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Unheavenly Creatures: Coheed and Cambria Turn A New Page

Monday, 05 November 2018 Written by Laura Johnson

Concept is sometimes a dirty word in rock ‘n’ roll but it’s one that’s impossible to avoid when you’re talking about New York prog heroes Coheed and Cambria, who have crafted a rich catalogue set against the science-fiction backdrop of The Amory Wars, a comic book written by frontman Claudio Sanchez.

They’ve been traversing this universe, known as Heaven’s Fence, for seven albums spread across 16 years. It’s a safe space for Sanchez, who uses characters and stories to convey feelings from his own life that he can’t always articulate candidly in the first person. It’s also allowed Coheed to tour the world and rack up a number of awards in the meantime.

But back in 2015 they made an exception. ‘The Color Before The Sun’ followed two years after ‘The Afterman: Descension’ and became the first of their records to exist outside of Heaven’s Fence because, even though he’d come to miss that world, Sanchez chose to step away from his sci-fi roots in order to address a big change in his life: becoming a father.

“At that time it made sense to do that, because of the feelings that I was having and because of the anticipation of becoming a dad,” he says. “I just thought that those things were important. If there was any time to do a record without the concept that felt like the most appropriate.

“Before ‘The Color Before The Sun’ I had an idea of what the continuation of ‘The Afterman’ story was going to be. That’s just naturally where I was going to go with The Amory Wars. But that time with ‘The Color Before The Sun’ allowed me to take a step back and take a look at the overall mythology with an objective mind. I think I constructed a way better story or idea for the pentalogy than had I just jumped right in after ‘The Afterman’ with what I had.”

The saying goes that a change is as good as a rest, and that’s what Coheed found when it came time to don space suits and head into the cosmos again. Going into the recording of their new album, ‘Vaxis - Act 1: The Unheavenly Creatures’, they felt rejuvenated and excited to dive back into the concept. Almost two decades on from their first forays into that world, they had a chance to make a fresh start.

The record slots into the Amory Wars chronology following 2007’s ‘No World for Tomorrow’ and is the first in a five part series that begins by introducing and fleshing out the backstories for a pair of new characters called Sister Spider and Creature. Here we find the latter searching for answers while incarcerated alongside another fresh face, Colossus, and together they seek to escape from a prison planet ominously dubbed The Dark Sentencer.

As well as giving Sanchez scope to work with an uncluttered narrative canvas, this album also marked the first time the band took the production reins themselves. In the past they have called on Rick Rubin, Nick Raskulinecz, Atticus Ross, Michael Birnbaum, Chris Bittner and Jay Joyce to help bring their world to life, but this time around both the stargazing and nuts and bolts of making a record were kept in house.  

“We’ve always had a hand in it, but there’s been this mediator [or] producer situation that’s always been involved,” Sanchez says. “We’ve been making records for a long time, and I think we understand the things that we should and should not do as Coheed and Cambria. We wanted to make those decisions and really not have an outside perspective chime in.”

Sanchez also decided that adjustments were necessary for this leap into the unknown, so he let the band in on the story for the first time. This time around things were much more collaborative at the production stage, and Sanchez put together an inspiration board of sorts for them to draw from when in the studio.  

Queen Of The Dark was one of the tracks that benefited from this collaborative approach, with drummer Josh Eppard offering up the idea to make his toms more prevalent in order to emphasise the fact the characters were visiting the lower, more sinister levels of The Dark Sentencer.

It wasn’t just the band who were permitted a peek behind Oz’s curtain, though. Alongside the album Coheed released a bonus collection called ‘Crown Heights Demos’, which showed the songs in earlier forms and took its name from Sanchez’s neighborhood in New York.

“It never bothers me in terms of the quality. I’m a big fan of lo-fi,” he explains. “I like to give those things away. I think it’s fun to see the initial step. Because that’s the thing, when I write music I always record it. The stuff you hear in the demos is basically the songwriting process. It’s me putting the song together.”

Something that peppers the conversation about the mechanics of Sanchez’s writing is his love of synthesisers. Perhaps surprisingly they take up nearly as much space as his guitars in his office and his passion for them predates the band. The reason for this affection is twofold: they’re the perfect instrument to tell a science fiction story and they fascinate him as tools.

“I’ve always been a fan of ‘em,” he says. “Synthesisers have always been a component to what Coheed does. Back when I was a kid just recording guitar into a cassette four track I always had some sort of keyboard situation to help me make a song evolve. It’s also something I do in my side project of the Prize Fighter Inferno, which is a very keyboard, synthesized-based project.

“But for me, I feel like it makes sense being in a science fiction concept band. What better tool to help paint those pictures than synthesisers? And I have a lot of them.  Now I’m not proficient in piano or anything like that, but I’m just very much intrigued with sound design and the emotions that come from basically messing with circuits.”

Coheed and Cambria are a concept band and likely always will be, which will attract some people and alienate others. Likewise, their narratives will see characters left behind and new ones created. Whatever the future holds, Sanchez’s heartfelt commitment to telling great stories, whether they come from his heart or a fantastical being, will remain.

‘Vaxis - Act 1: The Unheavenly Creatures’ is out now through Roadrunner Records.

Coheed and Cambria Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Mon November 05 2018 - TULSA OK - Cains Ballroom
Tue November 06 2018 - LAWRENCE KA - Liberty Hall
Wed November 07 2018 - ST LOUIS MO - Pageant
Fri November 09 2018 - MADISON WI - Sylvee
Sat November 10 2018 - FORT WAYNE IN - Pieres 
Mon November 12 2018 - GRAND RAPIDS MI - Intersection
Tue November 13 2018 - LOUISVILLE KY - Mercury Ballroom
Wed November 14 2018 - BIRMINGHAM AL - Iron City

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