Genre: Prog Rock
Favorite Tracks: “The Dark Sentencer,” “True Ugly,” “Love Protocol,” “It Walks Among Us,” “Old Flames”
Let’s get this out of the way: Coheed and Cambria are back. Their previous album, THE COLOR BEFORE THE SUN, was the first time frontman/songwriter Claudio Sanchez dropped The Amory Wars concept that had been the bands driving narrative force in order to explore more personal lyrical themes after welcoming his first born son into the world. While the album had its moments, it was also obvious why Sanchez had toyed with the idea of releasing it as a solo album before turning it over to his bandmates in Coheed. The songs were simple, short, and lacked the grandiose atmosphere that characterized their concept-driven offerings.
When the progressive rockers announced that THE UNHEAVENLY CREATURES would be the first installment in a new, five-part series in The Amory Wars universe, it was clear they were ready to get back to what they do best, and this is their best material since their 2005 masterpiece GOOD APOLLO I’M BURNING STAR IV VOL. ONE. It’s easily the most conceptually dense offering to date, a full-blown rock opera akin to The Who’s TOMMY. The album begins with an ominous “Prologue,” where the concept is briefly introduced over minimal eerie synths. In a nutshell, a trio of criminals known as the Unheavenly Creatures get caught up in a bank heist that goes south, landing them at a privatized prison planet known as the Dark Sentencer. Toss in some brotherly betrayal, bitter ex-lovers, and a prison riot, and you’ve got yourself a 75-minute, theatrical rock-and-roll epic that meets expectations for both Amory Wars comic die-hards and casual Coheed fans who appreciate them for their technical musical prowess and ability to craft insanely catchy tunes.
After the scene for the narrative is set, lead single “The Dark Sentencer” starts THE UNEARTHLY CREATURES off with a bang. Clocking in at almost eight minutes, it is the most obvious throwback to the proggier elements of their albums IN KEEPING SECRETS OF SILENT EARTH: 3 and GOOD APOLLO VOL. ONE that fans were hoping to hear after the stripped-down vibes of COLOR BEFORE THE SUN. The song is dominated by immense riffs and a powerfully catchy chorus that has already captivated live audiences during their current shows. While the lyrics are extremely entrenched in the new concept, the track also finds Sanchez taking subtle jabs at our clown-in-chief; Sanchez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, offers several allusions to the questionable approach to aiding the U.S. territory after Hurricane Maria, calling out the president for being a “fucking monster” before warning us that, “evil now gropes, it’s caught off-guard with its hands reaching for our throats.”
As the lead single, “The Dark Sentencer” was slightly misleading as one of the two true prog songs on the album. While many of the tracks, such as the slightly clunky “Toys” or the awesome, albeit drawn-out “Queen of the Dark,” break the five-minute mark, they achieve this by simply repeating the same chorus, sometimes to excess. “The Dark Sentencer” and the gut-punching “All On Fire” incorporate multiple parts and themes that invoke the spirit of 2005’s “WIlling Well” suite on GOOD APOLLO, I’M BURNING STAR IV, VOLUME ONE: FROM FEAR THROUGH THE EYES OF MADNESS.
The title track, which served as the second single and had a music video debuted by Marvel, conceptually serves as the backstory for the main conflict of the Vaxis narrative. Opening with an 8-bit synth line that is beautifully filled out by the incomparable rhythm section of drummer Josh Eppard and bassist Zach Cooper, it offers one of the more irresistible power pop choruses in the band’s catalogue. It’s here the band begins dropping very concept-specific lyrics that reference character names and events that may have some listeners scratching their heads at first if they were unable to snag a deluxe edition of the record that came with a novella penned by Sanchez’s wife and frequent writing partner, Chondra Echert. Thankfully, the songs are catchy and enticing enough to hold on their own.
