New Jersey post-hardcore turned prog-infused pop punk giants Coheed & Cambria need no introduction at this point in their career, but for the sake of formality, this outfit, lead by guitarist, singer, and songwriter Claudio Sanchez, have weaved within their blend of catchy and Rush-ified discography of rock bangers a sci-fi epic entitled The Amory Wars that’s ever expanding outward in all directions with (mostly) each new record. It’s mostly incomprehensible without supplemental materials, but to recap as reductively as possible: a scientist finds heaven, folks want to use it as an energy source, and war breaks out. Then the story gets a little too meta and the creator of this whole story (god?!) kills his girlfriend and talks to his bike? Like I said, it’s mostly incomprehensible. The double album about that scientist (The Afterman) is the best bit, though.
The latest arc from within the Amory Wars is a planned five part “Vaxis” series, the first of which, 2018’s The Unheavenly Creatures, saw the meeting of two criminals in a space prison. They’d go on to have a son named Vaxis. He’s teased as an important figure in the story, and we finally get to learn more about this child on A Window of the Waking Mind, four years later. In it, Vaxis is painted as someone imprisoned in his own mind. In interviews, Claudio has hinted at Vaxis being potentially autistic and researching the subject to make sure he got it right. The particulars of the story remain unknown for now, and the lyrics don’t make the story particularly clear on their own, but even through the labyrinthine deep lore attached to Coheed, their music has always had something interesting going on, with a genre-agnostic approach to songwriting which is even more evident on this album.
Musically, perhaps in true storytelling fashion, the album feels as though it’s divided into three distinct movements. In the record’s opening moments, we’re treated with a triumphant and ethereal reprise of the chorus of “Old Flames” from the previous record setting the tone. “Beautiful Losers” is a massive Coheed power ballad; textbook, in a good way. “Comatose” is an easy highlight for the record, and is a masterstroke of pop punk songwriting from Claudio, bursting at the seams with hooks. “Shoulders” is a funk metal masterpiece as well, recalling the grooving guitar acrobatics and vocal swagger of Living Colour‘s “Cult of Personality.” As far as Coheed albums go, we’ve not seen a stronger start.
But this second act that follows with “A Disappearing Act” on through a lion’s share of the record is a mixed bag of experiments with electronic dance music, pop, and Claudio’s voice dripping with autotune. It’s jarring. One one hand, Claudio’s confidence and faith that their audience would follow them through these vignettes of glossy and cybernetic midtempo pop rock isn’t exactly unprecedented; his Prize Fighter Inferno project dabbled with these sounds before, and Coheed itself as a larger entity has been playing with genre from the very beginning. On the other hand, the fact that this side of the record was largely hidden from the pre-release singles may read as nefarious.
Coheed’s turn with dance pop is ambitious and risky, and mostly pays off. The aforementioned “A Disappearing Act” leans into the gimmick fully with pumping rave synths and vocoder, and could only be heard to be believed. It feels like something you could imagine Devin Townsend pulling off during the Epicloud era. The song being well-written and engaging helps the medicine go down. “Love Murder One” is imbalanced but a grower, and makes up for a middling chorus with an intricate verse with technical bass and drum performances. “Blood” creates a sinkhole as the centerpiece of Vaxis II with more autotuned down-tempo pop balladry, but digs back out with the single “The Liars Club,” which in hindsight subtly forecasted the album’s duality of rock and electronica with its heavy use and vocal processing in the verses, albeit more balanced with arena-sized power chords and vocals hooks in the chorus.
“Bad Love” goes full-on back into electronica with 80’s synthesizers and even more autotune from Claudio, but works quite well as a Coheed song, buoyed by a commanding percussive performance that borrows from Phil Collins and has a mean groove. “Our Love” ends this stretch of the record with sparse atmospheric synthesizers and plinky guitars backing Claudio’s heartfelt crooning, “let’s take a chance on forever / won’t surrender to the odds against us” and another reprisal of the “Old Flames” pianos.
The final third of the record feels much more epic and progressive. “Ladders of Supremacy” borrows the same energy from Vaxis I album opener “The Dark Sentencer” with the exact type of intergalactic and theatrical prog that many fans on this side of the Coheed audience have been eagerly waiting for. The track sets up themes that would pay off in the early single “Rise, Naianasha (Cut The Cord),” with the tracks even flowing seamlessly into each other as if they were written as one piece. Finale “Window of the Waking Mind” is an eight minute prog epic that goes pulls inspiration from the likes of Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, and Queen alike. The track’s final moments feature a bouncy Broadway swing backing Claudio’s words, “I’m telling you boy, it’s okay to cry,” for a beautiful and haunting end. Credits roll to gorgeous orchestral reprisal of “Old Flames.”
Imbalanced as it is, there’s loads to love about Vaxis II: A Window of the Waking Mind, and the record mostly works, delivering some of the highest highs (and middest mids) of Coheed & Cambria since the Afterman records; even those records had must-skips like “Iron Fist”. New Coheed is always a reason for celebration, and there’s no shortage of absolute bangers on board here that are already cemented as all-time greats. Some fans may feel burned by the decision to hide away the massive stylistic risks taken at the album’s center, and the brilliant finale may certainly leave some listeners wanting for the record that this could have been. Perhaps too much time was spent noodling on keyboards and playing with vocoder patches. It can’t be easy writing for Coheed, that’s for sure; I can’t think of a band with a more diverse and intersectional audience, and pleasing them all has to be tough. To be sure, this one might just alienate as much as it does please that fickle crowd, but if you don’t like it, it’s okay to cry.
Coheed & Cambria’s Vaxis II: A Window of the Waking Mind is out June 24th, 2022 via Roadrunner Records. Pre-orders are available at this location.