Following the release of 2015’s non-conceptual The Color Before the Sun, Coheed & Cambria continued their magnificent Amory Wars saga with 2018’s superb Vaxis – Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures. Clocking in at just under 80 minutes, it was characteristically vast and dense, recalling the sprawling epic nature of the two Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV records.
In contrast, follow-up Vaxis – Act II: A Window of the Waking Mind—which is over 25 minutes shorter than its predecessor—is closer to the comparatively succinct, focused, and direct Afterman duo. It's still an epic and emotional blockbuster with all the quartet's trademark trimmings (sometimes to a fault). Yet, its heightened accessibility and charm result in a more instantly gratifying and enticingly replayable journey.
Little has been said about the plot of the LP; in fact, the band has really only described it as "the 2nd installment of the five-part 'Vaxis' arc about a couple on the run from tyrannical forces and their mysterious new addition." As usual, though, the 96-page novel that accompanies the deluxe edition—as well as a deep reading of the lyrics—will reveal plenty of juicy narrative connections and developments (none of which I'll spoil here). Suffice it to say, however, that those elements, coupled with some melodic/instrumental reprisals, make Vaxis II quite rewarding for longtime aficionados of the group.
Primarily, the way the album begins and ends—via "The Embers of Fire" and the concluding moments of the title tune—is breathtaking, especially for those who appreciated a certain lead motif from Vaxis I. Similarly, the beguilingly hip and catchy "Comatose" (a beaming prog-punk jewel as only Coheed & Cambria could achieve) is particularly alluring because of its callback to a roughly 20-year-old classic. These moments, in addition to others, ensure that those looking for the band's tried-and-true conceptual continuity won't be disappointed.
There's also the somewhat atypically electronic and danceable "A Disappearing Act" to delight and excite. (The rhythmic build-up around the bridge—"A world in limbo, waiting, opening up / A world in limbo waiting to open for us"—is gorgeous.) Then, "Blood" is a lusciously heartfelt and ornamented ode that wholly embodies the foursome's flair for romantic urgency, dedication, and resolution. Plus, "Bad Man" taps into combatively deviant hard rock, with terrific results.
Elsewhere, Vaxis II becomes fairly traditional without sacrificing likability. For example, there are at least a handful of hyperactive pop ballads—"Beautiful Losers," "Love Murder One," "Shoulders," "Our Love," and "The Liars Club"—that undeniably tread common ground and bring to mind many earlier pieces. That said, frontman Claudio Sanchez remains an expert at writing and singing such material. Thus, it's hard to complain about him recycling these templates a few more times.
Regardless of how much or how little listeners enjoy the first two-thirds of the album, there's no denying that its closing three-part suite is by far the best part. Whereas knockouts like "Welcome Home," "No World for Tomorrow," "The Dark Sentencer," and "Key Entity Extraction I: Domino the Destitute" began their respective albums with a bang, Vaxis II waits until the end to pull audiences into its bombastically complex whirlwind. Without giving too much away, rest assured that the ending trio of tracks ("Ladders of Supremacy," "Rise, Naianasha (Cut the Cord)," and especially "Window of the Waking Mind") cycle through some truly mesmerizing shake-ups as they shuffle between brutal dominance and beautiful defeat.
Despite being a bit conventional at times, Vaxis – Act II: A Window of the Waking Mind is ultimately among Coheed & Cambria's most welcoming, aspiring, and fulfilling studio creations. The initial ten songs are extremely appealing and commendable—even when they're noticeably typical—and they work well as appetizers for the concluding marathon. (Seriously, "Window of the Waking Mind" is a jaw-dropping finale that might rank as the band's greatest composition.) It's an extraordinary accomplishment that mixes new and old templates exceedingly well, setting the stage for an astounding next chapter whenever Vaxis III arrives.