I've always wanted to be George Lucas," admits Coheed and Cambria's Claudio Sanchez. "But I'm not really. I just want to rock."
Coheed and Cambria, however, is closer to inspiring a Star Wars-like fanaticism than Sanchez may think. A Google search for "Coheed and Cambria," for instance, yields 181,000 results, a stunning indicator of just how popular the act really is. Obsessive followers spend countless hours in chat rooms scrutinizing the group's lyrics, story lines and characters. Although the music -- a darkly passionate and original blend of prog-metal/emo -- justifies such zeal in itself, fans are just as riveted by the characters created by Sanchez in his sci-fi-fantasy saga.
In addition to being the band's namesake, Coheed and Cambria are Adam-and-Eve-like heroes in The Bag Online Adventures, a grand tale penned by Sanchez. Their story is told on The Second Stage Turbine Blade, Coheed's epic debut album, and its recently released companion comic. It's the second chapter in a story of love, child murder and defenders of the universe. The third installment is Coheed's second record, In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3, released last year; it's even more stylistically and thematically ambitious than the first.
While one might assume that this whole nerdy package would appeal only to the unkempt, Dungeons and Dragons-playing, trenchcoat-in-summer set, Secrets of Silent Earth peaked at number 52 on the Billboard 200. And a single from the album, "A Favor House Atlantic," reached number forty on the magazine's Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. In short, Coheed and Cambria, an undeniably geeky and pretentious music-slash-art experiment, should have failed miserably. Instead, it has made minor-league stars of Sanchez and company. And, as with the Star Wars series, the last thing fans will learn about the characters Coheed and Cambria is how the story began.
Pinpointing the origins of Coheed and Cambria, the band, is a little less suspenseful. Early on, in upstate New York, Sanchez was obsessed with all things musical. "I'd go to school with my guitar and amp on my back and tell my dad I was playing in the jazz band," Sanchez recounts. "I'd walk to school, then turn around and take the bus up to Woodstock to play with my band." With guitar and amp still in tow, Sanchez planted the seeds that would become Coheed and Cambria in 1995, with a basement band unpromisingly named Shabutie. This outfit -- which included Sanchez and bassist Michael Todd -- played a brand of multifarious, schizophrenic rock that made Mr. Bungle sound like Britney Spears. "We were playing funk, jazz, metal -- all in a three-minute song," Sanchez says with a chuckle. "We weren't exactly the most popular band around."
As Sanchez and Todd grew older, their interest in stylistic smash-ups collided with a growing focus on melody. Concurrently, Sanchez became more and more preoccupied with fantasy literature, and in 1998, The Bag Online Adventures began to take shape in his mind. He started to craft his cryptic songs using just a guitar and some techno beats. Meanwhile, members of Shabutie came and went until the lineup solidified with Sanchez, Todd, lead guitarist Travis Stever and drummer Joshua Eppard. As the four charted new musical territory together, they realized they were also in need of a new identity, and Coheed and Cambria was born.
Underneath Coheed's Tolkien-style themes, grand battle scenes, perplexing poetry and imposing intergalactic monsters lies the real magic: well-crafted rock and roll, executed with equal parts passion and precision. No doubt there are plenty of esoteric, twelve-sided dice to roll here, but the music stands just fine on its own: Eppard's dazzling drumming draws from multiple idioms, including jazz, metal and classic rock, while Todd's athletic bass lines never sacrifice guts for glitter. Stever's alternately intricate and crushing guitar work entwines with Sanchez's meaty chords and soaring vocals to define the foursome's sound. While Rush's lyrical themes and highly technical musicianship are the clearest antecedents to Coheed's elaborate theatrics -- a hidden track on Secrets of Silent Earth is titled "21:13," a possible allusion to Rush's 1976 masterpiece, 2112 -- shades of the Mars Volta's swerving extr-emo, Tool's somber pummeling and even Iron Maiden's darkly melodic, heavily conceptual British metal also inform the band's inventive approach. Although Sanchez's high-pitched nasal tone and astounding range frequently recall Geddy Lee's best efforts, they also have more than a little in common with Bruce Dickinson's operatic howl, thereby icing the ensemble's bittersweet, complex musical cake.
It's easy to get lost in the sprawling, brawny compositions and raw, unrestrained emotions of the dense aural attack while remaining completely ignorant of the concept behind it all. "If there were no story attached to the band," Sanchez points out, "I don't think there'd be much of a difference. The songs are very open-ended."
Still, there's no denying the appeal of the mystery and suspense tied up in the narrative that has inspired Coheed and Cambria's zealous following, feverish bulletin-board postings and obsessive dissection by prepubescent literary analysts. In a way, fans have been hooked into the first punk-rock loyalty program, signing up for years of purchases from the very first release. After all, you can't simply abandon our hero, Claudio (yes, the main character of the story shares a name with the author), the psychopath Al the Killer ("Die, white girls"), and the whole cast of characters without finding out their ultimate fate. You'll have to buy the next record. And the next comic book. And the next.
With Coheed and Cambria, Sanchez and his bandmates have created a franchise that has no precedent in the world of rock and roll. Theirs is an empire built on a compelling narrative about the eternal battle of good versus evil, conveyed through complex yet potent compositions and poetic lyrics. While the leap from records to comic books seems large, it's all part of the natural progression for Sanchez.
"The next step is possibly some collectible figures that follow the story line down the road," muses Sanchez. "But we don't want to overdo it."
Punk-rock action figures? George Lucas better watch his back.
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