For as far as their dizzyingly interwoven space operas have taken them, Coheed And Cambria’s return to Earth on 2015’s The Color Before The Sun felt much-needed. As their first non-concept album, it was naturally a lower stakes release, but doubling down on hooks and melodies for what was essentially a full-blown pop-rock album saw them earn their greatest plaudits in a long time. But while that could’ve easily convinced a more easily-swayed band to give up on the highfalutin prog-rock entirely for something more grounded and homespun, Coheed And Cambria are not that band. Thus, Vaxis: Act I – The Unheavenly Creatures (the first edition of five in its own sub-series of releases) continues with their telling of the ever-expanding Amory Wars saga, this time focusing on the titular “unheavenly creatures”, a pair of lovers who plan to escape from a prison planet called The Dark Sentencer governed by an alien society.
So far, so standard, then, but perhaps more so than any of Coheed And Cambria’s albums to date, The Unheavenly Creatures is the epitome of too much of a good thing. The Color Before The Sun was so well-received because it was palate cleanser needed after so many years of long, increasingly incoherent narrative, serving as the album that could be easily jumped into without the need for a study session to get caught up. Sure, this is at least starting at a fresh juncture of that story and introducing new plot threads for the first time, but it says a lot that the biggest standouts are the tracks where the narrative baggage feels the least essential.
That would imply that any of this is really essential though, especially when any cohesive plot is so difficult to parse out. It’s easy to grasp the protagonists’ meeting and the establishing details on The Dark Sentencer and Unheavenly Creatures, as well as their reconciliation and escape on Old Flames and Lucky Stars, but the majority of what’s in between feels so cluttered and borderline inconsequential, especially when the start and end are the only instances that are clearly laid out. And as stated earlier, it feels even more so when the highlights can be taken completely independently with their own self-contained themes and ideas and work just fine; The Pavilion (A Long Way Back) originally focused on Claudio Sanchez’s thoughts about leaving the band and captures that emotional push-and-pull in its sweeping strings and decidedly robust alt-rock structure, while The Gutter and Old Flames capture the big-hearted, high-stakes melodrama that’s always preferable in power ballads. These are great moments in their own right, and stand out even more thanks to all the naval-gazing in the writing that surrounds them.
And it’s a shame it had to be like that because, on a purely compositional level, The Unheavenly Creatures is as characteristically excellent as ever. A big factor of that is Sanchez as an immediately recognisable and potent presence behind the microphone, whose able to automatically elevate the likes of Toys and Love Protocol past their narrative trappings, and simply allow some truly fantastic melodies to take precedence. Coheed And Cambria have always been imbued with a knack for tapping into their pop side, and that’s really pushed to the fore here; on the basis of simple sound, this is the sort of huge, triumphant listen you’d expect to soundtrack a story as grand as theirs. What’s more, it’s not as if the dreaded tag of a progressive rock band takes too much hold either, as while these songs are all pretty sizable (out of fifteen, only three fall below five minutes), they seldom feel overlong or stretched beyond their limits. It’s one of the reasons that Black Sunday feels like the considerably weakest cut here; not only does the lower rasp that Sanchez drops into not flatter him at all, but with a sleazy glam-metal instrumental, the bombast feels stripped back when it’s needed more than ever. At least it’s the demonstrable minority, and while the connective tissue could’ve done with a few more drafts, the fact that this is such an expressive, enormous listen really does save The Unheavenly Creatures from – as it were – blowing up on itself.
It’s definitely good that that’s the case and that this album can indeed be viewed positively, but still, it’s not totally out of the question to expect more from Coheed And Cambria at this point. Their exercise in world-building and storytelling is dangerous close to reaching unmanageable levels, and while their penchant for melody and huge hooks is definitely a boon, it’s not going to get them the whole way, especially when that narrative element is what they’ve built literally their entire career on. Hopefully they can find a way to rein it in a bit and make upcoming albums more successful – they’ve done it in the past so there’s no reason why they can’t again – but The Unheavenly Creatures feels lost in their universe with only a handful of moments to keep it from totally falling away. It’s good that even a weaker Coheed And Cambria album still shines, but they’ve got the potential to do much more.
For fans of: The Dear Hunter, The Mars Volta, Thrice
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Vaxis: Act I – The Unheavenly Creatures’ by Coheed And Cambria is out now on Roadrunner Records.