Completing the Circle, with Coheed and Cambria

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I want to share something magical with you, something transcendent. It involves a band, a group of friends, an album, and a decade-long stretch of lifetime. It’s one of those stories that reminds us that, though it doesn’t feel like it in this very moment, we’re all going in the same direction: forwards. Sand trickles through fingers, seasons creep by. This is all a one-way street, and sometimes you need to complete the circle in order to truly appreciate where you’ve come from, and where you’re going.

1. Neverender, 2008

Let me take you back almost 10 years, to 2008. This is where pen gets put to paper, and the circle begins.

I’m a 14 year-old kid. Ridiculously big hair, annoying pre-pubescent voice, driven all over town by my parents. These are the days when MSN Messenger is where all the teenage social drama goes down, and writing on someone’s Facebook wall has not yet become a social faux pas. I’ve reached Year 9 at school, and so those all important GCSE’s are looming, yet at the same time I’m realising that girls are actually kind of interesting and I’m not quite sure what to do about it. But more importantly than all that, this is the year that I discover music.

Two video franchises are to blame for this transition towards decent music: Guitar Hero and Rock Band. In 2008, my brother and I are beyond good at these games. At some point in the future, I’ll get onto some worldwide leaderboards for my scores on that plastic drum kit (not showing off or anything, just saying), but for now my 14 year-old self is perfectly content with some brotherly jamming to compliment his extra-curricular drum lessons.

Furthermore, I’m already so naively confident in my drumming abilities that I have decided to form my very own band! Yes, after some hard brainstorming in an ICT lesson with bassist Rob Butler, we had decided upon the name “Ceasefire” – completely oblivious to the fact that this title would probably lead audiences to assume we’re a group of rag-tag hippy pacifists that want to stop the war and bring peace to the world. Nope, just a couple of 2008 kids creating hit songs based entirely around the 12 Bar Blues that Rob had been learning in his bass lessons. Smashing. With guitarist Richard Pougher in tow, and later singer David Wells, we had soon established ourselves as the token rock band for the annual Brighton Hill Community College talent show.

Ceasefire were a force to be reckoned with. If you’re not convinced, check out the results of our first ever photo-shoot, which soon after became my first ever Facebook profile picture (which is ridiculous since you can’t actually see me in it):

first profile pic
Ceasefire. Left to right: Richard, David, me hidden behind the crash cymbal, and Rob. That electric drum kit is still alive and kicking today.

We came 2nd in the Year 8 talent competition. Again, not bragging, just stating facts.

Anyway, back to the video games. There’s one particular track that features on that first Rock Band game, and it catches my ear. It has a really distinctive riff at the start, played on an acoustic guitar, and then these awesome dual electric guitar solos at the end, which my brother has endless fun shredding plastic too. The drum part is a little boring, but it’s got groove… and the singer (is it a girl or a guy?) is crooning about some weird shit, like drilling through someone’s hand. Nevertheless, my 14 year-old music-virgin brain is intrigued. The song, it turns out, is a little ditty called “Welcome Home” by Coheed and Cambria.

coheed rock band.png
Oh how I miss that game…

What interests me even more about the song is a trivia message that comes up on the screen just before we play through the track. It says something like “Did you know that Claudio Sanchez, the leader singer of Coheed and Cambria, writes all of his lyrics to fit an overarching sci-fi concept called The Amory Wars?” No, plastic-instrument-video-game, I do not know that. Nor have I ever heard of anything like that before. I am now fully committed to finding out more about these guys.

In a matter of weeks, Coheed quickly become my favourite band. I mean, it’s not like there are a huge amount of current favourite bands to rival them for that pole position (the first album I ever bought, maybe the year before, was by Busted… yeah). But still, I get in deep, like I haven’t done with any artist previously. I download all of their music, using the definitely-illegal and now defunct pirating software Limewire to get my ears on one song at a time. “Welcome Home” was just a taster of what was to come: within days I’m digging down into the depths of their albums, listening to the groove of a drummer I wouldn’t fully appreciate until 10 years later. I learn all the words, and sing along to the tracks in my bedroom, sitting in front of my PC computer’s buzzing light. I get up to speed with the concept, determined to understand the meanings of the various characters and plot arcs Claudio references in his songs. In short, I instantly become a Coheed and Cambria super-fan.

