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Bury Me Honest: Coheed & Cambria’s The Color Before the Sun

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One of my favorite things to witness is an artist taking a genre that’s usually thought of as trashy and elevating it–performing it with a level of skill and nuance that it rarely receives while still respecting the roots of the style.

To use some filmic examples, Quentin Tarantino does this all the time by giving schlocky exploitation movies an artsy, self-aware flair, as does the great Michael Mann with his cerebral take on hyper-masculine action movies. A recent musical example of this practice is Travi$ Scott’s Rodeo which takes the visceral aggression and reckless hedonism of trap music and instills in it a progressive, experimental edge.

As they first became a known quantity, Coheed & Cambria has abided by this MO rather exactingly. Debuting in 2002 with the excellent The Second Stage Turbine Blade, they came up in the midst of emo and pop-punk’s mainstream takeover. And though Coheed had the likes of My Chemical Romance, Good Charlotte, and a revitalized Green Day as contemporaries, the New York rock outfit built an audience in the same way Tarantino did — by beating similar artists at their own game.

Coheed’s tracks may have reveled in the same themes of love, heartbreak, youth, and death with the same level of histrionics that other emo and pop-punk bands do, but the cleverness and sheer instrumental proficiency that went into these songs was only matched by fellow prog-emo auteurs The Appleseed Cast. Check their first-ever song, “Time Consumer,” for proof. The track may have a set of scrappy verses containing lyrics like “Pain is only a pulse / If you just stop feeling it,” but amidst that is some absolutely incredible rhythm/lead/bass interplay and one of the most brilliantly dissonant, utterly batshit guitar solos I’ve ever heard.

But after their sophomore release (the great In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3), they strayed from their simple, effective art-emo style to enter the much messier realm of huge, genre-blending concept records. Occasionally, the foursome capable of instrumental virtuosity and clever songwriting would shine through the clutter, but the majority of the tracks on each of C&C’s ensuing four albums were marred by grating indulgence. Examples of this are too manifold to get into in too much detail, but here are two of my favorite moments of awful ridiculousness: their third record’s closer, “The Willing Well IV: The Final Cut” (yes, that’s the actual title), ends with a minute-long vibraphone vamp that leads into an interpolation of Zeppelin’s “Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp” over which recordings of a barking dog and a gurgling water cooler play. (Why? Who thought that was a good idea?) Meanwhile, their fifth LP’s opener, Key Entity Extraction I: Domino the Destitute” (yes, that’s also the actual title), features faux play-by-play commentary on a sci-fi boxing match smack dab in the middle of the song.

The last effort, 2013’s The Afterman, so mired in weird mid- and post-song skits telling an awful story, lame electronics, and excessive overdubs (not to mention a running time of over 80 minutes) that not even its few flashes of brilliance could save it from being basically insufferable.

Their latest record, The Color Before the Sun endeavors to change things. For one, it was recorded mostly live all at once — no endless layers of ridiculous overdubs and no electronics, except for the record’s exquisite grand finale (which I’ll get to later), it’s just vocals, guitars, bass, and drums.

The focus exhibited in the record’s recording process extends to the songs themselves, which ditch all the band’s unsuccessful forays into glam, math, electronic, and industrial forms of rock to harken back to their inventive and progressive emo stylings of yore.

The opener, “Island,” is an infectious piece of pop punk that would sound right at home on a Blink-182 record. Snappy snare hits and chugging guitars guide a winding vocal melody to sugary pop perfection. That is, until a few airy interludes kick in and the song ends with a dry, distorted 5/4 riff.

The following two tracks find similarly clever ways of coupling visceral appeal with novel songwriting. “Eraser” switches back and forth between two different feels on a dime — the verses are driven by a bright, four-on-the-floor groove and some eccentric vocals while the chorus drops the song into a black hole, turning those upbeat riffs slow and sour as frontman Claudio Sanchez doles out some lyrics racked with regret: “Turn the clocks back to the way things were / I never wanted to be this me / Show me back then the kid before the man / I don’t think this me is who I am.”

Meanwhile, “Colors” is a masterclass in dynamics. Sanchez, the grand master of palm-muted rhythm guitar riffs, churns out a quiet, shimmering lick while bassist Zach Cooper and drummer Josh Eppard deliver parts that epitomize tasteful restraint. Then the huge, cascading hook comes into being to provide release; lead guitarist Travis Stever who doesn’t play a single note during the verses comes blaring through with a huge lead line to drive things home.

