Keeping the Acclaim: The Legacy of Coheed and Cambria's 'Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV'

Photo: Lindsey Byrnes

A decade after its release, Coheed and Cambria's third full-length album remains the group's highest benchmark, as well as one of the genre's best modern albums.

These days, progressive rock and mainstream success are typically mutually exclusive; in other words, it’s extremely rare for a band associated with the style to enter our public consciousness, receive extensive attention from the media, achieve substantial sales, and headline major [inter]national tours. Fortunately, a few modern prog artists, such as Radiohead, Muse, The Mars Volta, Dream Theater, Tool, and Between the Buried and Me have more or less accomplished these feats and become household names. However, none of them blend epic storytelling, conceptual continuity, theatrical production, technical musicianship, and memorable melodies into remarkable commercial triumphs as well as Coheed and Cambria.

Formed in 1995 and fronted by prophetic guitarist/vocalist/scribe Claudio Sanchez, the New York quartet has issued seven records thus far, and all of them have received praise not only for their elaborate yet magnetic arrangements, contagious choruses, visceral and vibrant lyricism, and histrionic vocals (which are often compared to those of Geddy Lee and Cedric Bixler-Zavala), but also for the ways in which they contribute to a central, expansive narrative. Like most of the works by Ayreon and The Dear Hunter, each of Coheed and Cambria’s releases serves as a movement in the ongoing Amory Wars saga (whose initial two main characters were Coheed and Cambria Kilgannon, a married couple). A masterful fusion of apocalyptic sci-fi narrative, extremely dynamic instrumentation, and heartfelt subtext about the human condition, the band’s collective discography is simply extraordinary.

As spectacular as all of these efforts are, though, the vast majority of fans and critics agree that the group’s third album, Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness, is their finest achievement yet. Celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, the opus marked a major leap forward in terms of both the band’s craftsmanship and fame; despite the relative victories of its two predecessors—The Second Stage Turbine Blade (2002) and In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 (2003)—Good Apollo inarguably exemplified an evolution in every facet of their artistry. In addition, it granted them a crucial expansion into popular culture (with tracks like “Welcome Home” and “The Suffering”, as well as outlets like MTV, VH1, Hot Topic, and Spencer Gifts, contributing to their reign).

Likewise, each of its successors (including its direct sequel, 2007’s Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume Two: No World for Tomorrow, commonly shortened to just No World for Tomorrow) has maintained the same beloved elements in similar syntheses, yet none have come close to matching the immeasurable fineness of this one. Bigger, bolder, and more varied and ambitious than anything else they’ve ever done, Good Apollo immediately set a benchmark not only for the band, but for the genre as a whole. Ten years later, it remains Coheed and Cambria’s sole magnum opus, as well as one of the greatest progressive rock/metal albums of its era.

In terms of its line-up, Good Apollo was the band’s last studio album with drummer Josh Eppard (who left in 2006) until 2012’s The Afterman: Ascension (so he wasn’t on No World for Tomorrow or Year of the Black Rainbow). (Technically, bassist Michael Todd also left in 2006, but he returned a few months later and stayed until 2011.) Aside from them and Sanchez, guitarist Travis Stever (who’s still a member) rounded out the official quartet. Beyond that, Coheed and Cambria used a plethora of additional musicians to make the sequence as striving and multifaceted as possible, including didgeridoo player Chester Brockwell, ukuleleists Kara Bullock and Nick Gardner, and even Sanchez’s niece, Janiris, on vocals. These players, in conjunction with producers Michael Birnbaum and Chris Bittner, made the auditory palette of Good Apollo far more diverse, magnificent, and polished than those of its precursors. Obviously, this also served its grand storyline brilliantly.