Summer of 2008 rolls around. One day, I open up the rock magazine Kerrang (wow, that really is a throwback) and see a full-page advert on the inside cover:

Neverender_teaser

The advert is cryptic, but to a newly inaugurated Coheed fanatic, the meaning is instantly clear. Their most recent fourth album, No World For Tomorrow (released 2007), had heralded the end of The Amory Wars, Claudio’s epic sci-fi chronicle that formed the basis of the band’s underlying concept. Neverender is a track from their first album, Second Stage Turbine Blade, and so it can only mean one thing: Coheed are planning something big to celebrate the end of the story. And sure enough, within a few days the news is officially released. In Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and London, the band will play four-night residencies in concert halls, with a different album being played, in full, each evening. It’s a huge undertaking, and my 14 year-old self can only think one thing: I have to be there.

Now, I’ve never been to an actual show before: this one will be my first. So I’ll need parental supervision, obviously. I rush downstairs two-at-a-time, and burst into the kitchen, waving the advert and repeating “please please please” until my father agrees to take me. After a quick celebration, there’s only two things left to do: 1) decide which of the four nights to attend, and 2) invite my mates along too. I’ve become invested in all of Coheed’s albums, but their third “Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume 1: From Fear Through The Eyes of Madness” has Welcome Home as the opener and, as it’s the song that got me into the band in the first place, I need to see that live. After some brief phone calls, excited chatter, and convincing of respective parents, it’s decided. I’ll be travelling to London, with the rest of my band Ceasefire, to see Coheed and Cambria play their third album in full. Bring on December!

The night soon arrives, with the winter air in tow. My bandmates and I hop on the train to London. My Dad is not too far behind, but he’s giving us enough space to let us experience this coming-of-age moment for ourselves: the first of many tickets we’ll buy, timetables we’ll scan, and trains we’ll hop onto to see live music. We find our seats, and the four of us are excitable little bubbles of nervous energy. We’re all giggling, making stupid videos on our phones, and then before long we’re in the echoey hubbub of Waterloo Station. Following my father’s lead, we work our way through the crowds to the Underground, and onward to Charing Cross.

Leaving the tube station and out into the open air, Richard turns to me and says “Where’s the Astoria then?” This is the venue we’re looking for, but he’s being completely blind: it’s directly across the road from us. Right in front of us.

astoria
The now-demolished Astoria in Charing Cross, London.

Once we’ve queued up and made it into the venue, past the rows of fake merch outside and real Neverender merch inside, my Dad finds a nice spot for us to stand in the audience: a central position, from which we can get a good view of both sides of the stage. We’re early, and so the venue is relatively quiet and we can easily weave our way through the crowd. After some ground rules are set (“meet over there after the band, don’t run off or your mother will kill me”) and probably some kind of fatherly pat on the back / ruffle of the hair, my Dad leaves me and my friends alone to find his seat. Then, Ceasefire is left standing, anxiously awaiting our first ever show.

And it is like nothing I have ever experienced before.

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Video-games and bedroom-listens could not prepare me for the onslaught the band bring when they come crashing into Welcome Home. The crowd, so loose a mere hour before, now heaves forward ferociously, and sweat immediately fills my eyes. This is raw passion, this is live music. Coheed fans tower all around me, and they’re screaming the words like nothing else matters. The standing audience moves like a cohesive fluid, a living organism. I am pushed into someone’s back, unable to move, and then thrown backwards again. But this is far from uncomfortable. It is a delight.

The band respond to our energy by bringing their own, and like some kind of crazy tennis match over the barrier, the whole venue ignites in a positive feedback of music and passion. And they’re damn good. Technically proficient and well-practised, Coheed exude the confidence of a group of musicians who know exactly what they’re doing.

(A funny story: During the show, inevitably a small mosh pit broke out in the centre of the standing area, relatively close to us. Aghast that he had left his son and his friends in that very spot just moments before, my onlooking father rushed out of his seat and over to a bouncer, yelling over the music, “There’s a fight down there! Aren’t you going to do something?” The bouncer just looked at him, amused.)

coheed_astoria2

The crowd doesn’t let up towards the latter half of the album either. Coheed fans are renowned for loving every song as if it were a chart-topping single. Obscure tracks like Mother May I and From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness, that would become lost songs among any other band’s third album, are welcomed with thundering applause, and the latter sends the crowd into a unified bounce. My face happily greets the colder climate hanging above the sweaty throng, as I jump up and down with my fellow Coheed fans.

