Coheed and Cambria's Claudio Sanchez has written some decent enough songs for his new project, but it's the clumsy attempts to tie it to the Coheed mythology that doom it to mediocrity.
Coheed and Cambria is not just a band, it's an experience. Sure, a listener who allows a Coheed and Cambria album into her headphones can concentrate on the music -- to hear Coheed and Cambria is to hear the modern sound of prog, right down to the impenetrable vocabulary words and extended instrumental passages -- but to limit the Coheed and Cambria experience to the music that they perform is to miss a huge chunk of the experience. There is a long, involved story to be followed, there are comic books to be read, and there is an entire history (or a mythology, if you prefer) to make sense of and memorize. It is the depth to which Coheed and Cambria are willing to extend their narrative that inspires such devotion in their surprisingly large fanbase.
As such, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that the Prize Fighter Inferno, the solo side project of Coheed and Cambria lead vocalist Claudio Sanchez, continues to expand on the story that Coheed and Cambria has established. Specifically, the album (with the typically unwieldy title My Brother's Blood Machine) is a tangential exploration of one of the minor groups of characters in the Coheed canon: the McCloud family. Rather than telling a proper story, My Brother's Blood Machine is more of a collection of vignettes, each of which give us a little bit more background on the family and its star-crossed life journey.
Sanchez has made the most of the opportunity that the eschewing of a traditional narrative provides -- the sheer number of musical styles on display throughout My Brother's Blood Machine is staggering. The album opens on a pop-electronic note called "The Going Price for Home", with synths buzzing and floating in and out of a roomy, unobtrusive mix, the relatively mellow feel of the electronics doing well to back up a subdued vocal performance. While the electronics reappear throughout the album, however, they are not its sole focus. Sanchez throws lots of acoustic-guitar-and-voice tracks onto the album (many of which have a Paul Simon covering early Peter Gabriel sort of vibe to them), some upbeat, buzzy pop (with pianos!) finds its way into the track list ("Who Watches the Watchmen?"), and a groovy, plugged-in workout shows up right at the end to throw a bone to the Coheed and Cambria fans that feel left behind by Sanchez's stylistic choices ("78", which is, surprise surprise, relegated to track 78).
So obviously, variety is not the issue with My Brother's Blood Machine. The question, then, is this: If Sanchez's Prize Fighter Inferno is so dexterous as to be able to juggle so many different genres, why does the end product feel so empty?
Maybe it's the amount of time that the album took to put together; it says right in the album's liner notes (presented as a set of modified tarot cards) that it was "recorded over the span of seven years, in multiple environments, with random recording devices". This fact alone makes the attempt to string together some common thread in the songs somewhat laughable; you mean to tell me that, seven years before the album was released, Sanchez knew that he'd be writing about the same family seven years down the road? This makes such tenuous inclusions as "Wayne Andrews, the Old Beekeeper" and "Run, Gunner Recall, Run! The Town Wants You Dead!" feel even more out of place than they normally would, sore thumbs that actually sound older than their brethren, composed before the McClouds were even a spark in Sanchez's mind.
My Brother's Blood Machine is not without its charm, as it's hard to resist the appeal of songs like "A Death in the Family", which unabashedly uses a repeated major-key "La da doo da daaaah da" hook to beautiful effect, and the aforementioned "Who Watches the Watchmen?" could and should compete for airspace with anything on modern rock radio. Still, these are brief highlights in a sea of pretension -- while one might like to label Sanchez's efforts ambitious, it seems downright pretentious to expect his fanbase to buy that his seven-year when-he-feels-like-it solo project had a common theme all this time. Combine that attitude with the lack of truly catchy melodies or gripping emotional moments, and My Brother's Blood Machine is quickly relegated to the status of a mere curiosity, one that even the staunchest of Coheed and Cambria fans might be well advised to do without.