Day Forty-Two: Coheed and Cambria – Year of the Black Rainbow

Columbia Records ■ 88697 52995 1

Released April 13, 2010

Produced by Atticus Ross and Joe Barresi
Recorded and Mixed by Joe Barresi and Atticus Ross
“Here We Are Juggernaut” Mixed by Alan Moulder

“If Man should decide to dabble in my affairs, then guardians must intervene. But, should I come forth to change the face of Man with you there to challenge me, then I shall return with the stars to destroy all I have made. Whether Man or I present that danger will not be told in the coming.”

Side One: Side Two:
  1. One
  2. The Broken
  3. Guns of Summer
  4. Here We Are Juggernaut
  1. Far
  2. This Shattered Symphony
  3. World of Lines
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Made Out of Nothing (All That I Am)
  2. Pearl of the Stars
  1. In the Flame of Error
  2. When Skeletons Live
  3. The Black Rainbow

I intended, in my previous blog, to cover a lot of things over the course of time. It was ambitious in one sense, and completely directionless in another; I had a slew of ideas, a mess of bands, albums, genres, and thoughts to address, and no order to them, no way to encourage readership as I hoped. I suppose anyone writing publicly in this fashion wants someone to read it, but the idea for me was to try and convey and express the passion I feel for music as a listener first, and my writing was only the means to that end. A large part of the inspiration for that drive is the fact that it’s difficult for me to quickly or easily express anything so broad as my taste in music, and because there are so many factors that affect the process of evangelizing almost anything–particularly the preconceptions of intended audiences. I’ve always made an attempt–however rough, however futilely–to frame my own notions under the overarching guidelines of acclimation to the tastes, thoughts and feelings of others. But that requires both a willing ear and a sense of trust, and it’s difficult for the less devoted to concern themselves with a willing ear for something like this, and easy to lose a sense of trust with those who share any musical devotion.
In this respect, Coheed and Cambria are a great difficulty for me. I intended to write about them on that blog at some point because, quite simply, they are my favourite band. And that’s a loaded statement to make in a variety of ways, first and most obvious, because it defines a boundary of a kind: it says “I don’t like any other group more than this”. That’s actually a limited way of describing my feelings, as it’s really more indicative of a spike in a continuum, rather than a distinct slope or curved defined by points along their path. In some contexts, Coheed are not the appropriate choice, even for me. Certainly, they cover enough territory–moments of aggression, sadness, hope, so on–that they can fit most situations, but any sound cannot eclipse the spectrum it doesn’t include, and no one includes the entire spectrum of sound.
Secondly, and, in some ways most importantly, the reaction to the statement “Coheed and Cambria are my favourite band” tends to be immediate and visceral. Despite the size of their fanbase (somewhere, it seems, in the middle overall, or perhaps upper middle, maybe adjusted for age of the band–relatively large, in any case), they tend to remain somewhat cult-ish. This album and the one and a half (one was licensed and re-released) preceding it are on a very major label, and they’ve received radio airplay, won an MTV contest of popularity (there’s something to be said for the effort and will behind the fanbase on that one–it was an online poll many of us somewhat tirelessly assaulted with votes, and yes: “us”), so on and so forth. But they manage to occupy a territory that keeps some from paying attention and others from sticking around, as they manage to straddle progressive rock and the more “simple” and catchy elements of pop, dashed with a huge splash of geekery, and elder associations with “emo” in the most derisive of senses (though largely nonsensical ones).
