Music Review: Coheed and Cambria, Vaxis—Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures (2018)

Coheed and Cambria are gigantic nerds, which partially explains why I like them so much. It also helps that they write killer riffs and have a knack for melody.

Guitarist, lead vocalist, and songwriter Claudio Sanchez seems like a cool enough guy. He has excellent Sideshow Bob hair. Actually, it looks more like King Buzzo‘s. Anyway, he has an excellent high-pitched singing voice that fits this kind of bombastic, operatic, sometimes on-the-nose but always catchy music.

l-r: Zach Cooper, Josh Eppard, Claudio Sanchez, Travis Stever

Coheed, as they’re called for short, play hard, progressive rock. Though they have many influences, there’s not a lot of genre-bending here. They are a rock band, full stop. Which is good. Coheed knows what they do, and deliver. I like how they sample from a variety of decades and aesthetics across American popular music, equal parts Led Zeppelin, Michael Jackson, and Judas Priest.

Imagine 60s hard rock, 70s prog, 80s pop and new wave, 90s alternative, and 00s emo for an idea of what to expect. Now graft Geddy Lee-esque vocals and guitar heroics on top of that, with songs that veer from brutally heavy to almost too sweetly poppy, and you’re starting to get the picture. If this sounds like your cup of tea, then you’ll probably enjoy their ninth studio album, the preposterously titled Vaxis–Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures.

I am excited by the “Act I” part, because it implies that more is coming.

So there’s a space-faring, science-fiction story to Coheed’s music that spans every single song on every single album save 2015’s The Color Before the Sun. That album is what I personally consider their weakest, so I’m not saying that correlation equals causation, but it probably does here. So the story: I really don’t care about it because it’s super-confusing . . . and I LIKE sci-fi!

So what about the songs? The notes? The Unheavenly Creatures serves up that signature Coheed sound–rhythmically terse riffs with lead guitarist Travis Stever offering sparkling, spidery counterpoint above it, all stitched together by Zach Cooper’s bass and Josh Eppard’s drums.

Before I get to the actual notes involved, three more musicological points to make:

  1. Coheed can really play. They may be one of the most technically accomplished mainstream rock bands out there, but they don’t overdo their shops and instead use them in service of their songs. Kind of like Rush.
  2. Cooper is not the band’s original bassist, but replaced founding member Mic Todd after his arrest for illegal narcotics and attempting to rob a Walgreens in Attleboro, Massachusetts in 2011. He was replaced by Wes Styles for the remainder of the tour, before bringing Cooper on as a permanent member in time for the writing and recording of 2012’s excellent The Afterman: Ascension. Cooper plays very differently from Todd–where Todd favored a more trebly tone and aggressive playing style, Cooper is more of a traditional bass player, with a fuller, rounder tone coaxed out of Fender P-Bass. And it works. Cooper’s playing is melodically and rhythmically interesting and has not affected the quality of Coheed’s music, but it has changed the band’s sound from their earlier stuff.
  3. Eppard might be the most underrated drummer in rock. He reminds me of the mighty Mike Bordin from Faith No More–hard-hitting, straightforward parts that are far more interesting and technically advanced than you might think on first blush, with a great sense of timing and a hell of a strong kick drum. Further, like the aforementioned Mr. Bordin, Eppard’s drums just sound good.

So is The Unheavenly Creatures any good? It absolutely is. In fact, it’s a welcome return to form after the lackluster The Color Before the Sun. The songs and riffs there were hooky and all, but they seemed to lack that emotional heft undergirding Coheed’s best work.

The full gatefold album artwork.

Most Coheed albums stick to a formula: A short, sometimes instrumental intro merging into ass-kicking hard rocker. The Unheavenly Creatures is no exception. “Prologue” features bittersweetly mournful piano that gives way to industrial sounds and a spoken word into leading to proper opener “The Dark Sentencer.” “The Dark Sentencer” sounds kind of like The Afterman: Ascension‘s lead track “Key Entity Extraction I: Domino the Destitute,” but never quite explodes into full prog-rock fury like that track It’s restrained, almost a tease, but it works to set the album’s tone; like slipping on a favorite jacket, it lets you know that Coheed has lost none of its edge since their debut in 2002.

