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Planet rock
Coheed and Cambria refuse to come down to Earth
BY MIKAEL WOOD
Related Links

Coheed and Cambria's official Web site

Sean Richardson reviews Coheed and Cambria's The Second Stage Turbine Blade.

Carly Carioli reviews Coheed and Cambria at Avalon in 2003.

Sean Richardson reviews Coheed and Cambria's In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3.

The emo explosion thatís dominated young rock for the last couple of years has ushered plenty of bands from the underground to the mainstream, and many have seemed well-equipped for the ride. Despite their heart-on-sleeve lyrics, the All-American Rejects write supersweet pop songs any Sugar Ray fan could dig. Dashboard Confessional are fronted by a pompadoured heartthrob made for MTV. My Chemical Romance have a sense of style thatís endeared them to listeners who speak arena rock without alienating their grungy mosh-pit constituency.

Still, itís difficult to imagine at least one beneficiary of the emo boom ó upstate New Yorkís Coheed and Cambria, who play a sold-out show at the Palladium in Worcester this Friday ó inhabiting the major-label arena-rock world they currently travel in without the widespread interest generated by the cultish world they came from. Coheed play complex emo prog saturated with obscure (and often self-invented) sci-fi references and complicated instrumental passages and song titles that read like excerpts from the minutes of a sparsely attended Chemistry Club meeting.

The bandís new album is called ó deep breath ó Good Apollo, Iím Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness (Columbia), and though it has the numbers one and four in the title, itís actually Coheedís third full-length. Like the other two, it tells part of a tortuous tale centered on two characters named Coheed and Cambria whose universe is nearly as heady as the bandís. According to singer/guitarist Claudio Sanchez, that world consists of 78 planets (including Silent Earth), a sun-like apparatus called the Keywork, and a small army of creatures dubbed I-Robots. Coheed and Cambria (the characters) have a brother named Inferno and a son named Claudio who may or may not be the wild-haired fellow who leads this band.

In other words, this is not exactly the stuff of hit singles. Except that somehow it is. The week after its release in September, Good Apollo debuted at #7 on Billboardís 200 chart, having moved 84,000 copies in its first seven days. And Coheedís second album, In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3, has sold about half a million copies since its release late in 2003. (These guys are determined to title their albums with confusing numbers; their 2002 debut was The Second Stage Turbine Blade.)

On the phone from a tour stop in Jacksonville, the 27-year-old Sanchez concedes that Coheed make for an unlikely mainstream rock success story. "We do a little something different," he laughs, his voice slightly weary from the ravages of the road. "I thought from day one that it was a little hard to swallow. But the thing that kind of keeps me at bay is that some of the songs we write are just kind of short, concise rock songs that might have a chance at radio or things like that."

Heís right: though it concludes with an ambitious four-part suite called "The Willing Well," Good Apollo does feature some of the most direct, accessible music yet made by Coheed, whose line-up also includes guitarist Travis Stever, bassist Michael Todd, and drummer Josh Eppard. "Welcome Home" and "The Suffering," the discís two big singles, are powerful examples of what the band can do when they rein in their most extreme tendencies; the latter even features a radio-ready mix by hard-rock hitmaker Andy Wallace, who mixed Nirvanaís Nevermind. These tunes marry the bandís predilection for intricately layered guitars and inventive song structures to a bright pop sensibility theyíve only hinted at in the past. Like City of Evil, this yearís album by the over-the-top Orange County goth-metal act Avenged Sevenfold, the stuff is hard, but itís catchy, too. (Not that weíre in entirely safe territory: "You stormed off to scar the armada," Sanchez sings in "Welcome Home," and then continues, "Like Jesus played letter, Iíll drill through your hands.")

Good Apollo also has two killer ballads, "Always & Never," which includes the overdubbed voice of a child at play, and "Wake Up," which has a couplet that attests to Sanchezís ability to draw a listener into his private sphere: "Iíll do anything for you/Kill anyone for you." (Both tracks give credence to his claim that beyond "the old classics that I was brought up on," he mostly listens to "folky stuff ó Sufjan Stevens, Devendra Banhart, stuff like that.") Itís easy to imagine "Wake Up," with its tasteful string arrangement and Steverís buttery lap steel, on a prom-night episode of The OC or Laguna Beach; itís also easy to imagine it as the kind of thing old-school Coheed fans would take as evidence of the bandís selling out to major-label demands. (They signed to Columbia last year.) Yet Sanchez says that the audience the band have built through touring and through word of mouth "kind of expect that from us. Theyíve seen us do the ĎEvening with Coheed and Cambria,í where we play an acoustic set and then do the electric set. I think that fans of our band, they were expecting a little of that on this record."

He adds that Coheed did a serious cost-benefit analysis before inking the Columbia deal and that they werenít really looking to blow up into a huge band: "When I think of success, I donít necessarily think of platinum records." Nevertheless, he recalls that In Keeping Secrets, which was released by the Albany-based indie Equal Vision before Columbia reissued it last year, debuted in Billboard at #52, a far cry from Apolloís entrance but enough to attract A&R scouts from a handful of major labels. "At first the band was very hesitant," he says of the offers that started coming Coheedís way. "We werenít sure that was what we wanted to do."

Where did the hesitation come from? "You know, just the horror stories you hear about major labels. But I think that we were smart enough. The deal we constructed was in our favor, and I think Columbia also understood the band that they were signing ó that this was Coheed and Cambria and wasnít Band A thatís going to churn out a bunch of pop songs and hope that one of them makes it."

Sanchez credits the bandís Columbia A&R liaison, Matt Pinfield, with understanding their careful balance of role-playing fantasy and power-chord slash. "The change was pretty seamless, I guess. They didnít really bother us while we were making the record. And then when we gave them the record, to our surprise, they were floored and they were all for it. You always hear about bands turning in a record and all of a sudden the labelís coming back at them: ĎThereís nothing here for us to work with. Can you please go back and do something that does?í That wasnít the case for us."

Which in a twist appropriate for a band devoted to singing about dark lords and otherworldly heroes leaves Coheed as the masters of their own fate. Sanchez wouldnít have it any other way.

Coheed and Cambria + Dredg + Blood Brothers | Palladium, 261 Main St, Worcester | Nov 11 | 617.931.2000 [sold out]

 


Issue Date: November 11 - 17, 2005
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