When I make that statement, I can often see a light go out in eyes, as people struggle to not lose respect for my taste in music–hell, one of my (numerous) Coheed and Cambria shirts was the only one that ever inspired a total and complete stranger to yell out that the band “sucks” as they passed me. Other people feel they have an idea of my taste, see it as respectable for this reason or that (appreciation of the classics, varied taste in genres, appreciation of pet favourites, or semi-sung/unsung artists–whatever), or see me as knowledegable musically (my friend John said my previous blog was enjoyable to him, but did tend to require “a priori musical knowledge, and a lot of people told me it was overwhelming and difficult to follow without that kind of knowledge). But when I say “Coheed and Cambria”, there’s this sudden sense that it doesn’t jive; the choice is too obvious, or too popular, or too strongly associated with perceived commercial contrivance, or too “immature”, or not “metal” enough (obviously that’s a selective issue), or anything else. Indeed, those who have a very solid foundation for their opinion on my taste in music seem less taken aback and more lost in the need to find a way to politely decline to agree.
The object here, then, is to make some attempt–no promises at success–in explaining why someone who likes the kind of music I do, many things that would earn nods of approval from musical elitists of a variety of stripes would place this band first in his collection, to earn the band a sense of respect, even if not appreciation: to explain why this isn’t as incongruous as it seems, why that kind of snap judgment isn’t useful in the first place, and to throw the weight of the things I do appreciate in behind a band that’s stuck with a reputation (in some circles) of being purely the taste of those who have “terrible taste”. I understand the feeling, as anyone who converses with anyone else about music will almost inevitably be struck both by the feeling that someone else has judged their intelligence and full range of taste by something they like (or fail to like), as well as the instinctive desire to do the same in return (or even first). I simply want to try and at least stand them on their own two (eight; about twelve if we count past and current members) feet and purge the questioning of taste from someone who mentions them in a positive light.
While my introduction here is already rambling on a bit, a little background on the band as well as my experience of them feels entirely appropriate with regard to the object of this blog as is in crystalline focus with this particular entry. I was first introduced to them around the end of high school and the beginning of college, Second Stage Turbine Blade and In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 having both been relatively recently released at the time. The truth of it is, they fell into the crowd of bands I couldn’t tolerate at the time–Claudio Sanchez’s notoriously high voice grated on me, as it does many (which apparently he himself knows, as he mentioned this being a barrier for some people in a recent interview), and it came from a community that edged on elitism, riding the crest of an underground current that sometimes seemed partly aimed to define quality via those particular factors. I semi-graciously declined my interest, and relegated them to the place I kept Thursday and Atreyu–possibly interesting musically, difficult to accept vocally.¹
It was six years before they really crossed paths with me again. I’d been working at Borders for some time, and had begun to experiment musically with things I’d resisted. I’d started hanging out with the person who became my best friend after work, who was not a huge music person, but was an enormous Coheed and Cambria fan. She insisted I should try them anyway, nudging the comic books (we’ll get to that) at me, telling me I should at least read those. I relented, to some extent, because it was an alternate media that drew me in–bizarrely–to Harry Potter as well, which I’d initially also discarded as “boring” from the context in which it was initially presented to me. I enjoyed the story well enough, but still could not deal with them musically. However, being in the state of willingness I was in, I took it upon myself to keep an eye out as I began to peruse the now-closing-forever Circuit Citys. At the local one, I found a copy of Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume 2: No World For Tomorrow–externally labeled as just No World for Tomorrow–and by the fourth track–“Feathers”–I found myself catching on. By the end of the first playthrough, it was done. Within a month, I had all four then-released albums. I pre-ordered the then-upcoming limited live boxset. I bought the album released by Claudio’s side-project, The Prize Fighter Inferno,  My Brother’s Blood Machine. I saw them live once, twice, three times, four times–number five is in a few weeks.
