All too often, Progressive Rock — with its ever-changing time signatures, accomplished musicianship and esoteric lyrics — edges toward mere exercises in musical dexterity. Fortunately, Coheed and Cambria avoids these constraints with “Year of the Black Rainbow” — an admirable addition to their collection and a standard-bearer for the modern Progressive genre. The album complements efforts by Progressive rock dignitaries such as Yes, Genesis and Pink Floyd and echoes many of the better modern Progressive-metal acts like Tool, System of a Down and Mudvayne.
Like each of Coheed and Cambria’s four other studio efforts, “Year of the Black Rainbow” is a concept album. The band has created its own mythology, dubbed “The Amory Wars” and the album serves as a prequel to the first release, “The Second Stage Turbine.” Dozens of web sites are dedicated to exploring and interpreting this mythology; indeed, the band has released comics, graphic novels and more that expand upon the song concepts. However, these resources are not required to appreciate the nuances and artistry found in the music.
The album’s sound quality is a delight and a step above the previous albums. Vocalist/guitarist Claudio Sanchez’s distinct, powerful vocals (only matched by those of Alien Ant Farm’s front man Dryden Mitchell) are given the proper dynamic headroom to flourish. The rest of the band, including guitarist Travis Stever, bassist Michael Todd and drummer Chris Pennie (the newest studio addition), forges a powerful accompaniment that never wavers and often surprises.
Track 1: One (1:54). The opening track serves more as an introduction to The Broken than as a standalone song.
Track 2: The Broken (3:53). Coheed and Cambria’s knack for playing two guitar lines simultaneously — one as an effective mid-tempo rhythm and the other a soloing melody that frequents the higher register — is heavily featured on the album’s opening song. A steady and deceptively simple drum and bass line create the stomping backdrop to high-flying vocals.
Track 3: Guns of Summer (4:47). One of the album’s most distinctive offerings is reminiscent of Living Colour’s “Stain” album. The lyrics are well written and sometimes biting — particularly, the call and response nature of “Will we be that crazy / Or will the curtains save me? / From my final call” followed by “No one will save us / You think that somebody cares / Why the water is rising up?” The battle motif resonates throughout the song — from Sanchez’s restrained verses set against soaring choruses to disjointed, halftime drum beats set against a sinister bass line to a guitar solo that features the two axe men trading aggressive solos.
Track 4: Here We Are Juggernaut (3:44). The album’s first single is one of the more accessible tracks on the album. Featuring tempered vocal and instrumental arrangements, the band focuses instead on memorable lyrics — including “This is not your playground / It’s my heart.” The song heralds ominous things — indeed, the juggernaut — to come later in the concept album.
Track 5: Far (4:54). A melancholy melody and solid lyrics set this slower track apart from the others. The song breathes in a way that only seasoned musicians can achieve; rather than filling every second with a flurry of notes, they surrender to the song’s tone, motion and emotion.
Track 6: This Shattered Symphony (4:26). The band returns to rock form with a track that fails to sustain the musical interest built by the other songs. Lyrics like, “And she confessed her love / Only I shut her out / As I took all her words / And allowed them to rust” are serviceable but not on par with those featured throughout the album.
Track 7: World of Lines (3:18). The melody and tempo pick up in a World of Lines, a straight forward rocker that never pauses from beginning to end. The best lyrics are seeded at the start of the song: “Oh, when words are lightly thrown / In a world that’s caught in a writer’s web.” Unfortunately, the song is unfulfilling in comparison to the rest of the album.
Track 8: Made Out of Nothing (That I Am) (4:38). The band returns to form with a song featuring some of the best lyrics and vocal deliveries on the album. The chorus (“Someone please come shelter me from / All that I am, and never again will I / Believe the same old story”) is sung with Sanchez’s unique timing and rhythm that is impossible to predict upon first listen and impossible to forget upon the second.
Track 9: Pearl of the Stars (5:05). Intricate acoustic guitar work sets the cadence in a track that is a cross between Pink Floyd and Queensrÿche. The star of this song is Sanchez’s vocal performance. Ranging from a whispered, vulnerable delivery to a soft lament, lyrics are sung with honesty and believability. Lyrical drum and cymbal work, a soothing deep bass line and strings complete the backdrop.
Track 10: In the Flame of Error (5:29). The syncopated 6/8 structure of most of this demanding song flirts with experimental rock that is in the vein of The Mars Volta. This song is not for the meek or uninitiated; however, those who appreciate challenging musicianship will be rewarded.
Track 11: When Skeletons Live (4:18). Another virtuosic musical performance includes an abrupt, stop-and-go rhythmical and vocal performance that is among the best on the album. Powerful lyrics follow a loved one’s death, burial and the feelings that live on long after the deceased has left. The song’s energy is relentless — as if the pain caused by death cannot be tamed.
Track 12: The Black Rainbow (7:33). While the vocals and guitar arrangements are rife with emotion, the song disintegrates into a medley of layered vocal howls that bellow, “It’s over, it’s over / (Coming apart, coming apart).” While this is a fitting lyrical way to end the album, the song misses the mark musically.
Overall, “Year of the Black Rainbow” is a passionate and satisfying album. Fusing style and substance, Coheed and Cambria continues to establish themselves among the Progressive movement’s elite. The album improves with each listening and will satisfy diehard fans and unseasoned listeners alike.
Overall Grade: A-
If you enjoyed this album, you might also like: Anything by the featured vocalists, The Mars Volta, Queensrÿche, Iron Maiden, System of a Down and anything by Mike Patton.