How Coheed and Cambria embraced pentatonic riff slams and a Deftones 8-string to create prog guitar epics for a new generation

Coheed and Cambria perform live in 2019.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Coheed and Cambria’s Claudio Sanchez is one of the rare artists who doubles as both guitar hero and your favorite author. For more than two decades, he and the rest of the Nyack, New York-formed quartet have crafted fascinatingly complex, yet hooks-loaded volumes of post-hardcore-infused prog. 

Likewise, Sanchez’s lyrics across several albums – along with adjoining comic books and novellas – have rolled out the richly intricate, galaxy-exploring storyline broadly billed as The Amory Wars; his sci-fi conceit continues with the band’s new Vaxis II: A Window of the Waking Mind. 

Coheed and Cambria’s 10th album is the second to follow characters Nea and Nostrand, a pair of post-apocalyptic would-be bank robbers that have just escaped a prison planet with their newborn son, the titular and currently incommunicative Vaxis. 

“Their son doesn’t interact with the plane of existence that they’re on, so they think a pharmaceutical could help cure him, but what they don’t understand is that [Vaxis] is actually a highly evolved version of the human species,” Sanchez says of the starting point of the band’s latest epic.

This is all to say that Vaxis II delivers even more high-concept lore-building from the group – impenetrable, perhaps, to listeners just there for the blazing licks and effects-slathered accents Sanchez and co-guitarist Travis Stever course through the 13-song release, and potentially intimidating to a younger generation of prog listeners jumping in for the very first time.

On the other hand, Sanchez explains that the band’s A&R person recently likened the appeal of Coheed and Cambria’s immersive catalog to one of pop culture’s most engaging and enduring space sagas.

“It was a great conversation: ‘What does a new Coheed fan look like coming into this, 20 years into our career,’” he recalls. “It must be something not unlike Star Wars. You’re young, you get into The Force Awakens only to find out that there's this whole mythos for you to go back and [discover]. 

"I was excited when somebody said that to me, because they got it – for a long time nobody got it. This isn’t just about music; this is about a culture that this band has been trying to develop since 2002, but it was just a hard thing for people to swallow [in the beginning].”

That Sanchez and Stever are getting into the details of Vaxis II over Zoom from the backstage of Kansas City’s Uptown Theater – midway through their first post-Covid restrictions tour – should be a clue that Coheed and Cambria have become a cultural force in their own right. 

While part of the continuum, Vaxis II was made differently from its predecessor, 2018’s Vaxis I: The Unheavenly Creatures. Covid measures were still in full swing when tracking began, with the band opting for a more unorthodox, yet pandemic-appropriate remote-and-studio hybrid model. Sanchez recorded at home in New York City and with producer Zakk Cervini in North Hollywood, while Stever tracked at his home studio in upstate New York.

Much of Stever’s work had initially been cooked up through his Reason interface with a British-style overdrive, but he ultimately let Sanchez and Cervini recontextualize his contributions how they saw fit. Sanchez took his bandmate up on the offer most drastically on Blood, shifting the meter of Stever’s choppy phrases to cushion his own chorus-obliterated, Andy Summers-style tri-note arpeggios. 

Sanchez explains: “He cut it on the one, but I moved the riff over so it would play more with the main rhythm – so that they would dance together as opposed to play off each other.”

Vaxis II presents plenty of similarly unified fronts – take how Sanchez and Stever lock into the hard-pound downstrokes in the chorus to pop-punk anthem The Liars Club, or their Maiden-esque metal guitarmonies mid-way through Ladders of Supremacy – but Stever also realized at some point during the band’s journey that the writ large maximalism of Coheed can sometimes benefit from a lighter touch on his end. 

Stever explains, “I have a tendency to look at something and [think], ‘Where am I going to fit on this?’ But it’s also [about] taking a step back and going, ‘Do I need to?’” 

With the players often trading off on lead and rhythm duties, Stever reveals that one of his favorite moments on the album was adding a “simple, pokey, staccato” rhythm beneath Sanchez’s wilding lead on The Liars Club. “Believe me, there are times where just want to fuckin’ go ‘reeer’ [with a lead, but] that kind of shit – when it fits perfectly – is special to me.”

As the second installment of a planned five-act arc, Vaxis II naturally follows plot beats introduced on 2018’s Vaxis I: The Unheavenly Creatures. It likewise features a number of musical callbacks. 