For some, “The Concept” (as it’s most commonly known, though often also “The Story”) is what drives interest in the band. This isn’t a necessity by any means–I had no clue what was “going on” when I first listened to No World for Tomorrow. To this day, it’s not as if the albums are internally chronological, even as they are placed in order as whole works. The way Claudio writes the lyrics, too, does not always make it apparent who or what is being addressed–there’s a feeling and a tone, the real-life events that inspired the parts of the story usually being conveyed directly, as are the emotions. It’s more like a sort of emotionally-inflected slice of the story, a feeling for what its mood is at that point, for what the characters are thinking or feeling at that time, even if you don’t always know what that time actually is.
The world of Coheed and Cambria is one that takes some explaining, but centers primarily on Heaven’s Fence, a set of 78 planets arranged into a triangle, held there by the Keywork, a visible energy that binds and holds them in place, originating on the Stars of Sirius, 9 heavenly bodies that manifest, process, and push out the energy of the Keywork. It’s a world that has three tiers of entities: the humans we all know, love, and happen to be; the Prise, a sapphire-skinned race of blonde angelic entities, believed to be tasked with upholding the divine order of things; and the Mages, 12 powerful beings who each rule one of the 12 sectors of Heaven’s Fence. The universe’s holy book, the Ghansgraad, sets forth the prophetic orders I quoted at the beginning of this entry, above the tracklist. It was the Prise tasked with understanding this statement, and of acting at the right moment to prevent unintended challenges to God, whose hand was attributed to the pen that set it down.
The details are all set out in The Amory Wars, the comic book Claudio wrote (and later co-wrote with comic book great Peter David) to tell the story of their debut album, The Second Stage Turbine Blade, and recently In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 (as well as a planned-to-be-replaced version of Good Apollo, Vol. 1: From Fear through the Eyes of Madness). The story of this album, though, is set before those, which end completely with No World for Tomorrow, an as-yet unclarified story that ends everything (in what is generally accepted to be all senses). It is told not in comic book form, but in a novel Sanchez co-wrote again with David, and which was included in the limited deluxe edition of the album in CD form (which I have signed by both of them and the rest of the band as it existed at the time).
This is the story of how Coheed and Cambria–they are a pair, a man and a woman, of a sort–came to be, and of how Wilhelm Ryan, who became the Supreme Tri-Mage and malevolent antagonist of the story, rose to the power he used to deliberately challenge God in His seeming absence, of the way these two stories are interwoven, of the fallout from them, and of how we found ourselves where we did in The Second Stage Turbine Blade. Many of the simplistic facts about this story were already known: obviously, Ryan had done away with the other Mages, and we knew that Leonard Hohenberger was responsible for KBI–Knowledge, Beast, Inferno–the IRObots also known as Cambria, Coheed, and Jesse Kilgannon respectively. How he created them, why (beyond “to stop Ryan”), and who he was were a mystery, as was the way in which Ryan consolidated the immense power and totalitarian rule he enacted.
Without further ado, then, I present: Year of the Black Rainbow.
As with their previous albums, Coheed opens with a brief instrumental introduction, though a more nebulous one than the others, in “One”: howling winds, creaking strings, haunting piano, thunderous rumbles, electronic reverberations and a sense of desolation, the extended and darkened calm after a storm, or perhaps hinting at its advent.
“The Broken” was the first track they released before the album, and it builds directly from “One”, a sort of whine turning to heavy riffs, ones that spiral off into leads from the second guitar–neither is distinctly lead, as both have thorough chops–of Travis Stever, the momentary venting of an inexorable tide of crushing destruction manifested in the riffs that precede them. Rising tremolo announces and backs the chorus’s rise: “The world looks better when you’re falling/Grace to comfort enough to crawling/Divided we must/Pray for the broken no one can fix us/We are, we’ll always be, the wronged”. The coiled tension of the lead that snakes through the entire song burning away into a clever, furious, high solo after the second chorus, turning to a bridge that features Chris Pennie’s drumming, which had not yet been heard in the studio with the band–a style more technical than original drummer Josh Eppard’s primal feel. “We are, we are…” Claudio sings as the song builds into a repeatedly collapsing version of the initial riff that finally falls flat to a small squeal of distortion.
