Do you remember Rush? Of course you do. Everybody remembers Rush. That mass obscurity is part of their whole legend. This was music that nerds listened to. The weird sounds, that strangely high voice, the shifting time signatures and impossible-to-follow, vocab-heavy lyrics; it’s not for everybody. But in 2009’s buddy comedy “I Love You Man,” Paul Rudd and Jason Siegel bond over playing Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.” In the inevitable 2025 remake, they’ll play “Welcome Home” by Coheed & Cambria.
After a few false starts, frequently falsetto frontman Claudio Sanchez found himself with a stable lineup and a pretty clear direction. In 2000, under the name “Shabutie,” they released Delirium Trigger, an EP with a decidedly prog rock slant. A few of the songs were based on “The Amory Wars,” a comic book series Sanchez was writing on the side. Because this could become a well of inspiration for a band just starting out and because it would be totally awesome, the band decided to rename themselves “Coheed and Cambria,” after two of the protagonists and bet big on the sci-fi fantasy epic. It paid off.
A quick look at box offices in the last ten years will show you one thing: Nerds win. They’ve got the money, they’ve got the passion, and there are so many of them, they pretty much dictate culture. So the introduction of a band that actually describes their songs as “In the tradition of Star Wars” sounds like a check waiting to be cashed.
But what about the music itself? 2002’s confoundingly titled Second Stage Turbine Blade pushed ripping metal guitars front and center, cut with a punk edge and a huge debt to post-hardcore kings At The Drive-In. The band immediately established their penchant for writing songs swelling with ambition. Only two songs dip below the 4 minute mark. Without these clear outliers, the average song length is about 5:30, well beyond the radio-friendly 2:45. This is a band that knows how to sprawl.
And sprawl they did, across three more albums. Literally every song on every album is connected to the aforementioned “Amory Wars,” but with lyrics opaque enough to block sunlight. Tons of inside references and subtly returning melodic lines implied that everything would be explained in the end. All you have to do is stick with the band and eventually, it will all make sense. This is something that nerds are uniquely willing to do.
And it’s a good thing they did, because in 2004, C & C began to find their voice. In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth:3 brought more strong guitars, dense hooks, impossible harmonies and a few concessions to radio-friendliness. The two singles, “Blood Red Summer” and “A Favor House Atlantic” are vastly more accessible than the rest of the album and are the most recognizable-at-the-time kind of punk rock. But the standout success on the album is “The Crowing,” which not only marks a turning point in the story, but is emblematic of every single thing this band does right. Listen to this song. However you feel about this song is how you feel about the entire band.
But then listen to the rest, too, because they really fell into a groove in 2006. Good Apollo I’m Burning Star IV Vol 1: From Fear Through The Eyes of Madness, in addition to being their most cumbersome title to date, was and is their biggest seller. And of course, it brought the maddeningly epic “Welcome Home” into living rooms across the country as a playable track on Rock Band. For those keeping score, that’s heavy metal guitars, mathy prog rock influence, an epic sci-fi storyline, a companion graphic novel series, and a video game tie in. Five points to Coheed & Cambria; Nerds Win.
Good Apollo… also refined the steel-speed guitar melodies that had so far typified the Coheed sound. Nearly every line Sanchez sings in his inimitable, enviable squeal is constantly complimented with a harmony line. It gives the whole thing a sense of unease and for those singing along, gives you a different track on every play-through. In video game terms, it’s the equivalent of “Now try again on hard difficulty!” And in classic rock terms, it does things as an album that few contemporary albums attempt. The subtle melodic callbacks become less subtle. The string theme from “Keeping The Blade” hearkens back to “The Ring In Return,” the continuing use of roman numerals to denote “split songs,” even the title “Apollo” is used more than once to a certain effect. This is a novel of an album, and against all odds, it works.
By No World For Tomorrow, the band pretty much figured that you’re on the team. The cover is that special kind of prog rock ridiculous that is designed to make perfect sense if you’ve been around since day one, and to be absolute fucking nonsense to everyone else. The full title, Good Apollo I’m Burning Star IV Vol 2: No World For Tomorrow, is no more or less bizarre than we’ve been conditioned to expect from a band of verbosities. It’s a concession to new listeners and a likely a request from new producer Rick Rubin that the shortened title is the one that appears on the album cover.
Though it was their most commercially-motivated endeavor, No World For Tomorrow has yet to best their most commercially successful. A viral marketing campaign and a vastly refined aesthetic front to back (ludicrous album cover notwithstanding) saw the band cashing in on the bet they’d made 7 years prior. They pulled a kind of Episode One gambit by banking on the idea that they are part of nerd culture now. And references made in a cryptic YouTube video might be understood by those fans who number in the tens of thousands.
Key tracks like “The Hound (Of Blood and Rank),” “The Running Free” and “Gravemakers & Gunslingers” stuck fairly close to the sound established in Good Apollo…Vol. 1, and as an added bonus, “III – The End Complete” features guitar licks wholly lifted from songs on previous albums. It sounds familiar, and it is meant to. In perhaps the first proper use of the “volume” system in music, Coheed & Cambria may have built a double-disc set that was released in stages.
In 2008, Coheed & Cambria launched a massively ambitious concert series. Over four nights, the band would perform Neverender, a full performance of all four albums to date. In New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and London, the entirety of the Amory Wars saga was performed. Name another band that could just play their whole catalog with the same thematic relevance. If the Neverender concert series is not repeated either by an aging version of Coheed themselves or by zealous fans, I will salt, boil, and eat my hat. This is the kind of rock and roll torch that was simply designed to be taken up.
The hits keep on coming. In January 2006, Vitamin Records released a string quartet tribute to album 2, In Keeping Secrets…, and it does not immediately sound ridiculous. In fact, it seems obvious. As though the entire Coheed catalog had been designed for strings.
Let’s round this up: Heavy yet melodic metal guitars, a storyline that features a character named “Supreme Tri Mage Wilhelm Ryan,” a playable track in a video game, reckless investment in the characters and setting, a sprawling narrative collected in live-performance-slash-DVD form… Nerds Win.