Although 2009’s Year of the Black Rainbow contained a few standout tracks (namely, “Pearl of the Stars”), many fans felt that Coheed and Cambria didn’t live up to their potential with it. As the long-awaited first chapter in their five-part sci-fi concept (which could be likened to an updated, futuristic take on Romeo & Juliet), the record lacked several key traits of their previous work, including extremely catchy hooks, bittersweet emotional depth, and necessary thematic continuity. Naturally, some devotees lowered their expectations for whatever would come next, which, as we now know, is a two-part concept album with a storyline related to the Amory Wars (but not centered on the aforementioned characters). The first of this epic, Ascension, is a relatively short yet overwhelmingly impressive, passionate venture that definitely eclipses its predecessor. If Year of the Black Rainbow left you stagnant, The Afterman: Ascension may just blow you away again.
As for the concept of Ascension (and its follow-up, Descension), it’s still very apocalyptic. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, vocalist/guitarist/creative leader Claudio Sanchez said, “It’s still in the Amory Wars mythos. Basically, as a broad stroke, it’s the origin and tale of Sirius Amory, the namesake of the mythology.” The story revolves around the Afterman discovering the Keywork, which is the energy source for the world. “In the Keywork, he finds out it’s not comprised of these kinds of elements – it’s actually almost an afterlife. And your energy in life echoes in death. So, if you’re a horrible human being in life, your energy as part of the Keywork is horrible,” he continued. In addition, The Afterman: Ascension marks the return of drummer Josh Eppard, who sat out the last two offerings, as well as the introduction of bassist Zach Cooper. With this record, Coheed and Cambria recall the affective energy, ambitious stakes, and hypnotic hooks of their middle-period classics.
The Afterman: Ascension begins like many of its predecessors: an atmospheric, beautiful preface segues into a bombastic tour-de-force. “The Hollow”, like “The Ring in Return” and “Keeping the Blade” before it, is centered on a delicate, beautiful melody that signifies loss and devastation. It will likely be the core theme of this new saga. It also features several characters discussing destiny, with lines like “You’ll stay with me, won’t you?” and “I am always awake. What do you require of me?” hinting at just how serious their perils will be.
Similarly, “Key Entity Extraction I: Domino the Destitute”, while not quite as intense, complex, and addictive as “Welcome Home” and “No World for Tomorrow”, is another incredible album opener. Intricate percussion complements engaging verses, and both help build anticipation for the wonderful chorus. One of Coheed and Cambria’s strongest trademarks is intertwining shifting melodies, catastrophic production, and highly technical music, and they do it fantastically here. Listeners are once again treated to choral chants and sounds of destruction, too, which set up the rest of the album perfectly. Overall, these two tracks alone make this record soar.
Elsewhere, “The Afterman” eases the tension with a regretful vocals and touching timbres. Of particular effect are the staccato guitar work and light string arrangements. “Mothers of Men”, “Goodnight, Fair Lady”, and “Vic the Butcher” are more or less your standard blend of aggressive music and fiery hooks, while the gripping chorus of “Holly Wood the Cracked” arguably features the highest notes Sanchez has ever sung. As for “Evagria the Faithful”, it’s a classic C&C farewell song, which lines like “Goodbye forever, my darling, whether or not I was everything you thought I’d be” and “This hurt won’t go away” capturing the sentiments that the group is known for. None of this is to say that the track is a letdown, though; on the contrary, it’s extremely moving, especially the closing instrumental break. Interspersed within these tracks are the sounds and voices from “The Hollow”, which definitely give the album a sense of conceptual continuity.
The album concludes with a relatively simple track, “Subtraction”. Similar to “Pearl of the Stars”, the lead vocal is slow and gruff. It’s built around acoustic guitar arpeggios and electronic percussion, which are very effective at creating the sense of a temporary conclusion. Most importantly, though, the chorus is absolutely stunning; gentle and theatrical, its harmonies are magnificent, and Sanchez’s final remarks are heartbreaking. The group has rarely closed an album this well.
Although this is the group’s shortest album yet (which is expected considering that it’s really only ½ an album), it’s easily one of Coheed and Cambria’s most consistent in terms of quality. There really isn’t a second wasted here, and there are many standout moments. It’s definitely a tighter, more emotional and epic package than their last outing, and it truly builds anticipation for its successor. Although The Afterman: Ascension doesn’t come close to topping the group’s masterpiece, Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness (which is also one of my favorite albums ever), it’s conceivable that The Afterman: Ascension (as a whole) might. Either way, you’ll definitely be impressed with this first taste.