When I first saw the band play “Guns of Summer” live, I had confirmed for myself something that apparently the people next to me had also noticed: this riff is ridiculous. Claudio’s fingers do not sit still for a moment as a nimble patter of a riff that looks and sounds like someone flexing each of their fingers rapidly and independently. The song is very dense as a result, a sound something like bubbling liquid and rapid machinery–to think, and indeed know, that he sings over this is absurd. Pennie’s drums set this pace, restless but consistent, and heavily syncopated. When the chorus hits and their guitars turn from what you could be forgiven for thinking is a sound produced by the album’s keyboards, it’s not for the force of aggression, but the clear movement and power of them–drama, not anger. At an aural “distance”, the verses are not easily recognizable as normal instruments, but the chorus makes clear the drums, bass, and guitars present, not simplifying to overly basic beat or chunky riffs, but separating enough that the beat has distinct emphasis. It’s an unusual sound–at first more impressive than anything else, as the strange pace and sound doesn’t feel at all like the kind of riff you’d build from as a primary one, but eventually works itself into a kind of sense, emphasized by the chorus’s clarity. Let me just reaffirm, though: Pennie’s performance and part is beastly, and the solos Travis and Claudio squeal, squawk and torture out of their guitars are interesting for their modification into fittingly inhuman sounds. Perhaps oddly, this is the song of the loss that inspires everything that was to come in the story.
The first major single from the album so far as the rest of the world was concerned (ie, not those of us paying extremely close attention), “Here We Are Juggernaut” rumbles in on electronic bleeps and a distant windy buzz. Almost unnoticeable, Travis actually plays through a talkbox for creative and interesting sounds through the verses, a catchy riff that splashes down with his talkboxed yowl and a slide up the strings. Claudio sings the verse close and low, but the lead to the chorus brings in his voice as it is best known: “Bodies breaking/Drive me crazy/This is not your place/No this is not your playground/It’s my heart”, and on the last word his voice soars, as does the rest of the song, entering the chorus, maintaining the energy and passion pushed in already: “We were stupid/We got caught/But nothing matters anymore/So what/Here we are, juggernaut”, the guitars digging in their hooks with a more upbeat, higher-pitched variation on their original riff, dancing all around it and keeping the energy up at its peak. A pause follows the chorus’s second repetition, guitars slowed and methodical, Claudio’s voice calming its power and turning to the kind of peculiar emphases he often employs, morphing many vowel sounds into unexpected shapes. He drops even this, though, and sings as an aside, before they blast off again into the heights of the chorus, the final words repeated, the song held at its greatest height all the way to the end, with a last not left to ring out and fade of its own accord.
Often looked at strangely by fans–either as a peculiar love, or a failed experiment–“Far” is quite unusual: it’s a rhythmic, pounding track with a scatter of atmospheric, vaguely fuzzed distorted guitar. The beat is more complicated than a heartbeat yet still resembles one in the way it seems to pump larger then smaller valves. Stever and Sanchez just dance across the top, guitar-wise, even at the chorus: “Please/This is what I can give/What else do you need from me?/I might be sick, broken, torn to pieces so/Whatever this is, this thing that now I’ve become/You hate it so much/You keep on running from it/No matter the distance/Oh/No matter how far”. Here we get to hear one of the things that turned me from loathing to love when it comes to Claudio’s voice: when he sings “it”, he employs not only his unusual vowel sounds to make the word fit musically (as opposed to doing it to force a rhyme, for instance), he also makes it almost undulate, a touch that tells you he’s thinking about what he’s doing with his voice beyond how to sing the words as they are. And the effect is almost always (probably always, but just in case) not just interesting but appealing and catchy. The bridge for the song is odd, as it is saw-like in sound, lower than all the other guitars in the song, less about spikes and peaks or burst of emotion than an appropriately rhythmic emphasis that matches the song. The solo that follows it is sheets, sprays of sound, sparking lines instead of the flickering points that normally mark the idea of sparking. 
