Having concluded their four-part prog-rock space opera (no, really) with 2007's No World for Tomorrow, Coheed and Cambria now presents fans with their very own Phantom Menace. Year of the Black Rainbow serves as a prequel to the convoluted tale of cyborgs and spaceships stretched across each of the band's previous studio albums (a deluxe edition of the new album even includes a 352-page novel penned by singer Claudio Sanchez). For the unconverted, it's probably impossible to care, but the band's fanbase includes a zealous core of close readers who make a hobby of decrypting and debating Sanchez's narrative with the type of conspiratorial fervor typically reserved for Lost fans and Tea Party activists. Happily, the Coheed of albums past always made it possible to enjoy their righteously over-the-top tunes—comprised in equal measure of heavy, Zep-worshipping metal and relentlessly catchy radio-rock—while ignoring the sci-fi theatrics entirely.
Expert musicians with an appreciation for camp and a nerdy excess of ambition, Coheed has never been as good or as bad as they sound on paper. To put it in the band's native geek-speak, it's always been possible to imagine two futures for Coheed: in one timeline they'd make good on the latent promise of a leftfield pop-metal masterpiece; in the other, they'd simply implode into unlistenable self-parody. Both seemed equally probable. But with Black Rainbow, the band takes a hard turn toward the disastrously overwrought, shortchanging their keen classic rock chops and turning in what is by far their most bombastic and least tuneful set to date.
The bulk of Black Rainbow is spent with the band's two guitarists, Sanchez and co-founder Todd Stever, working through interminable knots of metal riffs, and when Coheed does attempt a big chorus, as they do singles "The Broken" and "Here We Are Juggernaut," they mistake heightened volume for heightened appeal. Sanchez may push his impressive vocal range to the stratosphere, but his clumsy hooks remain grounded. And where the album's first half does succeed, as on the hardcore-inspired "Guns of Summer," it's a triumph of focused intensity over mediocre songcraft. By contrast, act two finds the band letting their moribund melodies drift over aimless prog numbers, with tracks like "Made Out of Nothing (All That I Am)" ranking somewhere below the very worst songs the band has ever recorded.
Disappointment that it is, the album still might have been saved from the outer limits of tedium were it not so mercilessly dreary. The oppressive production job by Atticus Ross and Joe Barressi (the men on the knobs of some equally alienating angstfests by Tool and Nine Inch Nails), saves the listener the trouble of minding Sanchez's typically inscrutable lyrics. Clearly, every character in his story is very miserable the entire time; this seems to be the only good explanation for the gloomy atmospherics that shroud each and every track. There's no trace of Coheed's oddball eclecticism here, or of their dynamic pop sensibilities; instead the emotionally and tonally monochrome Black Rainbow gives the impression of a typically humorless metal act.