The Amory Wars Arrive: Coheed and Cambria’s Year of the Black Rainbow at 10

Ten years on, YOTBR remains an indispensable, enjoyable, and mostly underappreciated addition to the foursome’s remarkable arsenal

Cover art for the Year of the Black Rainbow novel

Arguably no other modern progressive rock/metal band has tapped into mainstream culture as successfully, widely, and enduringly as New York quartet Coheed and Cambria.

Indeed, artists like Mastodon, Steven Wilson/Porcupine Tree, Tool, Dream Theater, Muse, Radiohead and The Mars Volta have, to varying degrees, made their presence known in the greater pop culture zeitgeist; but, their styles, recognition, and/or permanence are nonetheless more niche and limited. In contrast, Coheed and Cambria were virtually everywhere around the time of their third (and best) LP, 2005’s Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness. In the fifteen or so years since then, they’ve lost little of that popularity, and it’s easy to hear why. By juxtaposing highly technical and intense arrangements with rivetingly poignant and hooky ballads—all presented within an expansive sci-fi storyline that extends across multiple albums—the group manages to satisfy genre expectations while also selling out major venues and earning radio-friendly distinction.

Undoubtedly, few fans would rank their fifth record, 2010’s Year of the Black Rainbow, as their favorite; yet, that’s more of a testament to the quality of the other entries in the catalog than it is a knock against this outing. True, it lacks a bit of the cinematic scope, heroic weight, and mesmeric coherency of some of its predecessors and successors—feeling more like a solid set of songs than an epic cumulative journey—but that doesn’t stop it from satisfying more often than not. Ten years on, YOTBR remains an indispensable, enjoyable, and mostly underappreciated addition to the foursome’s remarkable arsenal.

Coheed and Cambria Year of the Black Rainbow, Columbia 2010

Whereas many artists would use their first album as the starting point for their long-lasting concept, Coheed and Cambria bucked that trend right away. You see, their debut record, 2002’s The Second Stage Turbine Blade, is—as the title suggests—the second chapter of singer/guitarist Claudio Sanchez’s overarching narrative, The Amory Wars (a saga so large and looming that it extends into other mediums, such as novels and comic books). From there, the subsequent three releases pushed the tale further, with 2007’s Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume Two: No World for Tomorrow ostensibly acting as the end of the journey. However, the band decided to follow that up with a prequel to the whole thing, YOTBR, and usher in a new starting point for the fiction. (Admittedly, things got trickier in the 2010s, as the Afterman duology and their last opus, Vaxis – Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures, also fall into the same serialized universe, making it increasingly interesting yet challenging to determine where everything fits chronologically.)

Without going into an encyclopedic breakdown of the entire Amory Wars lore (whose protagonist couple, Coheed and Cambria Kilgannon, inspired the band’s name), suffice it to say that YOTBR provides dramatic backgrounds and build-ups to better contextualize the albums that came before it and make the whole arc even more profound and ambitious. In an April 2010 interview with Noisecreep, Sanchez clarifies that he always knew that once they reached the end of the story, he would “revisit the beginning.” He adds: “I think for those fans that are truly invested in the concept, it’s really a necessity. . . . I don’t know if it was necessary to make prequels for ‘Star Wars.’ This is where Coheed and Cambria came from. The origins of who they are.” Clearly, that’s one of many reasons for why the LP is an invaluable part of their discography.

In terms of personnel, mainstays Sanchez and guitarist/backing vocalist Travis Stever appear as always; however, YOTBR is the last record with bassist Michael Todd (who was replaced by Zach Cooper in 2012), as well as the only album to feature ex-Dillinger Escape Plan drummer Chris Pennie (longtime percussionist Josh Eppard, who left in 2006, wouldn’t return until 2011). Outside of them, the major contributors include accomplished multiinstrumentalist Wes Styles (who provides some keyboard complements across the record), cover art designer Bill Scoville, and producers Atticus Ross (Nine Inch Nails) and Joe Barresi (Avenged Sevenfold, Queens of the Stone Age).

Coheed and Cambria Tour of the Black Rainbow concert poster no. 1

As usual, Coheed and Cambria went above and beyond to make the release of YOTBR special. Specifically, the deluxe edition included previously unreleased bonus tracks—“Chamberlain (Demo)” and “The Lost Shepherd (Demo)”—plus a behind-the-scenes DVD called Every End Has a Beginning and a “Black Card” that granted owners early access to concerts, discounts on merch, and the like. Even more exciting, there was a 350+ page novelization penned by Sanchez and New York Times bestseller Peter David, who’s known for writing comics for Marvel, DC, and Star Trek. (Although few, if any, official reviews of the book exist, it currently has high user ratings on both Goodreads and Amazon, so it seems like it was very well received.) In addition, they released four singles—respectively, “The Broken,” “Here We Are Juggernaut,” “World of Lines,” and “Far”—between February 2010 and April 2011, with the first two, as well as “Guns of Summer,” appearing in the video game Rock Band 2 in April 2010. Lastly, the iTunes version came with its own exclusive tune, “Hush.”