The Unheavenly Creatures is a good mix of heavy prog (“The Dark Sentencer,” “Queen of the Dark,” “All on Fire,” “True Ugly,” “Black Sunday,” “It Walks Among Us”), anthemic rockers (“The Pavilion (A Long Way Back),” “Unheavenly Creatures,” “Night-Time Walkers,” “The Gutter”) and unabashed pop (“Toys,” “Love Protocol,” “Old Flames,” “Lucky Stars”). In fact, I’d say the poppier songs are The Unheavenly Creatures’s most successful: “Toys” is a stomping, syncopated shout-along with a killer guitar solo; “Love Protocol” sounds like a lost 80s gem by The Outfield or something, and “Old Flames,” with its ascending chords and its “la la la, la la la”‘s hearkens back to earlier Coheed hits like “A Favor House Atlantic,” “The Running Free,” and “The Suffering.”

Lyrically, The Unheavenly Creautres is, like most of Coheed’s work, tragically romantic, using (I’m assuming) the fate of the characters as proxies for Sanchez’s own feelings and struggles. “So baby, welcome back to the man you’ve been missing, baby, welcome back to confusing, perplexing” he sings on “Old Flames,” while “The Pavilion (A Long Way Back)” is, per Sanchez’s own words, about leaving the band before he found a way to slot it into the overall story:

The glistening wet concrete, the heat off the road
The clamoring hands and the bus you call home
This is it, believe what you want
In this space, I don’t fit
The same day repeats with the things that you see
Dirty dressing room carpets and broken TVs
Is this it?
In this water I’ll tread ’til the day that I’m dead

Not very science-fictioney, and if I cared about the overall story, maybe I’d see how it fits. But as it is, the song, like most of Coheed’s, works on the personal level as well as within the overall concept.

Kind of like “Toys”:

All apologies won’t make things right with you tonight
Oh, can’t you see, as you drag me, I’m your favorite toy?
I’m so sorry but make up your mind, we’re out of time
Oh, mama, please, I’m on my knees, I’m your favorite boy

So if you’re intimidated by the overall Coheed mythos, don’t be. These songs stand on their own divorced from any such context.

The Unheavenly Creatures is long. But here’s another underappreciated aspect about Coheed is that they can release 70-plus minute long album, but it doesn’t feel 70-plus minutes long. In fact, Coheed’s albums always feel like quick listens despite being stuffed full of interesting arrangements and musical ideas. They put a lot of time and attention into every song on every album. I would argue that there’s no filler in their entire catalog. And while The Unheavenly Creatures might not be the best starting point for a new fan (that would be 2005’s equally ridiculously titled Good Apollo I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness), it’s a good album to listen to second.

The Verdict: Very excellent! Almost a masterpiece, in fact. The Unheavenly Creatures will scratch your itch for catchy, straight-ahead melodic prog with just enough left-turns to keep the songs from overstaying their welcome. As usual, Coheed and Cambria balance out their various musical instincts to create a dynamic, unified whole. While not quite hitting the lofty heights of 2003’s In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3, From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness, The Afterman: Ascension, or 2013’s The Afterman: Descension, The Unheavenly Creatures comes close enough to make me eagerly anticipate the promised Act II.

But in the event you can’t get over Sanchez’s voice and the sheer nerdiness of it all (I mean, the cover art has friggin’ spaceships on it!), then ignore everything I said and go listen to Black Sabbath instead, which is generally good life advice.

Listen: “Unheavenly Creatures”

3 comments

  1. I think I’ll take that Black Sabbath advice. 🙂

    I’m good with all the nerditude (it’s always a nice bonus), and these guys are clearly amazing musicians and songwriters — that alone kept me listening to a Coheed mix on YouTube for a good 40 minutes — but I finally had to bow out. I just can’t handle the vocal style.

    I can see why people like this band, though. The Prologue and Dark Sentencer are objectively awesome. I like their new bassist’s sound better than the old; it has more substance. The whole band seems to rock harder.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey fair enough re: Claudio’s vocals. Like people who enjoy Rush’s music but just can’t stand Geddy Lee’s voice, Coheed is much the same. Me, I like it but I completely understand those who don’t!

      Re: bassists, yeah I can see that! Mic Todd had a really cool sound, but it was very trebly the top end tended to get eaten by the guitars. Zach Cooper plays more traditionally in technique and sound (no slapping and tapping), but it gives the band some added depth.

      And unlike a lot of bands who’ve been around some 15 years (man I feel old), Coheed to my ears have only been getting better.

      Still, Black Sabbath rules all.

      Like

      • One last comment I failed to mention in my little write-up: Coheed is also a KILLER live band. I saw them three times in the 2007-2011 period when Mic Todd was still playing bass, but when Josh Eppard took a temporary leave of absence due to alcohol issues and was replaced by Chris Pennie, best known the drummer for Dillinger Escape Plan, and an amazing drummer in his own right.

        Still, I wish I’d had a chance to see the original line-up live. It’s also been WAY too long since I’ve been to one of their shows.

        Like

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