Tag Archives: coheed and cambria

Man Your Own Jackhammers

Over the years I’ve had to explain the appeal of Yes, Rush and Phish to various music fans, not always from the stance of an apologist but usually in answer to “Why do you listen to that?” When I mention Coheed and Cambria, add in “Who are they?”

The answers flow freely from a mix of outstanding musicianship, intense live performances, creative composition that breaks out of the 1-2-3-4 rock box, and a near Talmudic scholar depth to lyrical interpretation. To be fair, it took me about three months to truly appreciate Coheed and Cambria’s catalog, having found a seat on the fence (sorry) just as their fifth and subject-of-debate album, “Year of the Black Rainbow” was released. Coheed’s canon (first five, and first seven if you count the pre-prequel “Afterman” albums) convey a Herbert-detail level space opera with killer viruses, intergalactic despots, robots, love, betrayal, redemption, and battle. Set it all to insanely complex composition and that’s Coheed in a nutshell.

Disassemble it a bit and you’ll find traces of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” books, “Star Wars,” Greg Bear, Robert Heinlein, and La Boheme. Were I to teach a college course in operatic sci-fi, the background reading would be John Scalzi’s “Redshirts” (ref: The Writing Writer in Good Apollo), Greg Bear’s “Darwin’s Radio” (ref: Monstar virus and a visceral background for “The Broken”), Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” (ref: trust and relationships, the Jesse character in the Amory Wars), Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” (ref: recycled personalities in times of crisis, Coheed and Cambria themselves), and Frank Herbert’s original “Dune” (ref: loyalty, fealty, assassination under duress — Dr Uwe in Dune, the creation of the Monstar virus and eventually “Pearl of the Stars”). When I hear the “Man your own jackhammers” chorus of “In Keeping Secrets,” my mind goes to the Fremen/House Harkonnen battle in “Dune”, where the desert army reclaims their stronghold with primitive yet functional weapons.

It’s that chorus, the quintessential bit of obscure lyricism coupled with outrageous riff, that captures why I love Coheed and Cambria: seeing them live. You will never find a more intense and informed group of fans who are equally rocking out yet respectful of their fellow concert goers. Despite being packed three thousand deep on the floor of Terminal 5, there was absolutely no bad behavior – no elbows, no shoving, no copious quantities of spilled beer or anything else gnarly – just lots of what Claudio Sanchez called “Coheed karaoke.” When you look slightly left, catch the eye of someone 30 years your junior whose first thought is likely “What’s the old guy doing here” followed by “Oh, he knows the song” and you both go back to belting out the chorus, you’re inflated by the same feeling as seeing a touchdown in the Super Bowl or a goal in the Stanley Cup Finals. These are your unnamed yet contextually well known friends, the world’s best seat mates for the few hour journey that stimulates whatever deep visual, aural and olfactory memories you associate with the music.

Each Coheed show is slightly different; each solo, each interpretation, each choice of when to let the audience sing or to lead from the front of stage. At the break between the “album part” of the show and the encores, front man Claudio Sanchez offered two sincere explanations – first, that the entire band was sick (you wouldn’t know from the previous 90 minutes of music, another testament to their work ethic and musicianship) and second, that the voice of the little girl on “Good Apollo” was his (then) three year old niece, at a time when he was far from fatherhood himself. Ten years later, his niece was on the stage side, enjoying the show, Claudio talked about life on the road and missing his own son, and the show resonated with any number of us in any number of new ways. This is the future of music: outstanding performance and authentic presence.

Quadrennial House Guest Reflection

One of my favorite images of Hanukah is that of the house guest that visits you for a week, during which you indulge in foods and celebration. For years, I’ve felt the end of Hanukah tinged with sadness, as I pack away the special menorot and candles, putting away the equivalent of our house guest’s trappings for another year. A similar, but different, feeling applies to the Olympics. Staggering the winter and summer games has made their two week run feel less like a leap year or Presidential election and more like a much anticipated book or album release. However, there’s still the feeling that you’re living with a long-cycle periodic house guest who holds up a mirror for you to check in on how things have progressed. Or not.

We see ourselves in the Summer Games more than the winter episode because anyone who has run around outside, glided on a swingset, hung from a playground climbing set, kicked a ball or jumped in the water has visions of being the best, the fastest, the first of some unique aspect to ascend that podium. The Summer Olympics appeal to our first and best outdoor childhood instincts.

