh oh” in the middle, and then the apocalyptic stomp with wild soloing at the end has always impressed me.

Tim: It’s a playful song, which is a word that seems wrong and yet seems essential to describing the band. It’s a little bouncy, but it’s like a tease until you get to the headbanging crazies later in the song, which you know are coming and pay off so well because it sounds almost silly to start with.

Matt: It’s also the moment where the narrator is finally deciding whom to kill (someone in the story or in real life, which are now the same to him). It’s an icky song thematically, but impressively pulled together. It also recalls some imagery from Second Stage, which yes we all know I’m a truffle pig for.

Tim: Probably not as icky as some that we could name from other albums. Or later in this album, actually.

Matt: Ah yes, the actual deaths. Faces crushed in doors and the like. I think the Willing Well is what cemented that feeling of “oh shit, this band is up to something totally different.”

Tim: It wasn’t “Delirium Trigger” for me, but in a similar way I wish I could listen to those four in sequence for the first time again. It’s a half-hour of music that is clearly working from the same storytelling perspective even if you’ve not heard a note of Coheed before, and being able to do that as part of a larger album amazes me. There are great movies that like, the same length as the Willing Well. (Things I just realized I wanted, aside from Amory Wars: The Motion Picture: La jetee done with music by Coheed and Cambria.)

Matt: When they pull the Radiohead and become composers I’m so ready. Just to make us hipsters, I think Vol. 2 is when a larger crowd figured out what we did on “Delirium Trigger.” “Welcome Home” pulled a lot of people in and then they were met with this behemoth. Not to be an extra jerk, but I did get to see Coheed play this entire album live and hearing The Willing Well in sequence and in its entirety was incredible. They don’t play these songs live because, I think, they have to go together. They’re great songs individually but you lose something without the sequence and that’s what makes them and this whole album so special.

Tim: Part of the reason I think this is a better album than In Keeping Secrets or Second Stage, too. This thing works as an overall experience on a different level than those, which are better than a playlist but are closer to it than Difficult to Abbreviate.

Matt: More than any of the nine albums, this is the one that if I randomly hear something from the middle I say “nope, back to the beginning, let’s do this.”

Tim: So what’s next? Have we missed any big things?

Matt: Not that I can see? I sort of regret not asking us to actually determine our top 10 Coheed songs before this, alas. Anything else on your mind? I guess I would say there’s a special thrill to listening to all of these albums in story order if you ever find yourself on a 13 hour drive like I do.

Tim: I would have to find someone to do that with who has heard of this band.

Matt: I’m right here, dude.

Tim: Yes, but the other person I drive with most frequently may not know these folks exist. Or maybe she does. There’s no way to know.

Matt: I’m even more excited for our Coheed and Canada road trip.

Tim: Pure applesauce.

In all seriousness, this was probably my favorite band in middle school and part of high school, and I do like going through and listening and relistening to this band. It’s a good excuse to go back and do that. Now we just need an excuse to do that for ABBA.

Matt: Couldn’t escape if I wanted to.

I may listen to Coheed more than any other band (QotSA and the National are up there somewhere, but I don’t have the numbers). They’re the only band for which I have a tattoo, which seems surprising to me. They’re so distinct and devoted to their vision (and they seem like genuinely nice dudes) that it’s infectious. Record companies and the music industry no longer value, let alone prize, the type of storytelling and world building that Coheed does. That they’re still going strong nearly 20 years in, and that the fanbase is as strong and dedicated as ever is genuinely impressive.

Tim: It’s sort of nuts to me that they never had the leap moment that The National or Arcade Fire have had. Not like those are the same bands, but I am surprised that they aren’t in everyone’s mouths more frequently.

Matt: I’m guessing it’s in part due to a false sense of accessibility. Like, The National and Arcade Fire make songs that one can easily relate to. Coheed makes those too, but the story might obscure that for general fans of the genre. Totally anecdotally, I think most Coheed fans experience what you and I did, which is a growth with the band. You listen to this unfolding narrative and grow more deeply invested with their world. The National and Arcade Fire make songs that are easier to jump into when you hit a time in your life when you need them, if that makes sense.

Tim: Ooh, that rings a bell. I sort of jumped into Coheed for the reason people start listening to Arcade Fire, by this logic, but I’ll take it.

Matt: I don’t mean to judge when or how people discover Coheed, just that there’s a certain immersive experience that is more long term. Your entry point speaks to something I was trying to say earlier, that despite any story trappings Coheed writes songs that speak to listeners and are actually easy to connect with. What I really hope is that Unheavenly Creatures can be a jumping on point for younger music fans who can then grow with the rest of this portion of the Amory Wars like we did with the original.

Tim: That was practically tender.

Matt: Well, we established that I’m the one drawn to the emotional gut punches. A band like Arcade Fire comes to signify a time or spirit. Coheed didn’t have that “break” moment because they don’t do that. I actually think that makes them easier to connect with in the long run but ultimately less known. (The National kind of defy this logic, but bless them for it). Coheed is never going to be headlining a festival, for instance, but they’ll always play to a full and invested audience.

 

One thought on “Baumann and Burch Conversations #10: Coheed and Cambria

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