Coheed and Cambria’s “Afterman: Ascension”

If you’ve been on the fence about listening to Coheed & Cambria, because they were too screamo, too sci-fi, too lyrically obscure, too infaturated with punctuation in song titles, too metal-turned-prog-turned metal, or too anything else, give up all preconceptions and give “Afterman: Ascension” a listen. It has a hook for everyone, from long-time child of the fence to the co-curious to the punctilious punctuation fan.

Afterman is the pre-cursor to Year of the Black Rainbow, which was the prequel to the four-part main sequence of lead singer and songwriter Claudio Sanchez’s “Amory Wars” space opera. That designation rejects some listeners out of hand, and it’s unfortunate – Sanchez’s writing is more than spaceship chase and time travel scenes – Coheed’s songs deal with the typical operatic themes of lust, loyalty, lunacy, love, longing, and long-standing guilt and sorrow. Dissecting lyrics and tying them back into the basic story line is a fun sideline, and as the band’s writing and musicanship both stabilized and matured through those first albums, some of these basic human emotions and reactions surface in recongizable form.

Having listening to the album, start to finish, a few times, and with the first-hand experience of last week’s show at Webster Hall to add color commentary, here three distinct recurring thoughts that should suffice as reasons to drop a dime of dollars on the digital download:

  • The cover art makes me think of the Hindu deity Ganesh, the Lord of Beginnings and a composite of many forms, reminiscient of the “Key Entities” conveyed in the album’s core four songs. There is a ton of richness here; Claudio described “Goodnight, Fair Lady” as a “creepy love song” which is tease enough to warrant three or four listens to see where you think it falls.

  • Musically, this may be Coheed’s most adventurous and complex yet. While I love “Willing Well” on Good Apollo for the solos bookended by catchy lyrical phrases, Afterman covers more ground with fewer steps. Josh Eppard’s drumming is propulsive; it’s not the typical double bass drum assault and non-stop splash-n-crash of a metal band, but a steady and creative beat that powers the songs with just enough momentum. You won’t find yourself playing air drums until you think about it, and then you’ll have to work at picking out the good fills.

  • I’ve always liked the idea of picking one theme and tracing its origins back; in this case Coheed is exploring the genesis of Amory before his eponymous conflict. Next closest example I could think of was Kevin J. Anderson writing six prequels to the Dune trilogy, creating a deep, layered backstory to the Butlerian Jihard that is almost a repeating footnote in Frank Herbert’s core trilogy. But Anderson’s six full-length novels are a good read themselves, and stand alone, much like Afterman: Ascension. Fun fact for the prog rockers: Kevin Anderson is the co-author (with Rush drummer Neal Peart) of Clockwork Angels, the read-along novel to the latest Rush release. Since Rush and Coheed get mentioned in the same progressive breath fairly frequently, it felt like a reasonable literary parallel. And if you think some of the life-projected-through-art backdrops are difficult to digest (most of “Good Apollo”, to be specific), pick up John Scalzi’s Redshirts for a more playful take on the same framework, which zeros in on the cast of secondary characters in a Star Trek analog.

But take away all of the storylines and at its heart Afterman is simply a good rock album. Less screaming and shorter solos perhaps make it more accessible, but if that brings more listeners off the sidelines and onto the Fence.

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