Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness

Coheed and Cambria

Equal Vision/Columbia

The first thing you notice is the voice. Like Queen’s Freddie Mercury and Rush’s Geddy Lee, Coheed and Cambria frontman Claudio Sanchez should never have caught on with the sulky, skateboard-riding, and testosterone-charged. Take, for example, his performance on the title track from his group’s gold-certified breakthrough disc, 2003’s In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3. (Yes, that really is the song’s title, as well.) Against a backdrop of mathletic, hammer-on-anvil heavy metal, Sanchez emotes the chorus as if he were a besequined VH1 diva, turning a strange, nerdy couplet—“Man your own jackhammer/Man your battle stations”—into a quasi-operatic display of sexuality-challenging melisma.

“That dude is like an alien,” bassist Michael Todd said in a Silent Earth– era interview with punk-porn Web site Suicide Girls. But the singer/guitarist’s voice is hardly the only aspect of the New York– based band’s sound that should preclude mainstream success. Originally equipped with the frat-tastic name Shabutie, the husky, frequently bearded quartet changed its moniker in 2001 to reflect a new science-fiction-themed direction. Coheed and Cambria’s recordings, you see, are all concept albums about fictional characters Coheed and Cambria, a married couple who attempt to kill their four children after learning that the husband is infected with an inheritable, universe-threatening virus. Can’t follow the story on the records? That’s OK: You can also get it from the Coheed and Cambria comic books.

To no one’s surprise, Coheed and Cambria have been dubbed part of the “new prog” movement, an elite group of high-charting acts that embraces all the tunics-and-Brahms trappings of the ’70s’ most over-the-top musos and also includes System of a Down and the Mars Volta. Sanchez, Coheed and Cambria’s primary songwriter, certainly won’t deny an affinity for the genre. On more than one occasion, the Afro-headed frontman has claimed Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd as influences. And his bandmates are every bit as virtuosically capable as their new-prog peers. But Sanchez & Co. are seldom as willfully obtuse as System of a Down or as jammy and longwinded as the Mars Volta.

Actually, Silent Earth’s excellent first single, “A Favor House Atlantic,” was about as obvious a hit as anything that’s ever been released on a hardcore-leaning indie, three minutes of Ozzfest guitars and Britney-at-13 vocals—which helps explain why the song pretty much lived on MTV’s most-played chart throughout the summer of 2004. Fans of that song will find Coheed and Cambria’s major-label debut, the laboriously titled Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness, even more direct. In fact, Sanchez himself has bragged that a majority of the group’s third long-player is “very straightforward…very smooth.”

That’s not to say the new album is musically simple. The biggest reason Coheed and Cambria have found an audience among both the beards and those struggling to grow them isn’t the comic—it’s that the band has the ability to cram lots and lots of music into a little bit of sonic space. Even Good Apollo’s most radio-ready tracks are so overstuffed with detail that they verge on the baroque. The Led Zeppelin– esque first single “Welcome Home,” for instance, augments its ripped-from-“Kashmir” theme with a string section, tons of pick squeals, and, on the “Whoa, whoa, whoa” fadeout, an entire army of warmongering orcs. Throw in a series of screaming solos courtesy of Sanchez and lead six-stringer Travis Stever, and you’ve got the musical equivalent of an expertly prepared, too-rich foodstuff.

Dense as it is, however, “Welcome Home” is uniformly metallic. And Coheed and Cambria are at their best when cooking with several wildly disparate elements, not with just one. Sadly, many of Good Apollo’s tracks are single-genre exercises, though “Apollo I: The Writing Writer” is a fine example of what got the band recognized in the first place: After a woozy bit of Tangerine Dream– ing, the song turns into a pulse-quickening—and surprisingly cohesive—combo of busy but nuanced funk and chug-and-weave metal. From there, the thing transitions into what any mall rat would recognize as heart-on-sleeve punk rock—or, to use no one’s favorite descriptor, emo.

On past albums, the group has sidestepped the navel-gazing implications of that genre with its Star Wars– on– 11 narrative. This time around, though, Sanchez says that he composed from the perspective of his tale’s narrator—a meta move that, oddly enough, has led to more pedestrian songwriting. On acoustic ballad “Always and Never,” he intones, “I’m still waiting here, my dear/For one kiss from you.” And “Welcome Home” and “Wake Up” both share similar refrains: “I’d do anything for you/One last kiss for you,” he sings in the former; in the latter, “I’ll do anything for you/This story is for you.” Yet one gets a sense of Sanchez’s humanity despite—not because of—his new approach: The writing-on-writing conceit smacks of exhaustion, the need for a temporary release from the shackles of a multialbum narrative. What have I gotten myself into? Sanchez must have asked.

There’s a tiredness in some of the music, too. Sanchez’s more emo lyrics are ignorable enough on the tracks that strike an equilibrium between the mainstream and the underground, such as the Journey– meets– Bad Brains rockers “Crossing the Frame” and “The Suffering.” But wan ballad “Wake Up” suggests nothing so much as one of those saying-goodbye montages from a WB drama. Reggae mistake “Mother May I” comes across like No Doubt minus any sense of swing. And the strings-and-piano instrumental “Keeping the Blade” is simply John Williams lite, an immodest stab at moving-image majesty that should’ve been left on the cutting-room floor.

Granted, it might sound odd to accuse a 71-minute album that culminates with an extended psych jam of being overly accessible—especially one that boasts a lyric such as “No, the robot holds none with the mind.” But there it is: Weird works for Coheed and Cambria, and Good Apollo, although pretty bizarre by mainstream-pop standards, isn’t nearly weird enough. There was nothing inevitable about moving 500,000 units of an indie release or making it onto MTV and a major label. There was nothing inevitable about the success of a hard-rock band fronted by a guy who frequently sounds like a woman. So why wouldn’t Coheed and Cambria continue to take chances beyond Sanchez’s cloaking a reported romantic meltdown in postmodernism?

If Silent Earth suggested that a band can still become something more than semipopular on its own bizarre terms, then Good Apollo hints at what it might sound like for the same band to lose its nerve. For the moment, Coheed and Cambria remain near the top of a slippery slope. For the sake of interesting pop, let’s hope Sanchez & Co. understand what’s keeping them there.CP

More from WCP