Although covering the entire scenario of The Amory Wars (which also includes several graphic novels) up to this point would require a separate essay, it’s worth discussing a bit about what Good Apollo is, well, about. Set in Heaven’s Fence (a collection of dozens of planets connected by beams of energy called the Keywork), the tale explores death, destiny, redemption, and revenge in relation to the aforementioned Kilgannon family and antagonist Wilhelm Ryan, the “Supreme Tri-Mage”/”Archmage” of Heaven’s Fence. Good Apollo itself revolves around Claudio Kilgannon (the couple’s son) and his quest to protect the Keywork; it also sheds light on his parents’ demise, as well as the involvement of his uncle, Jesse. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of its plot, though, is its meta structure, as it also contains the [Writing] Writer, who is literally crafting the story of The Amory Wars and implements his own delusions and issues (including ones involving his ex-girlfriend, Erica Court) onto his characters and plot lines.

Chronologically, Good Apollo is the fourth chapter in the original pantalogy (which has since been expanded); in fact, No World for Tomorrow is the end of the story, while its successor (and the band’s fifth LP), Year of the Black Rainbow, actually takes place before The Second Stage Turbine Blade (although Coheed and Cambria’s most recent output, the two Afterman full-lengths, are now the earliest entries timeline-wise). In a subtle yet clever display of conceptual continuity, the title of the record was foreshadowed in the booklet for In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3, as the words “My Dearest Apollo I'll Be Burning Star 4” follows the lyrics for the record’s final (or penultimate, depending on your view) song, “The Light & The Glass”. Yes, it’s all a bit confusing, but it’s also undeniably aspiring and fascinating.

Without undermining the value of its fiction, though, Good Apollo has (and will) always be revered for its lyrical and sonic excellency. It begins with a gorgeous yet mournful orchestral piece called "Keeping the Blade". Distressing strings juxtapose equally traumatic piano notes, culminating in magnificently affective countermelodies; in fact, even its phrasing and timing seems a bit disjointed, which adds more unease and heartache. Eventually, the arrangement segues seamlessly into the main motif of the saga (commonly referred to as the Keywork Theme). In contrast to the slightly crude ways this phrase opened the prior two releases (in “Second Stage Turbine Blade” and “The Ring in Return”, respectively), this version is exponentially more regal, refined, and luscious, with a classical foundation and graceful edge that suggests both the evolution of the band’s creative chemistry and the aural weight of Good Apollo as a whole.

A playful acoustic guitar melody leads us into “Always & Never”, a beautiful ballad in which Sanchez chooses a serene and romantic tone over his typical histrionic urgency. Behind the notes, we hear a child (Janiris) playing in the background, which adds a warm, childlike quality to it. There are also some spacey effects scattered throughout. Lyrically, the song finds the Writer pondering what he’d do for Court if he had another chance with her. He begins sweetly by wishing he could share “... a child’s kiss of laughter ...” with her; he also asks her to “stay with me and fall asleep/ Pray to god for no bad dreams”. Ominously, though, his thoughts quickly move from endearing to endangering, as a sense of insanity and violence breaks through: “Here / I’m still waiting here, my dear / For one kiss from you / Here / I’m still waiting here, my dear / To kill all of you”. It’s a fascinating moment because of how delicate the music is around these words. Of course, this sentiment is only a prelude to the complete fury that follows in “Welcome Home”.

Considering how much the song has infiltrated popular culture (including appearances in the video game Rock Band and the film 9), it’s fair to say that “Welcome Home” is still Coheed and Cambria’s most famous song. Without question, the prestige is quite deserved, as the song is absolutely incredible; in fact, it’s possibly the band’s best blend of gripping wrath and catchiness (although “No World for Tomorrow” and “Key Entity Extraction I: Domino the Destitute” may match it). Centered on one of the most iconic guitar riffs of the century, it finds Sanchez belting out his words with immense theatricality and personality as percussion, strings, and sharp guitar tones erupt around him. Both its arrangements and production are as epic, extreme, and overwhelmingly elaborate as anything else in their catalog.

