Coheed and Cambria

The novelty of concept albums arguably reached its peak long ago. But New York’s melodic prog-rockers Coheed and Cambria have gone above and beyond the typical concept album, centering the existence of the band on a long-running comic series, “The Amory Wars,” set in a supergalatic universe.

With its first four albums having set the stage for this science fiction behemoth, creative mastermind and vocalist/guitarist Claudio Sanchez brings everything full circle with the band’s fifth album and the story’s prequel, “Year of the Black Rainbow,” which is accompanied by a 352-page novel. The album is a return to form that seamlessly blends the rougher edges of the band with poignant melodies.

“Year of the Black Rainbow” starts off with ominous ambience, haunting free form piano, and delicate harp before transitioning into the propulsive guitars of “The Broken.” Coheed and Cambria thrusts into full-fledged prog mode, juxtaposing odd time signatures and speedy metal riffage against Sanchez’s emotive voice, eventually building up to a massive, epic chorus.

Coheed and Cambria maintains the catchy melodies on “Here We Are Juggernaut.” Is it bombastic at times? Yes – but in a good way. The dueling between guitarists Sanchez and Travis Stever, and the intricate rhythm section led by Michael Todd’s pulsating bass lines, warrants the band’s occasional over-the-top bravado.

Meanwhile, “Made Out of Nothing (All That I Am)” shows Coheed and Cambria at its most straightforward, sticking to chunky power chords and a poppy chorus not too dissimilar to its past hit “Blood Red Summer.” Unlike the rest of the album, the “less is more” model comes to the forefront here, and pays off handsomely.

At times though, Coheed and Cambria goes over the edge, especially in the spastic “Guns of Summer” and the lackluster “When Skeletons Live.” Each song gets bogged down by choppy, start-stop rhythms and guitar banter better suited for a jam session. In this regard, Coheed and Cambria comes off as slightly indulgent from time to time, if not intentionally, with more of a focus on each band member’s skills rather than cohesive songwriting.

Despite this, newly recruited drummer Chris Pennie’s technical precision should not be overlooked. He offers complex, yet tasteful drum patterns that can leave you in awe, but don’t draw too much attention away from the overall picture of each song. His stick magic is particularly impressive on “In the Flame of Error,” with a series of drum rolls and tricky shuffle beats.

Thematically, the album’s generally centered on the protagonist’s personal affliction and conflict with this lover – relating more to relationship woes than intergalactic battles. While Sanchez exhibits solid musicianship, he excels in his lyrical abilities and ability to craft vivid imagery of the novel. Sure, Sanchez might be penning a science fiction novel, but he still knows how to write songs that deal with human issues.

This is most apparent on the tender ballad, “Far,” revealing a more subdued side of the band, albeit with fuzzy, ringing guitars and industrial beats that wouldn’t necessarily be out of a place on a Nine Inch Nails record. Sanchez laments, “I welcome this pain beating down on me / Is it your eyes that choose not to see? / All I would do if only you knew / All of my trust was given to you.” Lyrically, “Year of the Black Rainbow” is an introspective album dealing with personal suffering even if the music isn’t bathed in melancholy.

As a whole, “Year of the Black Rainbow” demonstrates the wide range of musical ground that Coheed and Cambria can cover without losing its way. Sanchez and company can go on a lightning-speed prog-metal journey one minute, and then switch to a simple, acoustic driven song the next minute. In the past, the band has been one of only a few progressive bands with the ability to cross over into the mainstream, infusing subtle pop sensibilities without compromising its technical prowess. With “Year of the Black Rainbow,” Coheed and Cambria yet again proves that to be the case.