Finding Emo

Intergalactic star wars? Epic dueling guitars? Why would anyone call Coheed & Cambria emo?

Mar 31, 2004 at 4:00 am
Let's just come right out and say it: Emo sucks. From Thursday to Taking Back Sunday to Saves the Day, most emo is showy sentimentality propped up with hollow hooks and loud guitars. Like a lot of mainstream genres, emo in its infancy -- during the reign of bands such as Fugazi and Sunny Day Real Estate -- was cool. Today it's been masticated by all the usual suspects, to the extent that there are about as many new ideas floating around in emo's creativity pool as there are queer eyes in the lagoon at the Playboy Mansion.

But the old maxim says that if an infinite number of monkeys sit around banging on an infinite number of typewriters, in time one of those suckers will come up with the works of Shakespeare. Well, New York-based quartet Coheed & Cambria -- a band that tours with acts such as A New Found Glory and Thursday, a group that is decidedly emo -- is just such a monkey.

Coheed & Cambria is to emo what Rush was to hard rock: Where many of its peers seem sincere but pathetically unimaginative, C&C makes complicated, epic music that ably transcends its reductive classification. It's not surprising, then, that when I speak with frontman Claudio Sanchez over the phone, one of the first things that comes up is the singer/guitarist's affinity for the Canadian power trio as well as for other showy hard-rock acts.

"I'm a big fan of the operatic. I'm a big fan of Queen," he says, giggling at his admission. "I really love vocal arrangements. I think harmonies are always a plus, and [we] throw as many in there as we can without being too silly." But on In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 (released last fall on the indie label Equal Vision), it's not just the vocal harmonies that stand out.

After an audio-collage overture, the record opens with a guitar line plucked from Metallica's Master of Puppets and an urgent, marching snare drum, both of which swell and burst into the title track, a riff-ravaged Rushian anthem that I've been singing triumphantly every time I get above twenty mph on my bike. There's something Japanimation-y about the song that makes me feel like Voltron gearing up for some galactic battle. Most of the record has that kind of Yeeeee-haw! dogfightin' feel to it, with drums exploding like flak around a fleet of distorted, triple-layered guitars as Sanchez's impassioned, fiery cries lead the charge. Every now and then, though, C&C throws a curveball, as in "Three Evils (Embodied in Love and Shadow)," a tune based around an uppity ska-inflected guitar, or "Blood Red Summer," which sounds like a chipper Cars B-side, complete with Sanchez tossing out some "Whoa-oh/Whoa-oh-oh" vocals. The odd juxtaposition of genres -- ballsy prog-rock against giddy, slightly barbed pop -- would, in less capable hands, come off as muddy and unfocused. But Sanchez and his cohorts -- Mic Todd (bass), Travis Stever (lead guitar) and Josh Eppard (drums) -- pull it off beautifully, which to the singer doesn't seem like too big a deal.

"We're a bunch of guys that love all sorts of rock music, basically," he says. "There are too many bands out there where I listen to their record and think, 'Well, what is this? It's like one song over and over again.' There's nothing cool about that to me. I like having a record that moves. Songs like 'The Crowing' [a prog-metal slow jam] and 'Blood Red Summer' -- those are a world apart, but yet they sound so cool going from one to another. And it's interesting, it keeps you wanting to listen to see what happens next. It's almost like a movie. It's got a lot of dramatic ups and downs."

Speaking of movies, I haven't even mentioned the best thing about this band. Perhaps you've noticed the, shall we say, dramatic song titles? They're like that because this whole album -- as well as its predecessor, the band's debut, Second Stage Turbine Blade -- chronicles the war-torn lives of two lovers, Coheed and Cambria; their offspring; and the world in which they live, called Heaven's Fence, or the Keywork or maybe both (I'm still not clear on that part).

"If you open up Keeping Secrets," explains Sanchez, "there's a bunch of circles and a triangle [on the inside cover]. That's where [the story] takes place. That place is called Heaven's Fence, or the Keywork. The triangle in the center represents the actual fence, and there's supposed to be 78 planets aligned in triangular form, in this triangle. And all the circles represent the Keywork. There's no sun. The only way these planets are provided the essentials is through these beams of light."

It's confusing, I know, but I'm sure they laughed at George Lucas once upon a time, too. Thankfully, for those of us intrigued by this Star Wars-esque tale, Sanchez and some of his illustrator buddies are publishing a series of graphic novels in the spring, which, presumably, will lay things out more clearly. In the meantime, while Sanchez's synopsis of the intergalactic drama may sound a little silly, the tale's more poetic details -- the band's lyrics -- are viscerally striking. "Slowly the streets begin to fill with new flesh bound to bone/Armed and ready it begins again/...Tonight we form," sings Sanchez on "Cuts Marked in the March of Men." The chorus of "Three Evils," a song about being interrogated, goes, "Pull the trigger and the nightmare stops" -- a line so loaded that Sanchez felt compelled to add a caveat next to it in the record's liner notes: "These lyrics are part of a story and should not be taken literally." I should say so. But it's not all gloom and doom. Lines such as "Deliver a favor for my love/I'll make peace when this is done" remind us that there's a love story reverberating throughout the desperate days of In Keeping Secrets.

Now compare all that -- the diverse sonic palette, the D&D lyrics, Sanchez's awesome tonsil-thrashing falsetto wail -- to the music of the bands that C&C has toured and become associated with, so-called emo bands that proffer homogeneous, post-hardcore, minor-chord choruses and sentimental lamentations on teenage angst and disillusionment. Sure, C&C's music is emotional, and sure, its sound has that tough-but-vulnerable quality that allows the group to fit in as an opener for New Found Glory. But are those two acts in the same league? Not even close.

Perhaps the most telling distinction between C&C and its trendy, business-savvy peers is that the marketing people aren't gonna have such an easy time packaging an outfit that sings, "Pull the trigger and the nightmare stops." What, after all, would Joe Lieberman think? To his credit, Sanchez doesn't worry about that kind of stuff.

"Maybe In Keeping Secrets has more of those types of radio-friendly songs -- 'A Favor House Atlantic,' 'Blood Red Summer' -- but those songs weren't really written for that effect. We wrote them because we like writing songs. We like the Cars. We just write 'em to write 'em."

But surely, with successful dates on the Warped Tour and in Japan, a steadily growing following and the band's affiliation with this hip new thing called emo, there must be some major-label interest in the exploits of Coheed & Cambria, right?

"They've come; they've talked to us," Sanchez says. "We really don't know where we stand so far. We're just like, 'Wow, these people are taking us out to dinner. Awesome!'"