I prepared to review Coheed & Cambria’s fifth studio album, Year of the Black Rainbow, by immersing myself in their entire discography and mythos for the last two weeks. I know these albums very well now, and what follows may spark disappointment (towards the band) and outrage (towards me). YOTBR is a huge letdown, quite possibly standing as their weakest album. There is really no reason to even hear YOTBR.
Coheed & Cambria is a quartet formed in NY circa 2001. Their name comes from two major characters from the “Amory Wars” concept mastermind Claudio Sanchez derived for their albums. The five part saga spanned all their studio discography, and YOTBR serves as the first part. Often they are labeled as merely an emo band, which is a huge disservice since their ambition, intricate musicianship and knack for memorable, affective melodies places them more into a progressive rock with pop sensibilities category. The influences of Rush, Pink Floyd, as well as a sound similar to The Mars Volta, are apparent. Unfortunately, YOTBR lacks a lot of these qualities, so the band feels like only a shadow of their former selves.
The album opens as you’d expect: ominous atmosphere and a simple piano melody (which doesn’t reference any of their previous motifs). “One” sets the stage appropriately, but the next 50+ minutes, save for a few moments, aren’t very special. “The Broken” carries the attitude and volume fans expect, but not the passion or hooks from previous album openers like “No World For Tomorrow” and “Welcome Home” (well, these aren’t technically album openers, but you know what I mean). Those two songs had more excitement, emotion and raw kick ass riffs than all of YOTBR combined. They were songs you couldn’t help but strain your voice and hurt your hands playing along with, featuring an exhilarating, bombastic energy that’s not found here.
All of their previous albums encompassed the feeling of an epic, life altering struggle for survival. We felt the Amory Wars unfold with all the anger, loss, betrayal, and love Claudio conveyed in the lyrics. We don’t with YOTBR, save for one track: “Pearl of the Stars.” With a great melody, meaningful lyrics, and powerful production (orchestration, sound effects, etc), it earns a spot alongside their other ballads. This track feels like it is part of the Amory Wars story. The rest of the album doesn’t. In fact, these songs are so unremarkable and unmemorable that I won’t bother discussing them individually.
So what exactly is missing from YOTBR? Well, for starters, where’s their great usage of dynamics? These songs are all about being in your face (and rather generically too). Where are the softer parts within these tracks that we can sing along with and get stuck in our head? Where is the aforementioned skill for pop appeal (besides “Pearl…”)? Also, where’s the counter-melody and eclectic, strange vocal overdubs of “The Suffering” and “The Willing Well I?” Where’s the orchestration? Finally, where is the song suite fans expect to end a Coheed & Cambria album?
Looking at the larger concept, Year of the Black Rainbow feels like it should be their debut since it features less sophisticated song structures, little experimentation, and no musical or melodic references to the saga. There’s no conceptual continuity. Remember how “The Suffering” from Good Apollo I borrowed its hook from “Three Evils” from In Keeping Secrets…? Remember how all four previous albums, somewhere, referenced the “What did I do to deserve?” lyric? And, just like No World for Tomorrow, the “time skip motif,” which opened the first three albums and appeared throughout them, is missing. Why is it missing?! It should have opened and/or closed this album (I had the same gripe about NWFT, but at least that album maintained quality and an epic feel). This feels like a Coheed & Cambria album, don’t get me wrong, but it feels like a less ambitious and less refined version. Again, it feels like a debut.
Year of the Black Rainbow is not a bad album. It has its moments, but it is a far, far cry from the greatness Coheed & Cambria possessed on all four previous albums, especially the masterpiece of melody, dynamics, musicianship and continuity that was Good Apollo I. That album was the band at their peak, fully realizing and possessing all the tools and tricks they needed to bring their ambition to life. Maybe it makes sense that, being the prequel album, YOTBR lacks the developments the story gained as it progressed. That’s fine for the concept, but musically, it’s not an excuse. This album should feel like another entry into the epic, crushing, heartbreaking, explosive, murderous and cathartic “Amory Wars.” It doesn’t.