Then, as quickly as it started, it’s all over. Sweat is dripping from my t-shirt as the house lights come up and the band depart the stage. After the post-Coheed-show fan bonding in the mosh-pit area (a lovely tradition that I would come to indulge in after each and every Coheed viewing), we stumble out of the Astoria, into the cold winter air, and curse the fact that we have school the next day. But we’d done it, our first ever show. A rite of passage, and the start of something special. The start of a life’s story…

2. The ripple effect

The theme of this post is “completing the circle”. There are some moments in your life that are pivotal: they define the rest of your days. But, like I said before, sometimes you need things to come back around in order to fully appreciate just how life-changing the moment actually was. How things could have been completely different, had you not experienced that. I’ve been alive on this planet for 23 years, and for me, that Neverender show was undoubtedly one of the most pivotal moments in my life so far. Like a stone into water, it caused a ripple effect that changed the very core of who I am. Let me explain why.

2.1. Live music

That night at the Astoria was like breaking the “live music” seal. From then on, especially between the years of 2009 – 2012, travelling to Reading, Andover, Southampton and London for weekend shows just became the norm. Early bands included Deaf Havana, We Are The Ocean, Young Guns, Rise Against and Alexisonfire, and I loved every single one of them. In that time, I became somewhat of a live music fanatic. Spurred on by the passionate fans I had moshed with at that first ever Coheed gig, I made sure to treat each and every show like there was nothing more important in the world. If you know the words, don’t just sing them, lose your fucking mind over them. If you want to dance, move your whole body, and don’t care if people stare at you. Most importantly, if you want to throw yourself off the stage, throw yourself off the stage.

deaf havana crowdsurfer
Me, the crowdsurfer, when seeing Deaf Havana at The George in Andover.

Let me reiterate: if you want to throw yourself off the stage, throw yourself off the stage.

corwdsurf
Yes, that t-shirt is covered in sweat. The venue was boiling. Deaf Havana again, at The Joiners in Southampton.

To this day, my attitude towards live music has not changed. I would never ever take a girl on a first date to see a band I liked, because I would just end up losing my mind and getting very hot and sweaty very quickly, to her inevitable distaste. But that’s what I love about the live music experience. You completely dissolve into the moment, that single point in time, and become detached from everything; all your worries, fears and uncertainties just cease to exist. It’s just you and the music. I cherish those few moments whenever they come along, and all because of my first positive experience, all those years ago at The Astoria.

Gigs naturally led onto festivals. Reading Festival was fantastic, for the three years I went. I remember always printing out the Clashfinder a few days before the festival, and highlighting the bands I wanted to see each day. It ended up being exhausting, almost like a 9 to 5 working day. But it was completely worth it, and I discovered so much fresh talent at that festival, music that I still listen to today.

After Reading, there came the more niche festivals like 2000trees and ArcTanGent. Smaller and more focused events, these festivals were solely for music-lovers. But I may never have stepped foot on those fields if it wasn’t for my initial experiences at Reading, which in turn came from my teenage love for live music. Again, all rivers lead back to Neverender.

reading richard
Richard and Chirag, waiting with me to see Coheed at Reading Festival 2012.

 

2.2. Playing in bands

Another part of my life that was influenced by that very first Coheed show was my passion for playing in bands. Ceasefire eventually died a death, but like a phoenix from the ashes Bless the Hour was born, with a new sound influenced by UK post-hardcore bands of the time. (The name Bless the Hour, incidentally, is lifted from a Coheed and Cambria song.) With Bless the Hour, we had fun, played some silly shows and made a music video for the best song ever written. I also made some money playing with other guys in a half covers / half originals bands 12 Truths, and did that until I left to head to university.

Once at Bristol University, I quickly joined another band called Lionface, the most professional so far. With Lionface, I toured the country, played some unforgettable shows and even a few small festivals, and recorded in a very swanky studio down in Devon. I felt completely out of my depth the entire time, but I was incredibly lucky. Whilst dividing my time between studying and playing with Lionface, I also managed to get another band going: Fake Empire. This was the brain-child of one of my university friends, Jimi McWilliam-Woods. Fake Empire clicked immediately, and the shows we played went off. It was always glorious to look out into the crowd and see other mates from university clapping along and supporting you. Finally, since moving up North to do my Masters in Newcastle, I’ve ended up in a math-rock band called Pandon Burn. While it’s different from any of the music I’ve played before, it’s forced me to be creative with my drumming and I’ve really enjoyed the technical challenge.

lionface
Lionface, killing it in London a few years ago.