Critically and commercially, YOTBR favored fairly well. Despite magazines such as Rolling Stone, Slant, SPIN, Billboard and The Guardian issuing poor to average review scores, other publications—Rock Sound, The A.V. Club, Entertainment Weekly, PopMatters and Alternative Press among them—praised it. Today, it holds a score of 71 on Metacritic, with only No World for Tomorrow and 2015’s The Color Before the Sun (their only album unrelated to The Amory Wars) beneath it. (Although their first two LPs aren’t counted at all, they’d likely score higher, too.) As for sales, it peaked at #35 on the UK Album Chart and at #5 on the Billboard 200, which is still their highest ranking to date (The Afterman: Ascension reached #5, too, but stayed on for two weeks less).

While the quartet have made better records both before and after YOTBR, the sequence nevertheless upholds practically everything that makes a Coheed and Cambria album so enchanting, diverse, and characteristic. For one thing, it maintains their tradition of beginning with the one-two punch comprised of a prelude instrumental reference to one of the major themes of the whole Amory Wars chronicle followed by a balls-to-the-wall anthemic opening song. Specifically, the brief “One” mirrors the apocalyptic piano preface of “The Ring in Return” (from In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3) in terms of atmosphere; yet, it doesn’t allude to the same central motif, choosing instead to transform its original melody into a delicate nod to the orchestral opening of Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One at the end. It’s quite clever and fitting. Likewise, “The Broken” doesn’t reach the same hypnotic heights of proper album starters “No World for Tomorrow,” “The Dark Sentencer,” “Key Entity Extraction I,” or “Welcome Home” (which is technically the third track of its LP), but it’s nonetheless delightfully elaborate and exhilarating.

The deluxe edition of YOTBR (photo courtesy of Hi-Voltage Records in Tacoma, WA)

Continuing on, the collection is full of aggressively nuanced complexity and catchiness that require you to sing-along and blast as defiantly as possible. “Guns of Summer” soars mostly due to its enticingly frantic guitarwork and rhythms, as well as its high-pitched yet sinister main hook. Later, “This Shattered Symphony” presents similarly engrossing dissonance and outrage in conjunction with moments of softer and more touching respite. “In the Flame of Error” is all about the operatically hostile chorus, and of course, closer “The Black Rainbow” ends the disc like many other Coheed and Cambria finales: with a heartrendingly infectious and fatalistic slice of reflection and realization. The way Sanchez shouts, “It’s over / It’s over / It’s all coming apart” over the instrumental devastation and backing verses is among the most meaningfully distressing moments they’ve ever crafted, leaving you in awe and sorrow over what’s just happened and what’s to come.

Similarly, YOTBR also houses some wonderful ballads and other glimpses of tenderness. For instance, “Far” is comparably unassuming, yet the ways in which it mixes mechanical tones into its basic arrangement and undeniably moving vocals and lyrics—personifying the group’s penchant for tales regarding the romantic trauma of destiny and change—is lovely. Although it’s a tad heavier and more generic, “Made Out of Nothing (All That I Am)” is still very stirring and memorable. Without a doubt, though, “Pearl of the Stars” is not only the best song on the album, but one of the quartet’s best compositions period. An acoustic ode with wholly resonant drops of celestial Armageddon, it’s kind of like the simpler sibling of the masterful “The Light & The Glass”; while its words may be a bit too maudlin for some, Sanchez’s performance, matched with the meticulously accentuated beauty around him, is utterly breathtaking.

Coheed and Cambria Tour of the Black Rainbow no. 2

For all of those strengths, there are some relatively weaker inclusions as well. In particular, “Here We Are Juggernaut,” “When Skeletons Live,” and “World of Lines” are enjoyably hooky and biting, but they’re also kind of formulaic and bland at the same time. In other words, they feel less idiosyncratic and commendable because they don’t really go beyond the bare minimum requirements for an accessible rocker. (In fact, they kind of sound like the same song processed through three different filters, with a few slightly unique attributes each.) To be fair, even the lowest tier Coheed and Cambria material is good (and better than most of the music being made by their contemporaries), but these three pieces can’t help but fall a bit short since they’re surrounded by so much greatness.

The notion that Year of the Black Rainbow is one of Coheed and Cambria’s lesser statements is simultaneously true and deceiving, as it mostly earns that ranking not because of its own setbacks, but because most of their other LPs are just that much more remarkable and impactful. Taken on its own merits, YOTBR is a superb record brimming with virtually everything that fans love about their music. Along the same lines, its narrative place in the Amory Wars saga is vital, so it demonstrates the band’s strengths regarding both musical creation and creative writing. That union is the key to why they’ve almost always been arguably the biggest progressive rock band of their era, and Year of the Black Rainbow holds up as well as ever as a testament to that.  

 

 

Jordan Blum

Jordan Blum is an Associate Editor at PopMatters, holds an MFA in Creative Writing, and is the founder/Editor-in-Chief of The Bookends Review, an independent creative arts journal. He focuses mostly on progressive rock/metal and currently writes for—or has written for—many other publications, including Sonic Perspectives, Paste, Progression, Metal Injection, Rebel Noise, PROG, Sea of Tranquility, and Rock Society. Finally, he records his own crazy ideas under the pseudonym Neglected Spoon. When he's not focused on any of that, he teaches English courses at various colleges and spends too much time lamenting what Genesis became in the 1980s. Reach Jordan @JordanBlum87.

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