When Coheed and Cambria dropped their eighth album The Color Before The Sun in 2015, they made some pretty shocking waves among their incredibly rabid fanbase by giving their conceptual Amory Wars universe a hiatus. Frontman and primary songwriter Claudio Sanchez instead brought to the table some deeply personal tracks about love, his family, and his take on being at the helm of such a longstanding rock establishment without the pretense of hiding his thoughts and feelings behind characters and plot beats. This experiment went well enough; the record had some of the band’s most heartfelt material and provided more than a few Coheed classics, but the desire for more science fiction lore and progressive rock cheese was felt by basically everyone.
Three years on, and Coheed and Cambria have returned with a massive new chapter in the Amory Wars saga, Vaxis — Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures. Following the events of Good Apollo and “The Great Crash,” there appears to be no more Fence holding the universe together, and in the vastness of space exists an interplanetary prison called The Dark Sentencer. Here, the story of Unheavenly Creatures unfolds as two lovers attempt to break out following a heist gone wrong. It is hoped that the high concept would inspire the band to musical and lyrical heights, and if one were to trust leading single and opening banger “The Dark Sentencer,” it would appear that this is exactly what we were getting.
Not quite, but it’s still pretty great.
Tracks like “Love Protocol” and “Old Flames” (which is essentially a My Chemical Romance track) offer some fun if not standard pop-punk-isms that counterbalance the prog leanings while providing a blueprint for Coheed’s sound on Unheavnly Creatures. The title track provides twists to this poppy Coheed sound thanks to some playful dynamic, melodrama, and prominent use of synths. “The Pavillion (A Long Way Back)” is a touching song that utilizes some orchestral flair to amplify its emotional weight. Fans of Coheed classic pop anthem “A Favor House Atlantic” and more recent tracks such as “Atlas” or “Here To Mars” are sure to find much to latch onto on Unheavenly Creatures, though this more grounded Coheed sound is what is most prominent across the record.
As fun as the pop rock songs are, it’s hardly a controversial opinion that Coheed and Cambria are their best selves in the context of their progressive, experimental, or aggressive tendencies. Lead single “The Dark Sentencer” was a hugely positive omen, hearkening back to the band’s showier songs like “Welcome Home” and “Domino The Destitute” with its angular riffing, epic guitar soloing, and broader cinematic scope. Although not as flashy, “Toys” goes hard with jarring rhythms and scratchy lead guitars. “All On Fire” is one of the album’s brightest highlights, with a particularly nasty verse riff, and bolstered by haunting piano in its second half.
“The Gutter” is a defiant prog rock jam that features stellar nods to Queen in its grandiose bridge with its soaring guitar and vocal harmonies. Ending track “Lucky Stars” is a vulnerable acoustic track that briefly evolves into a Pink Floyd solo section, which automatically qualifies it as the most effective acoustic Coheed track since Good Apollo‘s “Wake Up.” Experimental cut “Night-Time Walkers” is a dark and somber synth-heavy track that borrows from the retrowave movement and has a brief moment wherein Claudio takes up vocoder, which kind of works in the context of the science fiction concept, but tends to get by on its novelty.
It’s easy to want to be disappointed due to the bait and switch brought upon by “The Dark Sentencer” and the relatively low ratio of exhilarating prog to pop rock anthems, but the album’s replayability and the quality of the songs easily make up for it. At a whopping 80-minutes, one would think that the album would collapse under its own weight due to listening fatigue, but it doesn’t. One could argue that certain tracks could have been cut for time, but there are no tracks outside of “Prologue” that are as immediately skippable as dreck like The Afterman’s “Iron Fist” or The Color Before The Sun’s “Young Love.”
Unheavenly Creatures isn’t a prog metal opus with dizzying solos and intricate riffs on every corner (you get three or four whole solos across fifteen tracks on the record, depending on what “counts”), nor is it as experimental and diverse as Afterman (sorry, no Wham! or post-rock influence here), but it’s still a well-crafted record that corrects some of the mistakes made on Color. Most importantly, it’s completely satisfying as a long-time fan and packed with required listening in the context of the broader Coheed discography. Its highs aren’t as high, nor are its lows as low, but Unheavenly Creatures is more of what we were looking for.
Vaxis — Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures is out now on Roadrunner Records. You can purchase the record anywhere music is sold.