We need to measure how we, as a nation, show up. Are we respectful of the host country, its norms and people and food and culture, or do we vandalize a local business and lie about it? And then as a country, do we fail to ask for accountability of those chosen (and funded) to represent us? Not just in their actions, but in how they participate, cheer for their teammates, and how they comport themselves in and around other athletes (good: men’s basketball team cheering for swimming; bad: same team staying on a luxury yacht)

We need to let the stories tell themselves, rather than having NBC spoon fed us tape delayed highlights and heavily produced segments. One of the highlights for me was seeing runner Brenda Martinez sporting a Coheed and Cambria tattoo, which she later acknowledged to fellow fans. On Twitter. That bit about seeing yourself in the games? Works for us old people too. She overcame incredible adversity, trained in basketball shoes, and has given back to her sport immensely. There’s a hero of the games who doesn’t need a medal to earn our admiration, and has done more to tell her story with authenticity than any professional sportscaster.

We need to realize that the athletes representing our country are projection of our demographics and diversity, and to treat our country’s team with respect, equality, and a little bit of “all nations but mostly America” pride (to quote Muppet Sam The Eagle). If we go looking for every fault with those we’ve put on the international stage, how can we achieve anything with our neighbors and co-workers who represent those same changing demographics. It’s not just gender and skin color and religion and body shape; it’s style and approach and geography and public comfort. I’m sometimes amazed that Bill Walton became an outstanding basketball commentator after learning how to work with his stutter; had internet trolls existed to shame him in his early interviews then we would have lost the opportunity to hear a jocular and informed voice. Why on earth do we even consider shaming those who have represented us so well on the world stage, for their actions in cheering teammates, receiving honors, or excelling in their sports that require strength and agility composited with poise and character in any shape or color of body?

If the Summer Olympics are our house guest, here to reflect our collective and individual behaviors, let them show the best of mature adult as well as dreaming child.

Perfectly Named Strangers: Pinchot Reads Doctorow

Short form: Bronson Pinchot, widely acclaimed and (vocally) prolific audio book narrator, picks up Cory Doctorow’s “Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town” in an unedited, 11+ hour DRM-free audiobook. That’s one great week of commuting time this gnarly winter for less than the cost of half a tank of gas.

Long form: SCTTSLT is probably Doctorow’s strangest novel but one of my favorites. It’s ten years old, and still deliciously off-center. You have to experience it knowing that all of the characters with alliterated first names are the same; you have to listen deeply to get into the symbolism. It’s weird, and it’s reflectively weird if you are a first or second generation immigrant to the West. One of the insights Cory shared with me years ago was that he chose the flexible naming conventions because it seemed the Russian immigrant generation in his family used so many names to refer to the same person, and the foreign family member stand-ins (stacking dolls and washing machine, for example) conveyed that same rough sense of being in a foreign land. If you can’t envision a washing machine as a maternal metaphor, go re-listen to “Do You Love Me?” from “Fiddler on the Roof.” If matryoshka dolls don’t resonate as siblings, you don’t have (or are not) a middle child in the family. And if the alliterative nicknames don’t work, pick up your Dostoevsky (ideally, “Crime and Punishment”) again. The Russian force is strong with this one.

In the art-life transverse universe: People of roughly my age remember Bronson Pinchot as Balki from “Perfect Strangers,” a strangely setup TV sitcom about a Greek immigrant to Chicago and the foreign interpretation of his somewhat appealing naivety. It makes the narration seem all the more appropriate, although there isn’t even a tenuous connection between the choice of narrator and his previous small screen credits.

Tangential but completely unrelated music reference: Mimi’s wings (and their scarred history) and her role as creative forcing function remind me of Prise Ambellina from the Coheed & Cambria Amory Wars universe. The cover for Downpour’s audio book of SCTTSLT is eerily similar to Coheed posters from their first four albums.

Pairings: “Darwin’s Radio” and “Year Of The Black Rainbow”

This was the genesis of the pairings idea — while listening to “The Broken” on Coheed and Cambria’s “Year Of The Black Rainbow,” my first thought was of Greg Bear’s spectacular near-future sci-fi books about human speciation, “Darwin’s Radio” and “Darwin’s Children.” Most of the story of the Monstar virus is told through the first CoCa album “Second Stage Turbine Blade,” but the history of the virus, and its nefarious intents, are really covered in depth in YOTBR.

Claudio Sanchez’s writing in the Amory Wars storylines veers more into the Replicant-versus-human or Terminator-versus-human storylines of “Blade Runner” and the “Terminator” series, questioning how we know whether someone is good or evil, and whether we identify with them as human or not through their actions and not purely carbon, silicon, or metallic attributes. Greg Bear puts a slightly different spin on the question, asking when homo sapiens evolves into a new species, and how the current definition of “human” will react to this divergence, threat or evolutionary splinter. Both ask highly moral questions about survival of a species versus survival of a few individuals, modulated by the requisite evil government entities.