After 2010’s Year Of The Black Rainbow, Coheed And Cambria had something to prove. Having reached the high point, narratively and sonically, of its multi-album Armory Wars storyline, leader Claudio Sanchez decided to use The Afterman: Ascension—and its sequel, The Afterman: Descension, due early next year—as an ancillary tale to the main storyline. It sounds needlessly complicated, but that’s what Coheed And Cambria has always excelled at: taking the geeky ambition and gratuitous complexity of a comic-book series and casting it against the slick backdrop of soaring, prog-inflated post-hardcore.
To Ascension’s strength, that storyline takes a back seat to the music. While steeped in the details of Sanchez’s increasingly convoluted science-fiction milieu, the disc stays focused on his sharp yet sprawling songcraft. Launched on wings of haunting piano and ethereal symphonics, Ascension quickly skips through the obligatory instrumental intro, “The Hollow,” and into more epic realms: “Key Entity Extraction I: Domino The Destitute” surges with stuttering rhythm and mythic urgency, and its harmonic heaviness gives way to the delicate, string-laden hush of “The Afterman.”
It’s tracks like “Mothers Of Men” and “Key Entity Extraction III: Vic The Butcher,” though, that show Coheed in full prog bloom. Sanchez’s high-pitched, Geddy Lee-esque vocals take on a rounder, more textured tone, and the songs convey all the dynamism and grandeur of their overarching narrative. Granted, there are slight missteps like “Key Entity Extraction II: Hollywood The Cracked,” with its tired, mismatched, grunting-verse, catchy-chorus formula, not to mention the lackluster acoustic-electric closer, “Subtraction.” But considering this is Coheed And Cambria—one of the most overwrought bands among its poppier, punker peers—Ascension sounds practically gritty. In dialing back and containing its ambition rather than letting it bleed all over the place, Sanchez and company have found what might be a surer way forward.