Man Your Battle Stations

Conceptually inclined emo kids' seriously absurd prog-metal fantasies hit the big time

"Hello Apollo, where should I begin?"

Here's good: A woman answers a ringing phone—cue bombast, strings and cymbal crashes shriveling into the astringent, shapeless drifts of a horror soundtrack—and a minute later comes that arcane reply, the launch of an epic.

"The Ring in Return" opens In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3, which you may already know is Coheed and Cambria's second album, and the third chapter in a planned quadrilogy. You may already know this because the disc was released late last year, and was widely reviewed then. But Columbia just picked it up for wider distribution, and the band's playing here Saturday. An imminent companion comic written by singer-guitarist Claudio Sanchez, Robotech: Return to Macross, should straighten the narrative chronology out. But comic books are for geeks, and I'm here to tell you about prog-metal's latest wrinkle, fantasy emo. Wrinkle, not Rip Van Winkle: Much has been made of Sanchez's high-flying Geddy Lee cry (though it may sound even more familiar to fans of Sunny Day Real Estate), but Rush revival this is not. The disc is a space odyssey for 2004, a time when movie sequels are highly anticipated, online community defines gaming, and empires in seemingly apocalyptic battles appeal to their gods.

A space odyssey for 2004
photo: Nasty Little Man
A space odyssey for 2004

Claudio Sanchez says his life is too boring to chronicle in song, and after checking out his admittedly scant diary at coheedandcambria.com, I agree. The character Claudio, son of murdered husband and wife Coheed and Cambria, is the album's warrior protagonist. The band—drummer Joshua Eppard, bassist Mic Todd, and guitarist Travis Stever, all of whom live upstate—score Claudio's declarations, recollections, asides, and laments with virtuoso but rarely showy song arcs drawing from Scandinavian metal, classic progressive rock, and punk-poppy emo. Compared to De-Loused in the Comatorium, Mars Volta's brilliant, high-concept mess memorializing a friend who died of an overdose, In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 is almost The Ramones.

Emphasizing this, the recently M2-ruling video for "A Favor House Atlantic"—three dizzying minutes of s'mores-style warmth, crunch and sweetness in which (I believe) Claudio is betrayed by someone who joins his rebellion—shows the band goofing off in a bar, bugging hot chicks, getting beat up, and giving blowjobs. In light of MTV's love affair with thuggish screamo, I appreciate how gay the clip is. But, oh, what a wannabe Alfonso Cuarón or Peter Jackson could do with the magical eight-minute title track, the answer to "Where should we begin?": Claudio surveys the ruins of "our fathers' lost war," graves and children yet to be buried, then declares—entreats, wailing—in the chorus, "Man your battle stations!" At song's end, murmuring riffs ramp into jackhammer bass and a war-chant choir, and the bard sounds his regret underscored by a monstrous death-metal roar, the best use of that vocal gimmick possibly ever—all due respect to Cannibal Corpse.

These days popular emo bands seem to spend most of their time thinking up long, "clever," deeply narcissistic song titles (Brand New: "Good to Know That If I Ever Need Attention All I Have to Do Is Die"). Coheed and Cambria know we're all in this together. Geeks are made out to be friendless, heartless even, communing as they do with technology and escapist media. But when life feels like a dice roll or future dystopia, video games train soldiers yet connect millions of kids, and rock's most literal yelps for help ring hollow and rotten, you've got to give trench-coat mafiosi their due. Amid the cowbell, handclaps, and dynamic twists, In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 puts as serious a spin on absurdity as current geopolitics itself does, reading the writing "scribbled on the wall" (thus described in the single) like the hypertext it is. If Claudio Sanchez encrypts it along the way, maybe there's something inside he's trying to protect. Question is, where will it all end?


Coheed and Cambria play the Vans Warped Tour on Randalls Island August 7.

 
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