Returning to action after a two year break since 2010’s ‘year of the black rainbow’, progressive rock titans Coheed and Cambria are back with a typically ambitious two part epic in the form of ‘Afterman: Ascension’ (to be followed next year by its counterpart ‘Afterman: Descension’). A nine track voyage into helium voiced progressive rock, employing elements of hardcore, awkward time-signatures and a typically convoluted plot following the Amory Wars, ‘Afterman’ is a triumph of ambition over commercialism, and it is once again remarkable to see a band so thoroughly un-commercial flirting with the mainstream whilst simultaneously refusing to compromise on the oblique musical elements that made them popular in the first place.
Take first single, and the album’s second track following a brief introduction, ‘Key Entity Extraction I Domino The Destitute’ which juxtaposes Claudio Sanchez’s unusual vocals against a backdrop of furiously awkward time signatures, samples and crunching guitars. At near eight minutes it is a lengthy track that makes utmost use of its duration by flowing through a complex number of changes and moods, the band cleverly developing a key melody that runs through the track despite its depth and obfuscation, and the closing bars are as heavy and exciting a close as you could wish, the track giving way to the rippling title track which bizarrely sits somewhere between U2 and the Flaming Lips. ‘Mothers of men’ sees the band head off in a rockier direction, the opening riff recalling Van Halen before Josh Eppard’s insanely convoluted percussion takes the track off in a completely different direction, the verse a wealth of syncopated rhythms and trippy guitars, standing in contrast to the heavier, more straight-forward chorus. It is notable that the band’s skill lies largely in making something so intrinsically complicated sound so accessible – the result being that the album is both instantly enjoyable, and yet appreciable in greater depth, the more you take the time to absorb its many nuances.
Perhaps the oddest track on the record (and it has many contenders) is ‘goodnight fair lady’ which is reminiscent of Everclear covering Paul Simon if one can imagine such a colourful cultural collision. It has a bouncy beat, a characteristically energetic delivery and it would make an ideal single with its upbeat melody. ‘Key Entity Extraction II Hollywood the cracked’ gets things back on to an even keel with a smart, grinding guitar riff underpinning an infinitely darker tone that has shades of System of a down and Foo Fighters shot through its bile-strewn make-up. It’s evil delivery and atonal riffs make it a personal favourite and even when a star-struck chorus bounces into view it cannot sweeten the tone too much from the earlier, malicious intent. Josh Eppard, meanwhile, takes every opportunity to stake his claim as one of the finest drummers in rock and there are few sticksmen as will fully inventive when it comes to providing the backdrop for such a superficially straightforward rocking number. ‘Key entity extraction III Vic the butcher’ appears out of the reverberating noise and echoing voices that round out its predecessor, the riff spinning around the heavy, almost industrial-sounding drums. It’s another highlight, the band sounding more vitriolic, more energetic and more enthused than in some time, the storyline and line-up changes clearly pushing the band to explore the very limits of their not inconsiderable talents. ‘Key entity extraction IV Evagria the faithful’ is, without a doubt, the most unusual song here (alongside ‘goodnight fair lady’), with its cyclical introduction leading into a vocal that can most easily be compared to Michael Jackson’s breathy delivery. It showcases the vast breadth of Coheed’s influences, and as the jazzy drums kick in you start to see just how innovative their approach to music making is. The song edges into pure progressive territory as it moves through its various moods, the music as hard to define as the glimmer of light caught from a crystal – shifting and changing every time you try to recapture that original glimpse. The grand finale of this first part (the second half of the story is due out in the February of 2013) is ‘subtraction’ and it sounds, somewhat inconceivably, like a cross between Depeche Mode, Belle and Sebastian and The Eels – and you’re left wondering how on earth the band are going to top this album in terms of pure invention.
Coheed and Cambria are that rarest of acts – a band that have carved out their own path in the music industry, scoring major label success with music that is so far removed from concepts of commerciality that it’s remarkable it ever crossed into the mainstream. That they have had such a level of success demonstrates both the band’s remarkable musicianship and grasp of melody as well as the industry’s continual failure to grasp that music fans out there want to be challenged by original, talented artists, not sub-karaoke X factor finalists and it is both refreshing and heartening to see acts such as Coheed and Cambria garner the recognition they deserve for their invaluable contribution to the world of music. Odd, intense and often exciting, ‘Afterman: Ascension’ is a fascinating and intelligent offering from a band who just continue to get better.