Seemingly played from a good distance away, the beginning of “This Shattered Symphony” is a single guitar riffing furiously along to one of the more simply played drum beats, but a wailing second guitar slowly turns the volume up, until the instruments are quite suddenly right in their expected aural place. This time Travis and Claudio are playing tonally contradictory parts to a single mood’s effect: at the high end, one hits chords in mostly monotonic repetition, the other plays a smoothed out, slightly calmed form of the riff that started things: despite this, there’s the feeling of forward movement of events outpacing the ability to think and act, or keeping them at the bleeding edge–events beyond control. When Claudio starts singing, though, it’s with dark acceptance–“Oh, I’m giving up the one I love/I’ll conduct the great disaster”, his riff relentlessly forward moving, but Travis’ higher part now slowed and tinged with the resignation of Leonard Hohenberger’s relenting. They come together as guitars to build to the chorus: “Go on and give me the gun/Nevermind what I’ve done/They left me no choice/Oh, they left me no choice”. The call to “go on and give me the gun” noticeably distressed–no doubt reflecting the moment that Leonard’s wife Pearl has leveled one at him, indeed over what he has allegedly done. The song ends with backing calls to “Give me the gun”, accelerating toward a break in the tension that ends with electronic noise.
“World of Lines” was a later single, matched to footage from Metropolis in video form, Pennie’s drums the closest they ever sound to Josh Eppard’s, a thumping response to the upward slopes of the frenetic riffing, the only sound that continues below as Claudio’s voice enters. Despite the steady beat, the song seems to speed, then gain power as he works into the clashing sounds that mark the chorus’s entry, which expands with a more repetitious riff, elaborated on with a second guitar’s melodic touches, but is stretched by the held notes of Claudio’s voice: “Just leave us alone/If it’s not worth the letting go/It’s trouble/Woah, woah”, a complete shift following this, the tempo changing entirely, the rhythm hitting a completely different emphasis. In many ways, the most “normal” song present here.
Normally chugging riffs imply a certain genre of music, or at least a sound that resembles it, but here the word is appropriate more because it’s like the steady chugging of a machine, an engine of some kind that is driving “Made Out of Nothing (All That I Am)”, the riff cycling around steadily, even the higher lead from Travis like another part of the machinery that simply runs less constantly. The chorus turns into a lengthy, high hallway though, each syllable stretched away from the previous and into the next: “Someone please come shelter me from”, the stretch lost and the vocal pacing more than doubled for the catchy end: “All that I am/Never again will I believe/Same old story”. It’s a solidly forward-moving song that ends with a reverberation that braces us for the quiet track to follow.
The only song title to explicitly reference a character on the album, “Pearl of the Stars” is Leonard’s paean to his grieving wife, a declaration of love and empathy, devotion and attempts to understand. Clean and gentle guitars let Claudio enter with his voice quieted and unusually low until Pennie’s light and simple drum pattern and Mic Todd’s thumping bassline puts his voice in another pitch, moving from describing his sympathetic pain at his wife’s current emotions, to the much warmer description of how he feels about her in general. When the chorus spreads the song out, a toy piano, sustained bass from Todd, and viola from guest Brian Dembow underwrites the sincerity of it all. The chorus shifts again, from singing about Pearl to singing to her: “When you go, I will know/Follow you to the stars/And when the world burns apart/There’ll be a place for your car/I’d give you everything, if only I’d’ve known you’d take it/But you don’t/Cause you’re you/That’s why I’ll always love you/My Pearl of the stars”…impassioned, pleading for anything he can do to relieve her grief. Perhaps the most normal of solos follows the chorus, the tone similar to that of Jerry Cantrell, the sounds extended and firey, resembling more the chorus’s emotions than any others. After it, he sings the chorus quietly, in the voice the song opened with, as if telling himself instead of her, but reconsiders, and repeats it again at full volume, Pennie’s drums now more constant, all pounding toms and drama.