Conceptually, it finds the Writer looking for vengeance against Court (who cheated on him), with his opening words—“You could've been all I wanted / But you weren't honest / Now get in the ground / You choked off the surest of favors / But if you really loved me / You would've endured my world”—displaying disturbing levels of homicidal misogyny. Of course, he also calls her “a whore in sheep’s clothing / Fucking up all I do”, which doesn’t help the situation. During the chorus, though, things become softer, as the Writer expresses, “Here laid to rest / Is our love ever longed? / With truth on the shores of compassion”.

Mentally, he’s torn between longing for their past and preventing her future. This is demonstrated best near the end of the song, when he goes from pleading, “One last kiss for you / One more wish to you / Please make up your mind girl / I’d do anything for you” (with a stylish melody), to exploding back into anger with “Please make up your mind girl / Before I hope you die!” From there, the central treatment swells as more strings and choral cheers build to a tragic crescendo before ending with lone strings. Listeners are left breathless, having experienced valiant devastation as only Coheed and Cambria could deliver. Really, it’s the best section on an album full of astonishing moments. In and of itself, it’s a masterpiece.

A poppier and more inviting track, “Ten Speed (of God’s Blood and Burial)” finds the Writer talking to his subconscious (Ten Speed, in the form of a maleficent bicycle) about his woe and visions. They also discuss how Claudio represents the Writer. An upbeat guitar riff complements the riveting exchange between the two, during which the Writer confesses that he doesn’t want to “ride tonight / No, I don’t want to go”, while Ten Speed tries to convince him to “ ... leave her, in leaving them all”. In other words, Ten Speed tells him to simply stop writing the story to end his misery, but the Writer refuses. Aside from its schizophrenic narrative, the song stands out because of its production, which includes overlapping singing, eccentric voice-overs, and some piercing guitar lines.

“Crossing the Frame” is one of the most straightforward tracks on Good Apollo, which is to say that it’s not especially imposing. Still, there’s no denying that its chord progressions, coupled with its compelling chorus and bridge, result in an appealing amalgam nonetheless. The Writer now addresses Newo Ikkin, Claudio’s girlfriend (who is modeled after Court, of course), and further laments what “... you would’ve been if I stayed here at home / I’m giving you up, Newo / How important I could’ve been to you”. As for the bridge, it’s a confident spark in an otherwise foreboding sky, as the Writer imagines “Casting quarters into wells that hold our dreams / You wouldn’t believe me ... if I told you so”. Near the end, handclaps balance Sanchez’s layered vocals to add extra liveliness, increasing its sing-a-long nature.

Afterward, “Apollo I: The Writing Writer” initially blends more discontented spacey effects with an alternate version of the Keywork Theme before erupting into some of the album’s most intricate rhythms, showcasing why Todd and Eppard are a such a great team. Similarly, Sanchez offers one of his most infectious choruses here, singing, “If my shame spills our worth across this floor / Then tonight, goodnight, I’m Burning Star IV / Only I don’t want to think of you / No, girl, I don’t want to think of you anymore. Goodnight, tonight, goodbye”. Here, the Writer reflects on his motives and fictional creations, contemplating the outcomes and rationale he wants. This is made most evident when he confesses, “In my presence you might wake / Through this fiction I must fake / Your death to grace the face of my character / With these lessons he might learn / All the worlds from here must burn / For as god demands in the end we miss”. Interestingly, the idea of worlds burning comes up again not only near the end of the album, but also on No World for Tomorrow.

Like “Always & Never”, the easygoing sounds of “Once upon Your Dead Body” conflicts with its malicious lyrics. With a silky lead guitar tone and hopeful singing, the track feels like another optimistic ode; however, thoughts like “No, I hope you die right now / Will you drink my chemical? / And If you cry out loud / It'll only make me feel too good” demonstrate that the Writer is still envisioning death and revenge. Halfway through, a rhythmic shift sets off another jigsaw puzzle of captivating overlapping vocals that exemplify the cognitive dissonance the Writer continues to deal with.

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