A Message of Hope for the Geeks: From Coheed and Cambria

Music is a weird time machine. Whether it’s an entire record, a song, or even […]

Zack Verham / 8.20.18

Music is a weird time machine. Whether it’s an entire record, a song, or even a particular melody or rhythm, music has a way of viscerally tethering me to snapshots from my past. It not only surfaces visual memories of particular places and things, but it dredges up the feeling of particular seasons of life. The subtle emotional colorings of a moment. The intangible something an experience which makes it lived by me and me alone. Coming back to music from my younger years has a way of bringing me back to specific events so powerfully that it feels like I’m actually living them again.

This phenomenon has been discussed by plenty of folks, but there’s a particular quote which has stuck with me for years. It comes from the liner notes the Fleet Foxes self-titled album, penned by Robin Pecknold:

Any time I hear a song or record that meant a lot to me at a certain moment or I was listening to at a distinct time, I’m instantly taken back to that place in full detail. Whenever I hear “Feel Flows” by the Beach Boys, I’m taken straight to the back of my parents’ car on the way to my grandparents’ place, fourteen with Surf’s Up in my walkman and the Cascade Mountains going by in the window. Any song off Radiohead’s Kid A brings back the sounds and atmosphere of the airport near Seattle, from when we were on the way to Colorado for a wedding and Kid A was the only record I brought or wanted to bring. “Crayon Angles” by Judee Sill is the whole winter of last year, and Brian Wilson’s solo version of Surf’s Up will take me back to driving my parents’ car around town alone at the age of 16 with the windows down at night…

My Kid A is, and always will be, Coheed and Cambria’s aptly-named prog rock album Good Apollo I’m Burning Star IV Part I: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness. Yes, its a mouthful of an album title (I’ll just call it Good Apollo I from now on). But it’s a masterpiece of an album, and it drags me back into my tumultuous teenage years like nothing else can.

Join me for a little jaunt into the time machine.

We’ve jumped back to the glorious year of 2006. I was an awkward middle schooler, and I was having some friends stay the night at my house to play a kickass Lord of the Rings computer game. In classic middle schooler slumber party fashion, we all stayed up well past the witching hour and ignored the sleep I now desperately covet in my mid-20s. I was on the couch, watching edgy pop-punk-emo-whatever music videos on Fuse (when Fuse was still a thing and was obviously way way better than MTV).

In my hallucinogenic stupor brought on by self-induced sleep deprivation, and to the cacophony of Sauron’s orcish legions getting slaughtered by little tiny Gondorian armies in the background by my friends, the music video for Coheed and Cambria’s single The Suffering came on. It stood out amongst the rest of the early 00’s emo pack as something different. Something unique. Something weird. Something really weird. It is an utterly baffling music video, showcasing a dude with huge hair belting in a Geddy-Lee-esque high-pitched falsetto to chunky punk-pop riffs while the ‘plot’ of the music video follows a centaur chasing after mermaids. I think he fights a giant octopus, and there are giant scorpions. Or something. All wrapped up nicely by the low-budget cgi you’d expect from a 00’s music video.

This intrigued dorky middle-school Zack. I’ll never know if it caught my interest because my self-induced sleep deprivation somehow mixed this mythology-themed music video with the video-game bastardization of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythos playing behind me. But I continued to listen to some of the other singles from Good Apollo I, and realized that, hey, these guys are pretty good. As I spent more time with the music, I realized that, hey, all of the songs off of Good Apollo I follow some sort of sci-fi narrative. When I started to check out the rest of their discography I realized that, hey, all of their albums follow the same concept, and each album is a ‘chapter’ in this larger story being written by the big-haired, falsetto-voiced frontman of the band, Claudio Sanchez. Sanchez has also written comic books and novels which follow the same plot and help to flesh out the cryptic lyrics into a full-blown space opera, complete with apocalyptic viruses, messiah figures, and huge space battles.

I was in love.