The deceptively gleeful main riff of the former’s Old Flames, for instance, is reimagined on the new album’s The Embers of Fire via ornate midi orchestration, while also coming into play on the otherwise sinisterly swayed Ladders of Supremacy, a nearly seven-minute suite of imperial marching beats, proggy pivots and doom-laden melodies. 

Other Vaxis II highlights, meanwhile, stray from the initial purview of Coheed and Cambria’s ongoing epic. Take Shoulders – first delivered to streaming services in the spring of 2021 – which bruises out the gate like a bull in a China shop with its octaver-warbled hard blues licks. The track makes for one of Vaxis II’s most straightforward slams – yet Sanchez hadn’t contemplated its nasty, triplet pull-off motif too seriously until producer Cervini dug it up from a hard drive of riff ideas.

“When we got into the studio with Zakk Cervini, Shoulders wasn’t actually a track on the record. It just happened to be on a hard drive; it's something I was fooling around with,” Sanchez says, adding that the producer’s suggestion to develop the idea led to one of Coheed’s most uniquely down-and-dirty grooves. “I don’t think Coheed has ever done that pentatonic, bluesy riff structure before. The only other time I can think of is The Hard Sell [off 2013’s The Afterman: Descending], but that was more of an homage to Pink Floyd. This is a little different.”

Guitar-wise, Stever leaned on a long-loved goldtop Les Paul for the Vaxis II sessions. Sanchez’s revolving arsenal included a ’90s-era SG, a ’64 Gibson LG acoustic and an eight-string Stephen Carpenter signature ESP he put to use while chunking through the ultra-low melodies of Lover Murder One and Bad Man

“[Cervini] found [those songs] so interesting because they were pop tunes utilizing this heavy metal instrument,” Sanchez says of transmogrifying the proto-typical, djent-crushed tones of an eight-string into a pop-world beast.

Fittingly, Stever admits that he tried to channel Beat It-period Steve Lukather with his own slashing throughout Love Murder One, while the tune’s equally synth-slathered approach and Sanchez’s impassioned vibrato vocal suggest an alternate universe where Coheed and Cambria started ghostwriting for the Weeknd. Nevertheless, commingling crossover appeal with detuned dark pop and high-flying guitar play failed to throw Coheed and Cambria off their axis. 

As the band’s musical horizons grow, so does the ongoing saga of The Amory Wars. Deep Coheed heads are no doubt excited to latch onto what happens next to Nea, Nostrand and Vaxis, but Sanchez also notes that you technically don’t have to take a crash course on 20 years of subtext to enjoy Vaxis II.  

While framed within elaborate sci-fi, it’s themes are universal. The Liars Club, for instance, revolves around the concept of escapism through trying times – as evergreen a topic as any. As Sanchez puts it, “There’s something that people can latch onto, personally, as opposed to being force-fed this strict concept.”

While Beautiful Losers is a piece that frames Vaxis II’s main characters Nea and Nostrand as underdogs setting off against an evil empire, the tune also serves as a real-world allusion to Coheed and Cambria’s beginnings – Sanchez and Stever had briefly been in a band called Beautiful Loser, named after a Leonard Cohen novel, before founding Shabutie in 1995. The latter outfit released three EPs in the late ’90s before rebranding as Coheed and Cambria at the turn of the century.

We’ve always been, in my mind, the underdog – the outcast of the scenes that we came up in

Claudio Sanchez

“Though it’s very much about our main characters, it’s [also] about Coheed and Cambria. We’ve always been, in my mind, the underdog – the outcast of the scenes that we came up in,” Sanchez says. 

Still, as Coheed and Cambria’s founders comfortably pilot themselves through their fourth decade of activity together, a galaxy of devoted fans in their midst, the multi-faceted prog unit have clearly made an impact. They’re hardly alone in the battle.

Asked if he still feels like an underdog at this point in Coheed’s career, Sanchez notes, “You know, standing in front of our audience, no, I don’t feel that way, but sometimes in the periphery there are little things that still ground you – there’s still room to feel that way.”

With the conclusion of Vaxis still three acts away, there’s still time for Coheed and Cambria to overcome any challenge that comes their way – fictional or otherwise.

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Gregory Adams

Gregory Adams is a Vancouver-based arts reporter. From metal legends to emerging pop icons to the best of the basement circuit, he’s interviewed musicians across countless genres for nearly two decades, most recently with Guitar World, Bass Player, Revolver, and more – as well as through his independent newsletter, Gut Feeling. This all still blows his mind. He’s a guitar player, generally bouncing hardcore riffs off his ’52 Tele reissue and a dinged-up SG.