Coheed and Cambria‘s second album, In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3, is a fascinating document of a band starting to carve their unique path. The record, which celebrated its 20th anniversary on 7 October 2023, was technically the first time they made a “real” album. Their debut, The Second Stage Turbine Blade, came out a year prior. However, Coheed and Cambria’s label, Equal Vision Records, had deemed the group’s demo version strong enough to release as an official album. Second Stage does sound exceedingly good for a demo. It is a little thin and a little raw. For a label accustomed to dealing with the punk and metal side of the early 2000s emo genre, though, it was a recording of, if not sparkling, then at least above-average quality.
Second Stage also provides a clear example of why Coheed and Cambria were signed to an emo label in the first place. It’s worth noting that nearly every young rock band at the start of the century got lumped into the emo genre, from pop-punkers like Fall Out Boy to the post-hardcore of Thursday to the acoustic belting of Dashboard Confessional. Still, Second Stage combined knotty, unconventional songwriting with occasional big hooks and the soaring, passionate vocals of Claudio Sanchez. It sounded relatively close to what emo’s middle of the road was then, even if the lyrics were rather inscrutable.
Tellingly, Coheed and Cambria stuck with Second Stage producers Michael Birnbaum and Chris Bittner for In Keeping Secrets, and they would continue to use the duo for multiple future records. Even so, the production here is more muscular and dynamic than on the debut. This is evident from the beginning, opening with a short instrumental theme. Their first LP also started this way but was a simple violin and piano arrangement. The opening theme is fully orchestrated this time, although still based around a piano melody.
From there, Coheed and Cambria launch right into the eight-minute title track. They embrace their progressive rock tendencies fully here and to significant effect. The song is ambitious and complicated but also full of hooks. They fire on all cylinders, from the twin opening guitar lines, courtesy of Sanchez and Travis Stever, to Josh Eppard’s groove-based drumming that accents the guitars perfectly to the multiple big sing-along refrains. The song wraps up with a coda that reprises the opening guitars but adds a massive, wordless chorus of, “Whoa oh oh!” With this, they created an instant audience participation favorite.
The progressive rock elements were present on Coheed and Cambria’s first LP, but primarily as background. With In Keeping Secrets, it’s a recurring theme. “The Crowing”, the track that most resembles the twisty songwriting of their debut, pushes past the six-and-half minute mark, jumping from one gnarled guitar riff to another, with small vocal refrains tying it together. However, unlike with “In Keeping Secrets”, they stay away from the big hooks here.
This album closes with two nine-minute epics. Both “The Light and the Glass” and “21:13” split the difference between “In Keeping Secrets” and “The Crowing”. Each song drifts through multiple distinct passages and melodies, but neither is as knotty as “The Crowing” or as immediately catchy as “In Keeping Secrets”.
However, both include interesting references to classic rock acts, another new wrinkle for Coheed and Cambria. “The Light and the Glass” sits on the riff from Pink Floyd‘s “Have a Cigar” for nearly a minute. Meanwhile, “21:13” as a title is an obvious Rush reference, and it also features a mid-song acoustic guitar break that’s Led Zeppelin-esque. Plus, the earlier track “Faint of Hearts” drops in some “Coo-coo, ca-choo” backing vocals to ensure the Beatles are also represented.
The rest of In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 features shorter, mostly punchier songs. Their sound ranges from bright pop-rockers like the catchy “Blood Red Summer” and the driving “A Favor House Atlantic” to heavier, metal-adjacent material like “Al the Killer.” For those who enjoy the harder-edged side of the emo genre, bassist Mic Todd’s hardcore screams punctuate the background of many of the tracks. For those who didn’t, well, those screams are firmly in the background while Sanchez’s melodic high tenor voice is always front and center.
Equal Vision Records probably knew they had a hit on their hands when the record debuted at #52 on the Billboard chart. It went on to sell 150,000 copies over the next several months. This was just at the cusp of digital downloads taking over the music business, so most were physical copies.
This moderate success with little promotion and no hit single caught the attention of major label Columbia Records, who signed Coheed and Cambria that spring, reissued the album in late June of 2004, and started pushing “A Favor House Atlantic” to modern rock stations. Columbia’s efforts paid off, as the song rose to #13 on the Alternative charts, and the video received airtime on the portions of MTV that were still playing music at that point. “Blood Red Summer” was released as a second single that November, which also charted as an Alternative single (at #29).
That In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 was a success, even a moderate one, is remarkable. Coheed and Cambria’s expanded sound made them even more challenging to place into a single rock subgenre. They weren’t heart on your sleeve enough to genuinely be emo. They took a lot of inspiration from heavy metal and progressive rock but didn’t fully commit to either style. They were happy to write some catchy, poppier songs, but they would never be Blink-182 or Kings of Leon. Maybe the fact that they drifted in between popular sounds worked to their advantage in attracting fans.
The other issue that would seem to be a barrier to Coheed and Cambria achieving mainstream success was the ongoing story. They are a profoundly nerdy band, a fact one can probably divine through their often unwieldy album titles. Nine of their ten albums have taken place lyrically in the fictional sci-fi world of the Amory Wars. When he started writing songs, Claudio Sanchez began to fit them into the framework of a massive, ongoing saga. The band is named after a pair of characters in the story. How much effort Sanchez devotes in his lyrics to telling the story varies from record to record. On In Keeping Secrets, though, he was all in. Every song relates to the story’s plot, technically Part 3, despite it only being their second album.
Yet Coheed and Cambria’s records, including In Keeping Secrets, don’t function as rock operas, where listeners can follow the story from song to song. Instead, Sanchez describes them more as “soundtracks” to the saga. Much of the time, this means the songs are about the story without actually telling the story. The result is that unless a devoted fan is willing to do extra legwork and follow comic books or dig into online resources, the lyrics often seem very vague.
Despite these factors, Coheed and Cambria started to grow their audience. Columbia’s marketing efforts worked, and the LP eventually went gold in the United States, selling over 500,000 copies. In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 set the template for their future releases. The mixture of styles continues today, with long, proggy tracks often sequestered near the end of their albums. Sanchez’s ear for big hooks can be found in his vocal melodies and intricate guitar work with Travis Stever, and the way the band works it all into different styles of rock music is impressive.
Today, Coheed and Cambria sell out theaters and concert halls, with fans just as passionately singing along to the off-the-wall lyrics from the latest album as they shout out the “Whoa oh oh’s” from the song “In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3”. Coheed and Cambria have also used their unique status as a square peg in rock music to highlight all sorts of different acts. Groups including the shoegaze/black metal of Deafheaven, the instrumental metal of Russian Circles, the catchy guitar rock of Fang Island, and the even nerdier, more intricate prog storytelling of the Dear Hunter have all spent time as opening acts for Coheed.
Twenty years on, In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 doesn’t feel dated. Birnbaum and Bittner’s production is clean and steady, letting Coheed and Cambria handle the dynamics. It’s not overly glossy or heavily distorted, often the two options for bands in the early 2000s. The songs’ oddball construction keeps the listener’s attention, at least for those who haven’t spent decades internalizing every twist and turn. Although it didn’t turn out to be Coheed and Cambria’s most popular record (that would be 2005’s Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Part One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness. See? Deeply nerdy and unwieldy), In Keeping Secrets remains a fan favorite and one of their best albums.