I became obsessed with Coheed and Cambria throughout middle and high school. The music from the early 00’s era of their discography brilliantly walks the line between post-punk, pop, and prog. Perhaps most importantly, they toyed with the emo-tinged angst which was a honeypot for the moody teenage hormone cocktail swirling through my veins. There were months on end where Good Apollo I was all I had in the CD player I stole out of my parent’s mini-van. I vividly remember a guilt-tinged moment at youth camp, where in classic youth camp fashion, I thought God was telling me to give up listening to Coheed and Cambria because I liked them too much. I stalwartly pledged to never listen to Coheed again to make God happy, and in similarly classic youth camp fashion, promptly gave that up after a couple of days and went back to listening to space opera prog rock like the heathen I was.

The ‘crush’ phase of my relationship with Coheed and Cambria (luckily) subsided after high school, but as I look back I thank God for giving me this band to latch onto during my formative teenage years. I think my experience as a Christian today was influenced quite heavily by a possibly maybe somewhat heretical ‘Theology of Coheed’ that I sub-consciously developed by spending so much time with Coheed and Cambria’s music. There are some really important nuggets of truth hidden away in Sanchez’ sci-fi epic which have matured in me through the years I’ve spent with the band and implicitly became intertwined with my lived experience as a follower of Jesus. Kind of like space-yeast in Captain Kirk’s space-bread, maybe. Really I just said that so I could throw in this video.

Essential to this intersection of faith and emo prog-rock music is Claudio Sanchez himself. He was everything I wanted to be at a time when my self-image was primarily defined by what I was not. Like most people, I hated middle school and struggled through it because I spent so much time being unsure of who I was or who I wanted to be — all I knew was that I was into geeky sci-fi and fantasy stuff, I played a bunch of video games and Magic: The Gathering, and I really liked prog rock and metal. My interests were developing at a time when to do anything outside of the ‘cool’ norm was to mark oneself for the proverbial culling from the middle school herd. I had a hard time making friends in that phase of life. I was overweight and I struggled with some mental health issues. I was really introverted and anti-social. But Claudio Sanchez was a guy who was into all of the same geeky sci-fi stuff I was, who wrote comic books and would go to comic cons, but who was simultaneously this rockstar who undeniably fit into that role as well. Both Sanchez and the rest of the band stood out because they were unequivocally themselves and couldn’t care less about their placement in the social strata. They straddled the line between the geeks and the rock stars, and it worked because they did it (and still do it) so authentically. The commonplace Geddy Lee / Claudio Sanchez and Rush / Coheed comparisons are a bit of a stretch musically aside from the high-pitched vocals, but the comparison works incredibly well for what Rush and Coheed mean to their listeners. Both bands provide an anchor for the nerds who want validation that, hey, the stuff they’re into is cool too. And it’s cool not because of some external validation from some social group higher on the ladder, it’s cool just because it exists, and it exists authentically, bypassing the social ladder of what is ‘acceptable’ and what is ‘unacceptable’ entirely.

Similarly, the lived experience for the Christian is one which bypasses several ladders entirely, because we are offered the grace to unequivocally exist authentically as we are. The ladders of social progress, economic satisfaction, professional advancement, perfectionism, religion, and on and on, all of which fall under the overarching ladder of the Law, are sidestepped entirely by the Christian message. Christianity allows us to be into both rock music and comic books, social cues be damned. The life lived by Claudio, one which I internalized and subconsciously tried to emulate, was a life that had already been offered to me by the Christian message, and it was one which was already being worked out within me through the Holy Spirit’s gracious actions in my life, even though I often didn’t (and still don’t) have the eyes to see it.

Good Apollo I concludes with the Willing Well sequence, which is probably the strongest series of songs the band has put out. In Good Apollo I, the point of view is transplanted from the space opera itself onto the author of the story, reflecting on how the Writer’s life impacts the plot laid out in Coheed’s other albums. The Willing Well is where the Writer attempts to directly influence the direction being taken by the space opera characters in subsequent albums by entering the story directly and conversing with them. Yes, yes — it’s a little pretentious and maybe unnecessarily heady, but again it’s a prog concept album so pick your battles.

