As enjoyable as 2015’s The Color Before the Sun was for Coheed and Cambria’s first unrelated set of songs, it intrinsically felt a bit dispensable and disappointing because it wasn’t connected to the Amory Wars saga. Granted, bands should always be free to try new things and test expectations. Yet, mastermind Claudio Sanchez’s grandiose concept is so embedded within the quartet’s identity that anything outside of it can’t help but come across as a somewhat unsatisfactory outlier.
Fortunately, they return to their namesake epic with Vaxis – Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures. Billed as the initial chapter of “a brand-new story arc” (as was the remarkably characteristic and vibrant Afterman prequel albums), it assuredly recalls the epic lengths and scopes of past narrative triumphs. That said, its occasionally uninspired approach and odd pacing prevent it from completely being a reinvigorated and essential entry in the canon. In other words, the band still does what they do immensely well on The Unheavenly Creatures; they’ve also done just about all of it already.
Undeniably, the LP captures everything that makes Coheed and Cambria’s dynamic aesthetic so appealing. For instance, opener “Prologue,” with its foreboding voiceover, melodic foreshadowing, and digital dissonance, is hugely effective in establishing an ominous and profound tone. Likewise, extensive successor “The Dark Sentencer” conjures—but doesn’t quite match—prior anthemic gems like “Welcome Home,” “No World for Tomorrow,” and “Key Entity Extraction I” in its call-to-action catchiness and riff-heavy hypnotisms.
The multifaceted “Black Sunday” does an excellent job of juxtaposing its crushing first half with its charmingly inclusive latter portion. Meanwhile, “All on Fire” perfectly captures the touching and desperate urgency devotees adore. Later, several tracks—namely, “Old Flames,” “Lucky Stars,” “Unheavenly Creatures,” and “Love Protocol”—showcase the group’s knack for radiant pop sing-alongs and luscious fatalistic reflections. Without a doubt, The Unheavenly Creatures packs the sort of intricate heaviness, densely somber odes, and in-between invigorations that always makes their work special.
On that note, however, some of the album comes across as moderately insipid and overly familiar padding. Inclusions like “Toys,” “Queen of the Dark,” “True Ugly,” and “Night-Time Walkers,” while still moderately enjoyable, are too run-of-the-mill to truly impress. In fact, a few songs (including “The Gutter” and yes, even “Love Protocol”) are slightly clichéd because they rely a bit too heavily on evoking the musical and lyrical qualities of earlier full-lengths (particularly In Keeping Secrets, Good Apollo, and Year of the Black Rainbow). This helps the record feel like a return to form and a fitting extension of the lore. However, there’s an undeniable "been there, done that" aspect to it. In addition, its pervading finality prevents it from establishing a palpable beginning/middle/end structure of build-up, escalation, and resolution.
Those issues aside, The Unheavenly Creatures is a mostly captivating continuation of the Amory Wars saga. It cements how relevant, idiosyncratic, and cherishable Coheed and Cambria remains. True, they mostly repeat a tried-and-true formula instead of shaking things up in an innovative way. Their chemistry remains distinguishing and enjoyable enough to praise though (especially after roughly twenty years of doing it). Overall, the Vaxis pentalogy is off to a conventional yet quite beguiling start that incites considerable anticipation for its next episode.