While I always imagine I don’t like the last half of the album as much, “In the Flame of Error” is always the song that reminds me my memory when it comes to those things is terrible. It comes in as descending, tension-filled introduction, the curling, densely constructed riff and drums all bound into a knot of sound under Claudio’s voice. But it’s the chorus–oh this chorus: “I’ll be no good this time defines/I’ll put my touch around the grip of this knife/These dirty hands just won’t come clean/I’m a murderer/The worst these worlds will see”. His voice seems to stick to one note at first, but the rhythm chokes up when “good” comes after “no” a moment faster than you would expect, then “time” leaps upward, and “defines” steps back to zero and then slings itself just slightly upward from there. Like a zig-zagging line, he works the lines into rigid shapes that are extremely appealing and strangely rhythmic despite working outside the lines of the basic beat. When he says “I’m a murderer”, it’s spat out rapidly, crammed in where it won’t fit, but with enough space after it to know this was a deliberate choice: Hohenberger is aware of hist mistakes and the inability to change them, but has no sense of forgiveness for himself–hardly a surprise, considering his crime–only self-loathing and anger. When it comes around the second time, a second line extends the chorus: “Oh save me from defeat again/This is war”–mimicking but modifying the sound of the original chorus’s lines, then ending with a slow vibrato on the last word. Stabbing guitars  push at a bridge that works on pummeling drums, the title of the song appearing, each word punctuated by rapid bass kicks. Breaking for pained howls from a guitar, the song launches back into the chorus two final times and then burns out on feedback,
The sound of “When Skeletons Live” is the guitar sound that is most identifiably “Coheed and Cambria”: a sort of crazy-eyed mid-range, slanted guitar riff. There’s an unusual slowing worked in as the song turns to chugging (this time in the more popular sense) guitars, Claudio’s vocals following them after a few beats in an unexpected way, a sort of delayed punch, before the steady beat and riffs of the chorus, which let’s his vocal choices really come out: “When skeletons live inside your closets, thick and thin/You’ll fear that no one will hear us sing our songs/The truth is relevant but not for long/’Cause love is our downfall”, particularly in the wild scaling of “fear”, which hits at least five different notes and makes for an excellent little hook. Muscular guitar follows this, a whispered backing vocal that hides underneath the layer of instruments from his normal singing voice.
Year of the Black Rainbow is the fifth Coheed and Cambria album, but the Roman Numeral “I” is displayed upon it, as it functions as the prequel to all preceding albums. It makes “The Black Rainbow” rather strange and appropriate for what it is to the album and to the story. A strip of sky stripped of all atmospheric interference to leave a gaping “wound” in the heavens about the residents of Heaven’s Fence, it is unclear to everyone what this means–many take it as a sign from God, Ryan taking it as a failed challenge to the power he is grabbing, Ambellina of the Prise taking it as a sign that they are to act against Ryan, despite the doubts of the rest of the Prise. Claudio breathily sings the opening verse over lightly churning synthetic percussion and quiet guitar, Pennie joining with the boom of large toms and gentle splash cymbals, turning to a steadily advancing snare beat. A roar of guitar predicts the monolithic, mournful but piercing and powerful lick that jabs it’s slightly wobbly way through the song, “It’s over, it’s over/It’s all coming apart” Claudio sings, the song building not in a distinct verse-chorus sense, but just arcing upward continuously, turning chaotic with electronic distortions, warping and washing sou–and then it stops. Dead. The churning of machinery from “One” returns, ominous murmurings and ponderous, horn-like melodies hidden and brief, leaving it all with a sense of fallen structures and failure, a distant laugh that would be best guessed as that of Ryan.