“Queen of the Dark” is a monster of a track, built on a trudging chord progression that channels the live version of their early B-side “IRO-bot.” While the track is powerful and dramatic, it’s too reliant on anthemic choruses, which seems to be Sanchez’s weapon of choice for THE UNHEAVENLY CREATURES as a whole. “True Ugly” similarly utilizes a soaring mid-tempo chorus, carried by one of the more uptempo verses on the record. Eppard’s drumming is a freight train that refuses to be stopped while Sanchez provides his most aggressive vocal delivery on the album.
The back-to-back pairing of “Love Protocol” and “The Pavilion” showcase the bands ‘80s influence, with the former’s staccato guitar riff echoing shades of The Police and the latter’s intro sounding like a modern take on Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” In several interviews leading up to the album drop, Sanchez has stated that “The Pavilion” was written before the concept was developed, and focuses on him questioning his future in the band. That ‘80s arena rock finds Sanchez growing tired of “dirty dressing room carpets and broken TVs” while being on tour away from his family, to the point where he admits he would “choose to give it all up” in order to find some familial stability. While the lyrics are emotionally powerful, the track itself is kind of a dud, interrupting the flow of the larger narrative.
“Night-Time Walkers” is a rare instance where Sanchez shares writing credit with Stever, but besides from an interesting verse with vocoder vocals, the track relies too heavily on a big power-chord chorus, recycling the same progression while swapping out different lyrical refrains. Fortunately, “The Gutter” helps to pick back up some steam. As one of the album’s most dynamic tracks, heavy chugging choruses filled out with raw, spine-tingling screams from Sanchez give way to a fist-pumping, arena-ready chorus and a bridge built on shredding twin leads that channel BLACK PARADE-era My Chemical Romance (aka Queen). The momentum keeps rolling with the absolute scorcher “All on Fire,” which brings another rock solid groove from Eppard and Cooper. As the track burns around him, Sanchez pleads for someone to “please bring water” so he and Stever can cool off their fingers after shredding something fierce.
“It Walks Among Us” is one of THE UNHEAVENLY CREATURES finest offerings. After an eerie opening of faint creaky strings, an absolute behemoth of a rocker unfurls with powerful chords, squealing harmonics, and some of the fanciest footwork Eppard has provided to date. Though the lyrics again remain conceptually dense by referencing characters by name (“Creature come and get it / Creature come and get it / Creatures coming”), the hooks are simple and catchy enough that you’ll find yourself singing along even if you don’t know what the hell is going on. “It Walks Among Us” gives way to “Old Flames,” which might go down as one of Coheed and Cambria’s poppiest and most radio-ready tracks in their entire catalogue. Driven by a punky, palm-muted verse that is reminiscent of “Blood Red Summer,” and a chorus deserving of the bouncing ball from a Disney Sing-A-Long VHS tape, the track crescendos into a coda of joyful “Na Na Na”s that will be sure to light up the dance floor on their tours for years to come. Album closer “Lucky Stars,” especially after “Old Flames,” is a disappointment. A slow-burning acoustic offering, it falls victim to the over-repetition that drags down the less exciting tracks on the album, and might be one of the weakest closers Coheed has ever released. After the non-stop energy of “Old Flames,” it seems like a lapse in judgement to close such an awesome record with a dud of a track.
THE UNHEAVENLY CREATURES is Coheed and Cambria’s most cinematic record to date. After the simplistic and straightforward nature of THE COLOR BEFORE THE SUN, this record truly feels like a return to form for the group. Though at moments it can seem like the band is relying too much on arena rock choruses in hopes of giving new listeners something to grab onto, there is more than enough of elements of their previous works to satisfy die-hard fans that have been waiting for something more in tune with their classic early albums. The band has definitely been trying to diversify their fan base, from switching distribution companies, to debuting music videos with Marvel and Entertainment Weekly, and while some fans may view this as selling out, it makes sense for a band that has had no problem selling out tours with little radio or television promotion over the past 10 years. Whether it breaks through the mainstream or not, THE UNHEAVENLY CREATURES is an epicly huge record that is easily Coheed and Cambria’s best work in the last decade, and I for one am still proud to call myself a child of The Fence.