Every ensuing song continues this subversive pattern in all manner of unexpected ways. More nuanced cuts like “Atlas” and “The Audience” use unpredictable, proggy song structures while the record’s seemingly straightforward pieces of power pop, “Here To Mars” and “You’ve Got Spirit, Kid,” sneak in some incredibly technical riffs when you’re not paying attention. How it is that Claudio Sanchez is able to play the verse riff on “Here To Mars” and sing at the same time is completely mystifying.

Thankfully, The Color Before the Sun also ditches the science fiction narrative that’s run through all Coheed’s albums up to this point. Quite ironically, however, the absence of a traditional narrative leads the album towards much harder-hitting themes. Without a storyline to fall back on, Sanchez is forced to speak about himself and his life honestly and what results is (in typical emo fashion) a lot of uncertainty and anxiety. But Sanchez is nearing forty and acts accordingly, so all the drama is delivered in a mature, self-aware way. Trips back to his angst-ridden youth are framed as tongue-in-cheek words of encouragement for his younger self (“When the world slips out from underneath / Just embrace the fall / You’ve got spirit, kid / You’re number one”) while his concerns about the future lie in how he’ll raise his newborn son (“A clean slate, picture perfect, no mistakes / How am I to keep from blemishing this masterpiece”). Most emo music is comprised of a bunch of twenty-, thirty-, and now even forty-something songwriters trying to convince you they still have the emotional maturity of a fifteen year old. It’s sort of revelatory to hear the genre’s grandiose, heart-on-your sleeve attitude delivered with actual intelligence and tact.

But more than being compelling simply in its singularity, this approach to songwriting results in one of the most plainspoken records I’ve heard from a big name rock act in a while. Amidst some delightfully disorienting riffs, “The Audience” sees Sanchez reflecting on how he’s outgrown the need to express his feelings under the guise of a narrative, and worrying about how his fans who found comfort in that same narrative will react to that change of heart. It’s a stark, meta moment that could’ve easily felt self-indulgent. Considering, however, the fact that Coheed & Cambria are indeed taking a huge step in a different direction, some sort of acknowledgement of what’s fueling that change seems fitting.

The Color Before the Sun’s excellent closer, “Peace To The Mountain,” is probably the most forthright song the band has ever come up with. Lyrically, the track is line after line of intense vulnerability; Claudio reflects on his newfound unease with the direction his band was heading, longs for peace and quiet, and wonders if what he’s doing as a songwriter is even meaningful anymore (“Rejected to the brink / Only so much I can change, an artist I wish I could’ve made / Am I irrelevant?”) before vowing to change, repeating “Please bury me honest” time and again as if it were his new motto. For most of his career, this guy has been writing songs about intergalactic wars between space wizards. While it’d be hard to expect any big name rocker to be so honest in their music, it’s a legitimate shock to hear these sort of lyrics from the alternately cryptic and over-the-top Claudio Sanchez.

As a subtly progressive piece of pop rock, The Color Before the Sun is pretty easy to recommend to those seeking anthemic catharsis and music nerds looking for novel ideas in equal measure. For people like me who have been following Coheed & Cambria through their ups and downs (mostly downs), their latest is hugely impactful. The undeniable yearning for change that dominates the record’s lyrical themes are fully present across the album’s ten tracks in a purely musical sense as well. The Color Before the Sun is the rare product of a band who, sick of their own shit, devote themselves entirely to a new purpose.

As “Peace To The Mountain” nears its conclusion, Sanchez is finally on the path to closure and contentment — again, something rare within the emo genre, as most artists want to appear to still be wallowing in their sorrows by the end of their records to that you’ll buy the next one. He seems to have a revelation that the quiet solitude of the country home he references often throughout the record is the first step down his new path, shouting “Peace to the mountain, girl, I’m gonna go,” over and over during the outro as a beautiful triumphalist brass and string arrangement flutter around him.

As climactic revelations go, the decision to live a simple, rural life isn’t exactly a mindblower, especially coming from a guy who has multiple Platinum and Gold plaques to his name. But that’s the point. Simplicity and genuineness are qualities Coheed & Cambria’s music has lacked for over a decade now, and their material has suffered for it.

Of course, they could always do a 180 and go back to absurd sci-fi concept albums. But that would be an incredible shame. Inner peace would be a terrible thing to waste.