When lyrics are screamed at rawk shows, vaulting a sea of raised fists, they tend to share a common trait. Take, for example, AC/DC’s timeless weather report, ‘Thunder! Na na na na naaaaa na naaa na na!” or Van Halen’s half-hearted fitness message, “Might as well JUMP!”
These micro-poems are simple, memorable and, most importantly, easily slurred at a sizeable concert or around the pool table at your local swill shack.
It’s strange, then, to hear a room of sweaty and jubilant Novocastrians scream the verbose call-to-arms, “Man your own jackhammer! Man your battle stations!” But this is not AC/DC and it’s certainly not Van Halen. In fact, the ethos of New York City’s Coheed and Cambria could not be further removed from your typical arena rock band. Where other purveyors of devil-horned riffage and seismic rhythm sections have focused their lyrics on fast women, war, the supernatural, and the woes of society’s impoverished underdogs, singer and guitarist Claudio Sanchez has explored life through the prism of a hard sci-fi universe, one in which he is the visionary architect.
As the range of graphic novels for sale at the Cambridge Hotel’s merch desk illustrates, Sanchez is a literary storyteller. With the exception of Coheed’s most recent record, last year’s The Color Before The Sun, the lyricist has been weaving an expansive narrative, called The Amory Wars, across eight epic prog-rock albums. The best records among them require a deep breath before each title’s recital: Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness and Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume Two: No World for Tomorrow. The Amory Wars is overflowing with original characters and weaves a mythology not easily summarised in a brief review for Newcastle Live! – but, take it from me, those first eight albums are a scintillating mix of sequels and prequels.
In Australia, Coheed and Cambria have remained something of a cult phenomenon amongst discerning music purists. True to their “progressive” nature, they invariably write large pieces of rock opera segmented into different movements. Their arrangements tend to bend the mind, often shifting time signatures and dynamics, and assert Sanchez’s prowess as a conjurer of classic rock and metal pieces that don’t shy away from shiny pop melodies. The release of their 2002 debut, The Second Stage Turbine Blade, saw them ride the popularity wave of emo, post-rock and pop-punk to our shores but, truth be told, they are a different beast entirely to the likes of Taking Back Sunday, The Used and Thursday. When that emo wave eventually reached its trough, fans of classic rock and metal continued to carry Coheed’s torch and the band has continued to visit Oz, including a Soundwave festival appearance.
Their Newie fans (“Cambrians”?) are out in force tonight, the room coloured with the band’s stunningly rendered T-shirt art and VIP lanyards, the latter awarded to those who paid top dollar for a special fan package that included a private soundcheck performance and meet and greet with the band.
Sufficiently aroused by Coheed’s go-to Aussie support act Closure in Moscow, who are a groovier version of their New York City brethren, the Cambridge’s crowd voice their excitement when Sanchez and long-time guitarist Travis Stever step on stage for ‘Ghost’, a haunting acoustic ballad off their recent record. Then drummer Josh Eppard and bassist Zach Cooper appear from the wings as Sanchez picks up one of his jagged electric axes and plays the forboding opening notes that announce the eight-minute fan favourite In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3, the title track off their 2003 album and harbinger of the afformention “battle stations” chant. Recorded, the song is mighty. But live, the sprawling classic is a monstrous and euphoric composition.
Coheed march forward and throw a molatov cocktail of old (‘The Crowing’, ‘A Favor House Atlantic’, ‘Blood Red Summer’) and new (‘Island’, ‘Here to Mars’) tracks, treating their eager fans to a show of arena proportions. The length and breadth of the 90-minute earth-shattering performance is matched only by the cascading and voluminus grandeur of Sanchez’s hair. His voice, piercing in range and timbre, is in full flight, though the singer often steps back from the microphone to let the crowd wail their favourite parts. And, while ably supported by Eppard and Cooper, the effortless guitar work of Sanchez and Stever steals the show, each possessing blistering speed and intricacy when called upon to drop a solo.
Sanchez is not a big conversationalist on stage, prefering to let the music do the talking, but he does pause momentarily to praise Newcastle. Stever gushes that the locals they met during their day in our city were some of the “nicest people they’ve ever come across”, and reveals the band stopped by two Newie institutions – the Rock Shop and Graphic Action Comics (Sanchez gives the latter a shout out on his Instagram the following day).
A highlight of the remaining set is ‘No World for Tomorrow’, one of the band’s finest tracks. It’s the ultimate example of the dizzying rock heights of which the band are capable of reaching. Soon after, when the rockers eventually leave the stage, a defeaning “COHEED” chant slowly lures them back for an encore. After another sincere thank you from Sanchez, the quartet launch into new song ‘You’ve Got Spirit, Kid’, a really old song ‘Everything Evil’ and then ‘Welcome Home’, the anthem for which Newie fans would surely hold them hostage until they played. It’s twin lead guitar finale is a white-knuckled, edge-of-your-seat crescendo to one almighty evening of rawk.
With ears ringing and smiles emblazoned from ear to ear, disciples reluctantly depart, left to wonder if the building may crumble around them.
The Cambridge still stands, but not for Coheed and Cambria’s lack of trying.