With their intricate conceptual sci-fi universe the Amory Wars, Coheed and Cambria and their heady brand of prog have always been a bit out of step with the modern rock scene. Sure, forefathers like Rush and Pink Floyd turned the proggy concept album into an art-form – but how many bands are actually named after the concept itself?
"The story of Coheed and Cambria [the characters] is over," says frontman-guitarist Claudio Sanchez, the band's chief songwriter and author of the album's accompanying comics and novels. "They're kind of the Adam and Eve of this whole mythology. Without them, there wouldn't be all of this."
But as diehard fans well know, the Amory Wars saga is far from over: On their upcoming studio album, their sixth, The Afterman: Ascension, Sanchez and company (guitarist Travis Stever, returning drummer Josh Eppard, new bassist Zach Cooper) delve further into the mythos, exploring the origin story of Sirius Amory "and his discovery of the true value of (energy source) the Keywork."
Sanchez fully understands how the concept could be intimidating for a newcomer. He also acknowledges that, for some fans, the music is far more important than the storyline. "A lot of the songs are very universal," he says. "I'm inspired by my everyday experience, and that is what ultimately motivates the fiction. It's not like the lyrics are submerged int the concept. It's almost coming from a more open sort of angle."
On the album's deluxe edition, Sanchez offers fans a more introspective glimpse into the inspiration behind the songs. "You'll see the direct connection between what inspired the songs and characters and the fiction.," he says. "You can see my train of thought of how I write music and how I translate that into a piece of fiction. There is a direct connection from my life to the concept."
The anthemic, Thin Lizzy-inspired rocker "Goodnight, Fair Lady," was inspired, oddly enough, by a dreadful night at a local bar: "It was my wife and I sitting at a bar, and there's a guy at the end of the bar, and I couldn't help but think, 'What if he's a date rapist?' And what if all of a sudden a spotlight fell down on this guy, and he was suddenly singing about his sinister intention?"
The idea for the menacing, distorted epic "Vic the Butcher" sprouted from an awkward encounter Sanchez endured while living in Manhattan. "One night I went to Madison Square Garden to see a show, and I actually got into an altercation – it wasn't physical, but it was escalated to the point where it could. In the middle of MSG, I could hear people calling out 'Coheed!' I knew if I didn't leave that moment that something was going to happen."
The thought of losing his wife "and being lost, should that ultimately ever happen – that's a big theme that happens through both records," Sanchez says, offering a preview of Descension, the second half of the Afterman story, which is set for a February 2013 release. "The Afterman is about loss, and that's something that's always a theme for Coheed – what is the end, and what are the emotions that come from that?
"Descension is literally (Sirius') return to the planet side – also the descent of his life and losing his wife and everything," Sanchez continues. "Everything comes crumbling down, and you sort of get that in terms of the sonics of the records. But it does end on a high note, with this realization that Sirius has."
Despite the album's dark, heavy imagery, Coheed and Cambria are in excellent spirits as a band. Eppard's return to the drum throne, along with Cooper's infectious musicianship, have injected new blood into the project. Sanchez agrees that The Afterman often feels like a return to the raw enthusiasm of the band's early albums, which he attributes to a more relaxed pace of writing and recording.
"I just started to write with no agenda," he explains, referencing the process behind early albums like 2003's In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth. "We were a young band – we didn't have an agenda to abide by. We just wrote. It's that idea that with songwriting over two years' time, you allow yourself to change, and the music sort of changes with you." The Afterman, he says, "is in the spirit of 'younger me.'"
For Sanchez, there's no end in sight – for the Amory Wars saga, or the band itself.
"I wouldn't consider Coheed without a concept," he says. "For me as a writer, it kinds of opens up a little more in terms of the songwriting. I can take theses songs and morph them into something more wild, and I find that really rewarding. Even now, I have ideas about how to continue the story and how it will grow into something that continues the Coheed mythology.
"I want it to grow as large as I can get it."