The Year of the Black Rainbow finds Coheed and Cambria in an interesting position. This is their fifth album, and supposedly the last in a series of concept records telling the epic sci-fi story of the Amory Wars and the titular characters Coheed and Cambria and their family. However, the previous album, No World for Tomorrow was in fact the closing chapter of the saga, leaving this one as a prequel to the main story. All of this background would seem a bit dense for the casual listener, except for the fact that frontman/songwriter Claudio Sanchez’s lyrics have never been about explicitly telling this story. On multiple occasions he’s referred to the band’s albums as “soundtracks” to the saga rather than the saga itself. This obtuseness has made it relatively easy for the band to release catchy hard rock singles while simultaneously encouraging the development of a hardcore cult audience that pores over every lyric trying to glean some better sense of the story Sanchez is telling.
Oh, and did we mention the fact that Sanchez, so enthusiastic about this sci-fi story on the band’s first two albums, seemed to lose interest in it around their third album? On that one he broke the story’s fourth wall to add in a “writer” character, confusing the issue greatly, and later admitted that the album was largely an account of his own personal trauma over his crumbling relationship with his then-girlfriend (now wife). All of this probably contributes to the fact that Year of the Black Rainbow is Coheed and Cambria’s most streamlined, least prog-rock-oriented album to date. Anyone looking for a bit of a return to the knotty, complicated songwriting of the band’s early work will probably be disappointed by this record. Also, anyone who was hoping Year of the Black Rainbow, as a prequel album, would take the opportunity to put in clever musical callbacks to the band’s earlier material is out of luck. There’s none of that here.
What is here, though, is a band that knows its strengths and knows how to play to them. But it also contains the same problem areas the band has always had. Sanchez’s soaring vocals, Sanchez and Travis Stever’s dueling guitar heroics, and drummer Chris Pennie’s considerable rhythmic skills are all on full display. This is not one of those records where a band tries out new things. And why would they? This is the end of their decade-long saga, and more importantly, the first time they’ve been able to get Pennie into the studio to play. Despite having joined the band in 2007, his previous record label (from when he was a member of Dillinger Escape Plan) played hardball, enforcing contractual obligations to keep Pennie on the sidelines while a substitute drummer recorded No World for Tomorrow. Pennie gets his first real showcase on the album’s third track, “Guns of Summer”, which opens with blazing fast stickwork that complements the swirling, speedy guitar riffing and bass from Michael Todd that sounds like it’s being filtered through a laser beam. “Summer”, despite being a great technical showcase and having a cool sound, exposes one of Coheed’s weaknesses. The band rarely manages to effectively infuse their more technical material with strong melodies or catchy choruses. This tendency emerges on most of the album’s harder-hitting tracks. “This Shattered Symphony” is all apocalyptic bombast with nice guitar interplay but there isn’t anything resembling a real hook to be found in the song. “In the Flame of Error” skates above a jagged rhythmic pattern nicely laid down by Pennie and Todd but has a forgettable chorus and a bridge that buries Sanchez’s vocal climax under chunky guitar riffs.
The good, though, far outweighs the bad on Year of the Black Rainbow. First single “The Broken” is a good indicator of what the better songs on the album have to offer. It’s built on a simple, heavy guitar riff that is then ornamented melodically by the second guitar with a showoffy solo two-thirds of the way through the song. Sanchez’s vocals are urgent and appealing and Pennie’s pounding drum fills add considerable low end to the track. “Here We Are Juggernaut” is the album’s catchiest rocker, with a strong chorus that finds Sanchez singing “We were stupid we got caught / But nothing matters anymore / So what.” Those lyrics are par for the course on the album, which mostly consist of vague half-stories of shattered love and doomsday-like proclamations. The dedicated audience will do better to read the 350-page novel included with the deluxe edition of the album than to try and parse these songs for information on the Amory Wars saga.
The album’s other strength lies in its slower tracks. “Far” is a melodic power ballad that comes off as heartfelt. Sanchez is at his hurt-romantic best here, which translates to lyrics like “I might be sick, broken, torn to pieces / Whatever this is / This thing that now I’ve become / You hate it so much / You keep on running from it / No matter the distance / No matter how far.” But Pennie proves to be the secret weapon on the song, playing what sounds like a full-sized concert bass drum and a snare that sounds almost synthetic. It gives the track a low-key feel that more closely resembles something from Sanchez’s electronic side-project The Prizefighter Inferno than anything Coheed and Cambria have done previously. “Pearl of the Stars” is a mostly acoustic song that finds Sanchez lamenting a dead lover over a slow, melodic bassline. “The Black Rainbow” closes out the album in a similar fashion to 2005’s Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star; with a slow-churning, desperate-sounding song that is dominated by loose guitar solos.
Year of the Black Rainbow sounds like a more self-assured take on what the band was attempting to do on the somewhat scattershot No World for Tomorrow. Freed from the necessity and pressure of wrapping up long-running storylines, the band focuses on economical songwriting. Only the sprawling “Black Rainbow” tops five-and-a-half minutes. The rest of the tracks stick to one or two ideas and try to make the most of them, and they usually succeed. While the album probably won’t replace any of the band’s early works on their fans’ lists of favorites, it’s a strong addition to their catalog.