Welcome friends to the second act of a two act show starring the confusing cast of Coheed and Cambria’s multi-album opus featuring The Afterman. I don’t know who he is and neither do you (nerd alert: actually it’s Sirius Amory, who is but one cog in the vast Amory Wars saga). Luckily we get to spend the next year or so speculating on what exactly the lyrics mean, if we care enough to do so, but until then we are left with nine tracks of music that move at a brisk pace, to say the least. To sum up the album in one story-related word, it is stellar (I shall now commit seppuku out of embarrassment for using such a miserable pun).
When I fired up the album, I was pleasantly greeted with a first track, “Pretelethal”, which consisted of something more than story-driven dialogue, usually a staple of Coheed and Cambria albums. I almost by reflex skip the first track for this reason, but the oscillating reverb of a guitar backed by a plucking mandolin gave me halt, Claudio Sanchez’s ethereal falsetto faded in and then the crash of drums created a very epic atmosphere. Hook sunk.
Months ago, I mentioned a very clear trajectory of energy in The Afterman: Ascension, and this follows. The Afterman: Descension begins hard and heavy and then pumps the brakes slowly into exactly what Coheed and Cambria promised, a descent. From song to song, energy is conserved and concentrated on more complex sounds that are familiar enough to be Coheed, but more varied than sounds in the past; one reason Descension may trump Ascension. I felt Descension harkened back to the more surprising and dynamic Second State Turbine Blade of Coheed youth. I would argue Descension is more of a true progressive rock album than some of the others they have produced.
Coheed and Cambria have always done a relatively good job of writing lyrics that cover normal subjects on the surface, but hold a second more direct meaning related to their science fiction story. The two have done a miraculous job of coexisting in the past and there is little difference in this album. It’s what makes Coheed somewhat radio-friendly, I guarantee most people that know only their radio-popular songs have no idea that the 2003 smash hit: “A Favor House Atlantic” is about a betrayal at a space base, a change of heart, an escape, and the lines: good eye sniper//now I shoot, you run// is literally about a sniper providing cover fire for the escape. Yup. Why am I mentioning this? Because I know this, and it has forever warped my interpretation of Coheed and Cambria lyrics. Allow me to explain.
One of the best songs on Descension is “The Hard Sell”, an early track with violent bass drums and deep guitar chords that really hammers on your skull. That’s a good thing. The chorus screams: ‘Cause there’s only one of me//And too many of you fighting over nothing//Oh, there’s never enough cool for everyone//And before you know it you’re selling out to be in//. Deep stuff, right? Maybe, because the only thing I could think, knowing Coheed’s track record (which includes zombie-like beings, spirits, angel-things, robots and the like) is that “cool” is the name of some sort of difficult-to-produce serum that stops people from becoming zombies. So this is some science-man trying to produce enough “cool” to satisfy the masses, and people are double-crossing everyone they know to get their hands on the serum. Is that really the meaning? Absolutely not, but what can a fan of Coheed be expected to believe when they’ve accidentally tried to understand the convoluted story in the past? In fact, I’ve already infected my best friend with this theory to the point where he believes it. And why the hell not?
So, why did I tell you this story? Because it made me laugh, that’s why. But also because my friend, who up to that moment felt this album was far superior to Ascension had not considered that possibility, but still felt that although this lyric-theory is completely ridiculous, it would not stop him from loving this song. I have to admit I do not disagree. Lyrics aside, “The Hard Sell” is a standout and only adds to its merit by dropping into some very Pink Floyd-David-Gilmour-Another-Brick-in-the-Wall-style guitar work throughout. In fact, the first half of the album has a very electric guitar-oriented sound akin to their 2005 full length release, Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness, meaning concentrated blues-style guitar breakdowns and solos bubble up regularly.
The Afterman: Descension winds it way down from there and along the way we’re offered “Number City”, a Coheed track the caught me almost completely off guard. It starts off sounding like a Nine Inch Nails song, that familiar two beat per measure heavy industrial electronica sound that morphs into a welcome and familiar Coheed and Cambria cheer song but this time backed by a spirited brass band. Brass. It’s a very unique Coheed song, something I’m interested in listening to. It feels a little 80’s R&B too. There’s so much going on and I doubt there is any coincidence that it falls at the halfway point of the album. Like a symbol from a Murakami tale, it signals a very real change in the subject from something that will be visited less and less until it is completely transformed. Okay, it’s probably not that deep, but it’s something like that.
A final highlight of the album, which nicely bookends the descent into a calmer sound and tempo is “Dark Side of Me”. It’s the kind of song that is difficult to quantify why it’s so enjoyable. It is deliberately paced; as far as I can tell there are no particularly unique instruments and the lyrics hold few obvious clues about its sub story. Nothing that would immediately jump out and smack me in the face for better or for worse either. Okay, so it’s full of poppy hooks you say? Perhaps. But there’s more to this song than wooing Casey Casem. I think I’ve settled on believing that I really enjoy this song because it is full of heart. Sanchez’s singing is believable; when his voice strains you believe he means it. It’s serene and emotional. I’m not used to a legitimately emotional Coheed and Cambria. Yes, they gained their popularity during the emo days, but they were never emo and it’s sad that they are often lumped in with the vanguards of that genre because they sold a lot of records during the height of a categorically ambiguous scene. It makes me wonder how much of the band’s personal life bleeds into their fictional universe. To sense some feeling from the band is nice and places a very satisfying full stop on the story. It is exciting to think of where Coheed and Cambria will head next musically and with the range they’ve shown in this Afterman: Ascension and Descension combination of albums I doubt it will be boring.