More importantly, the Willing Well sequence (in particular “Willing Well I: Fuel for the Feeding End”) is an almost perfect example of the Christian concept of Incarnation. The Author of the cosmos and the Writer of the story of humanity enters into our world to interact with us directly and influences our past, present, and future. He is not content to stay external and isolated from his created universe, but instead enters His handiwork directly to converse and interact with our messy, wayward selves, in spite of our own failure to ever get the story right. Of course, this is not a perfect metaphor, because the writer in Coheed’s story is obviously an autobiographical stand-in for Claudio Sanchez (warts and all) who is capricious, moody, and harbors deep-seated ill-will towards his characters. Every good story needs a conflict, after all. However, the ‘twist’ of the writer entering our story directly really isn’t a twist at all — it is lived experience for Christians in the present through the Incarnation of the Godhead within His own creation. Our own ‘Willing Well’ provides a message of hope for the geeks, and the rock stars, and the nobodies who fall somewhere in between.

The story laid out in Coheed’s music is undeniably dark. It wrestles with arbitrary suffering, covering topics including infanticide and mass genocide, among others. Like the Biblical Job, bad things happen to the heroes without rhyme or reason. But at the same time, Claudio’s story is undeniably drawn from his lived experience. In an interview with azcentral, Claudio states:

I play a role in the story. My mother and father are the likenesses of Coheed and Cambria. The love interests are based on people in my life. Everything about the Amory Wars is real….

Much of the hardship experienced by Claudio’s characters has some basis in suffering drawn from his own life. And yet, despite the suffering inherent to Coheed’s epic, it’s end is hopeful.

In his book Jesus Christ for Today’s World, Jurgen Moltmann describes his profoundly difficult experience with arbitrary suffering in the aftermath of the Second World War:

I look back to July 1943, when I lay under the hail of bombs that rained down on my home town of Hamburg, annihilating 80,000 people in a storm of fire. In what seemed like a miracle, I lived, and I still don’t know today why I am not dead too, like my companions. In that hell I didn’t ask: why does God let this happen? My question was: my God, where are you? Where is God? Is he far away from us, an absentee God in his own heaven?… (31)

Similarly, in The Willing Well I, one of Sanchez’ characters asks of the Writer (i.e. God):

Why would you deny me answers?
If I’m just a boy on the brink of being Hardened in Hell, through its fires
Be brutally honest, was it better before me? …
With quickness strike out, for the less of us doubt
The mercy of the man who put the pen in our mouth.

Moltmann continues:

…Or is he (God) a sufferer among the sufferers? Does he share in our suffering? Do our sufferings cut him to the heart too? The theoretical question: how can we ‘vindicate’ God in the face of suffering (the theodicy question) is one thing. The existential question about God’s involved companionship in suffering is another. The first question presupposes an apathetic God. The second is looking for a God who suffers with us. (31)

While the conflict in Good Apollo I is driven by the capricious spite directed by the Writer towards his characters, the Christian hope is inherently tied up in the fact that our Writer has taken His characters’ suffering (our suffering) into Himself and experiences our hardship alongside us. Our Writer empathetically suffers alongside of the sufferers. Our sufferings cut Him to the heart too, despite the fact that “the less (and best) of us doubt the mercy of the man who put the pen in our mouth.” And that rocks (sorry). That is good news. That is Gospel.

Drawing from Robin Pecknold’s liner notes again: “Music is a weird and cosmic thing, its own strange religion for nonbelievers, and what a joy it is to make, in any form.”

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3 responses to “A Message of Hope for the Geeks: From Coheed and Cambria”

  1. Bryant says:

    Just saw Coheed live last week so this is so well timed as it is still fresh on my mind!

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