■ ■ ■ 
I’m not even going to get into the story of how this album was chosen, but I will say that it surprises me, as it was finally chosen by fellow fans. Admittedly, the two favourites (In Keeping Secrets and Good Apollo Vol. 1) are out of print/absurdly expensive and never-on-vinyl respectively, but the changes that occurred with this album put off a lot of people. No World for Tomorrow had drum parts assembled by Chris Pennie, but contractual obligations prevented him from appearing on the recording, and Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins played in his place. Whether it was that fact, the change in producers (Michael Birnbaum and Chris Bittner produced all three of their first albums), the wandering tensions of a band dropping and gaining members back and forth over the course of time since their third album, the internal suspicions that they might break up–any number of factors, these two are the most maligned albums, by far.
Year of the Black Rainbow, despite this, could well be the most accessible album they’ve produced, with a possible exception for one of the two halves of The Afterman that have been released in the last few months (one only a week ago). It has always struck me that the shift in drummers and producers (I should also mention Year changed producers from NWFT as well, it being produced by Rick Rubin and Nick Raskulinecz) was also accompanied by a shift in sound. Not sound in the sense of how the three standing members played, but in the sense of an overall feeling. Year is a comparatively cold album, “One” and the end of “The Black Rainbow” really emphasizing this, the sounds resembling nothing so much as slow-moving behemoths, large, ponderous–and also somewhat threatening, drifting through an empty, shattered place (perhaps it’s The Howling Earth–the place where Coheed and Cambria stumble into an operation of Wilhelm Ryan’s and are faced with something surprising about the Keywork’s energy). I’m inclined to think the more technical drumming of Pennie emphasizes that shift distinctly, but that might not be fair.
For all that it does sound different, it is, in many ways, appropriately different: this is the fresh, clean, sharp, polished beginning, before Wilhelm Ryan asserts control, before Coheed and Cambria are created by the catalyst that starts to tear Heaven’s Fence to pieces–and eventually completes this as well. It’s more heavily electronic, more straight lines and sharp corners, up to and including the actual cover art, which is geometric and colourful, in contrast to the darkened and minimal palettes of previous albums. Maybe, indeed, the sense of slow-moving threat is that of darkening clouds gathering and drifting over Heaven’s Fence, there to sit and stay over the lives of everyone in them as the story progresses through the next (previously released) events.
I should also mention, for those who think of it: there’s a partial chronology to the album’s structure, story-wise, but largely it is muddled, and the way Claudio has written whole stories and the snippets that appear in the art for The Afterman implies that they function very much like I feel they do: impressions of events, the story molded to them, and them molded to the story, and some overlap inevitably left in the process, in service, generally, of the music, as the rest of the band is involved in that writing process.
In any case, the album gets a bad rap. I’m more prone to being disappointed with the first new album after I get into a band, and I was not with this one. I admit, there is some personal attachment to “Pearl of the Stars” that I felt, especially around the time it was newly released and for sometime thereafter, but it was largely the other songs that kept the album close to my listening in the year that followed its release.
  • Next Up: Communist Daughter – Soundtrack to the End
¹For a laugh, the first thing I have myself recorded saying about them is telling someone who now politely tells me they don’t do anything for him, “they suck, period”. In context, it might have been about another band (one I was extremely vehement about at the time), but I believe it was them. The next comment was “I despise their vocalist’s voice” to someone else, so, still.

