A recent edition of the Songs & Stories newsletter—subscribe for free today!—covered “The Dark Sentencer,” one of the best recent tracks from prog-rock legends Coheed and Cambria. And because that song manages to incorporate a little bit of every era of Coheed, it got me thinking about each record that the band has released over the last two decades. And, well, let’s rank them, shall we?
Year of the Black Rainbow is the Christian Bale Batman Voice of the Coheed catalog. It’s needlessly dark and gruff, lacking the charisma and manic energy of the releases before and after it. I don’t doubt that there’s an audience for this record with its pseudo-industrial production values and copious riffing but I come to Coheed in part for the soaring melodies and lock-step harmonies and those are absent here. And some album has to be last on this list, so here we are.
The worst thing to happen to Descension was that it came on the heels of, and was intimately tied to, the superior Ascension. That said, there are some quality Coheed tracks here: “Key Entity Extraction V: Sentry the Defiant” isn’t quite as good as its name is long but it’s close, while “The Hard Sell” rocks and “Dark Side of Me” is another great pseudo-ballad from the band. But some of the album’s biggest swings, namely “Number City”, don’t really work while a few other songs simply fall flat. Descension isn’t a bad record but it’s got to be near the bottom of the Coheed totem.
“The Dark Sentencer” opens this record and is so great that the rest of The Unheavenly Creatures can’t help but feel like a letdown. Part of that is simple qualitative comparison but a bigger part is stylistic dissonance: After that hard-hitting opening, Creatures takes a turn towards Coheed’s poppier elements. Even when songs like “Black Sunday” get heavy, they make a major-key twist and head towards “la dee da dee die” lyrics. Am I glad to have The Unheavenly Creatures? Yes. Is it one of Coheed’s best records? No.
It’s a testament to the heart (and songwriting) of Coheed’s debut that it’s not last on this list because the production on The Second Stage Turbine Blade makes the record almost unlistenable in 2021. But songs like “Time Consumer” and “Delirium Trigger” carry their weight—I can’t count how many guitar players I’ve heard absentmindedly playing the opening riff of “Time Consumer” and, honestly, I can’t blame them. Plus, this was the album that started it all and that’s worth something.
“Atlas,” a track named after Claudio’s son, is so good that it’s worth a few spots on this list all by itself. But the rest of The Color Before the Sun can stand on its own. The only Coheed record to ditch the band’s neverending sci-fi storyline, The Color Before the Sun is “just” a rock record but that’s enough. “Atlas” is the album’s best song by a mile but the consistent quality of tracks like “Island,” “Eraser” and “Here to Mars” make this an album worth spending time with.
Good Apollo II didn’t come roaring out of the gate like its predecessor but the system shock between those albums has faded over time and now it’s easy to see the sometimes awkward allure here. It’s worth pointing out that “sometimes awkward” isn’t the insult that it seems–awkwardness is baked into the Coheed brand. No other band has made it so enjoyable to sing along to words that, if spoken out loud to another human, would make you seem utterly insane. Good Apollo II isn’t perfect throughout, but it comes close in its opening: Moving from “The Reaping” to “No World for Tomorrow” is a perfectly Coheed-ian experience that sets the stage for one of the band’s weirder records.
A couple of years after Year of the Black Rainbow, I was ready to write Coheed off and assume that they were done making interesting albums. Ascension proved me wrong. “Key Entity Extraction I: Domino the Destitute” continues two of the band’s proudest traditions: It’s an absolutely rip-roaring, epic opener; and it has an absolutely absurd title. In addition to that opener, “Mothers of Men” thumps, but Ascension is the one Coheed album defined not by its rock aggression but by its more subdued moments. “The Afterman” and “Key Entity Extraction V: Evagria the Faithful” are two of the three best songs on Ascension while also being two of the chillest songs in Coheed’s entire catalog. Somehow, it works.
I didn’t want to like Coheed. When it was released, Second Stage did nothing for me, though I’d eventually find its charm. And so when In Keeping Secrets was released, I ignored it. And then a friend made me listen to the title track. And then I asked to listen to it again and then again. I bought the album the next day and never looked back. Considering how great their next album was, it’s tempting to say that In Keeping Secrets is an album from a band on the verge of greatness, but really, they were already there. Good Apollo I would mutate the scope of Coheed but In Keeping Secrets, much more than Second Stage, is the genesis of everything that came after. It’s catchy and riffy and sometimes unintentionally hilarious. It’s also very, very good.
This album’s title is as endless as the war that Claudio keeps writing about and it’s worth every overwrought word. It’s easy to look back and consider Good Apollo I as an inevitable outcome for Coheed but it did not feel that way in 2005. Coheed had been a pop-punk band. Sure, there was the weird caveat that their albums revolved around a comic book—on the proto-internet of the mid-2000s, where everything was harder to find and/or verify, that comic became an almost mythical object—but they were still pop-punk. There were hints that more was on the horizon: the recurring opening motif, the trilogy of almost-ten minute songs on In Keeping Secrets, and the excessive song and album titles. But Good Apollo I was an entirely new level of commitment to, well, all of it. It was louder, softer, bigger and more personal than anything Coheed had done before. The band’s prog influences flowed through that massive title and into the four-part Willing Well tracks that could have been an album all on their own. Good Apollo I is more than just peak Coheed, it’s a truly classic record.