Day Five: The Alan Parsons Project – I, Robot

Arista Records ■ AL 7002

Released: June, 1977

Produced and Engineered by Alan Parsons


Side One: Side Two:
  1. I Robot
  2. I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You
  3. Some Other Time
  4. Breakdown
  5. Don’t Let It Show
  1. The Voice
  2. Nucleus
  3. Day After Day (The Show Must Go On)
  4. Total Eclipse
  5. Genesis Ch. 1, V. 32

I’ve never listened to the Alan Parsons Project–well, hadn’t. This, of course, changed that. I actually own three of their albums on vinyl (this one, The Turn of a Friendly Card and Pyramid, both of the others being released after this one), but this is really just due to the doubles still sitting in my father’s collection of 8,000 records. I was allowed to peruse these doubles and steal away any I deemed fit. We’ll see more of them (plenty far more obscure) later, but this was the one where I was able to withdraw numerous albums from a group I had never listened to.

We’re rocketing along nicely through a variety of physical types of releases, as we’ve already covered one picture disc, one combination double-LP and coloured vinyl, and now we have our first gatefold album. Of course, this was from a discarded pile of duplicate albums, and many are not without their flaws of one kind or another. This particular album had its gatefold thoroughly stuck together in the center and is now quite thoroughly disfigured internally, but remains in large part legible despite this.

The Alan Parsons Project were a progressive rock band, with most of the baggage (or benefits) that accompanies that label, I’ve found. The album opens with “I Robot,” which is very reminiscent of period electronic music like Synergy (about whom I will talk much, much later, considering where they are–he is–in the alphabet) and Tangerine Dream of the same time period. Now, if you don’t know Synergy or Tangerine Dream (or any other mid-70s electronic music) let me do my best to describe it for you: sparse, wholly and unmistakably electronic music, where synthesizers and keyboards are used not to emulate known instruments, but to create their own noise and sound. It sets the stage for exactly what progressive rock means to both fans and detractors: heavily instrumental music dominated by slower paces, lengthier track times and unabashed use of the electronic.

The surprise comes from the track it leads into: “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You,” which I actually recognized quite readily from the dim recesses of a youth spent listening to my father’s choices of music and the radio, as determined by classic rock, oldies and “college rock” stations. The song fades in from a thudding bass and taps on the hi-hat alongside spacious keyboard chords that make it sound like the music from a 1970s cop movie at night designed to build tension. A guitar fades in over this with the palm-muted and emphatic strums many would associate with the intro to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” Once the song kicks in and Lenny Zakatek’s vocals begin, it’s all riding over a very clear disco beat, signified by what many call the “pea-soup” drum, which is onomatopoeia for the hiss of a hi-hat leading quickly into a drum hit. Once you hear it and think of “pea soup,” you’ll probably understand.

“Some Other Time” follows this and is almost like one of the spacey, folk-esque singers of the 1960s before it moves into the chorus, underscored by a triumphant synthetic horn section. The drums and bass fill out the sound of the verses and the song continually builds and falls away to create a song that has the highs and lows of a soundtrack, which it resembles like much of the album. Peter Straker adds a completely different vocal style to the song, which is weighty with its faux brass section.

A lot of the album has hints of both 1970s-styled soundtracks and various classic progressive rock bands, hints of things like “I Talk to the Wind” from King Crimson’s debut and its more pastoral approach to the genre as well as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and even earlier material in Jack Harris’s vocals on “Day After Day (The Show Must Go On)” which has the airy stylings of Roger Waters’s vocals on Meddle‘s “San Tropez.” The Dark Side connection is unsurprising, considering Alan Parsons himself, half of the core songwriting duo of the group (the other half being Peter Woolfson), engineered that very album.

I’ve been known to let progressive rock albums drift in one ear and out the other sometimes, especially the keyboard-oriented varieties, but the album never meanders or drifts off too far into obvious or laughable pretension, even if the concept doesn’t necessarily jump out. It stays comfortable and interesting, until it ends with the rather excellent instrumental, “Genesis Ch.1, V.32” which has stable, steady, drums marching the song off into the distance as if over end credits of a film, while Ian Bairnson’s electric guitar uses sustained bends and firm marches between single strings on clear frets to push the album and the song in the same direction, choral voices (one of the elements most indicative of Parsons’s time with the Floyd) lend it all a sort of drama that is perfectly faded to end the album with the march onward of time, into the theoretical future of a robot-dominated world, inexorable and fated, but not clearly totalitarian or sad so much as a new verse or chapter–which, of course, the title itself implies, being named for the verse of Genesis Ch. 1 that does not (yet) exist in its known 31 verse form.

I’m actually quite pleased: I was reminded somewhat of the Bob Welch era of Fleetwood Mac, which appeared between Peter Green’s more experimental dominance of the group and the more popular and famous era of Buckingham/Nicks. It straddled that line of experimentation and pop happily without falling too much a victim to either, as this album does.

Next Up: Alice in Chains – Sap/Jar of Flies