In a way, all of these projects are, in my mind, influenced by Coheed and Cambria, at least a little. For example, Bless the Hour were a bit heavier than Coheed, but at the start we would often do covers of The Final Cut and A Favor House Atlantic to get warmed up. Plus, I think that some of our odd song structures owe themselves to the proggy nature of bands like Coheed. Furthermore, in every band I’ve been in since university, I’ve made a conscious effort to write parts like Josh Eppard, Coheed’s drummer. Back in the day, I would always overfill songs, blast away too many fills, and generally have little understanding of the “spotlight” in music. What Josh has always done, and what I’ve slowly come to appreciate over the past decade, is play for the song. He sits in the pocket, accent’s his beat to fit the guitar part, and generally drives the song with a deeply-felt groove. Inspired, I now try to play drums like this, to take a step back and create parts that compliment, not overpower, the other musicians on stage. This approach has improved me to no end, and it all traces back to Coheed.

 

2.3. Friendships

After seeing Coheed complete their Neverender project, in four different locations no less, I felt compelled to match them. With my recently developed drumming skills, I decided to tackle the challenge head on by attempting to create a drum cover of every Coheed song from album one right through to album four. I completed the YouTube project back in the summer of 2010. It was great fun, and while the project is now a little dated (I know the songs much better now, and I believe I have the necessary skills to replicate all the parts faithfully and tastefully) it’s still fun to look back on occasionally, as an old achievement.

In parallel to me, there was a guitarist on the other side of the world who was striving for the same goal. His name was Sam Gaglio, from the US, and he was also covering every Coheed song from the first four albums, but on guitar. We corresponded a little while we were both doing our projects, kind of spurring each other on, and later ended up collaborating on a few group covers (see here for one) along with a vocalist and another guitarist.

Then, slowly, we became pen pals, outside of our love for Coheed. Sam is one of the most chill guys I’ve ever met, and we had so much in common: love of music, art and psychology. We were both making other vlogging videos on the side, and his general philosophy on life – never stop being inquisitive, always push yourself, keep creating – clicked with mine perfectly. So when he asked, in 2011, if I would be around London to meet with him when he swings by during his year abroad in Europe, I say: hell yes. Let’s hang out.

It’s insane. I’d never met the guy before, only talked online, but suddenly we’re absolute best pals. I tour him round London, invite him back to Basingstoke to meet my friends and jam some Coheed songs. And the whole time, I couldn’t help thinking: if it wasn’t for Coheed, this would never have happened.

Then, flash forward to 2014. Coheed are doing a narrowed version of Neverender, playing only their second album in its entirety (to celebrate its 10 year anniversary). There’s a show in Denver, Colorado, which is near where Sam lives, and so in my crazy brain I decide it would be awesome to fly out and see them with him. And so I did. In the September of 2014, I’m hopping on a plane to go meet a guy I’d only met once before, and who I only knew because of this one band, that I saw for the first time all of those years ago. Life really is crazy sometimes.

And it’s not just Sam. The guys I saw Coheed with the first time have remained super close, and we’re still best friends to date. I share my love for the band most strongly with Richard Pougher, and we often love to get together and jam out Coheed songs. At the risk of sounding all magical, I think there is something special about the experience of a first live show. It bonds you with the people you experience it with, and stays with you for a long while.

3. Neverender, 2017 (or Completing the Circle)

I’ve done lots of growing up over the last ten years.

Since 2007, I flew the nest and moved away from home to go to University, falling in love with the city of Bristol in the process. My degree taught me priceless lessons about who I am and what it is to be human. I also fell in love with a girl, and then crashed back out of love, hard.  But afterwards, in time, I learned what it means to finally get over someone you once cared deeply for.

I lived through the loss of a parent, and in that time discovered what true grief feels like: yet I also realised that time actually does heal all wounds. Since then, I’ve made her proud by travelling the world, and experiencing the beauty of other countries, continents and cultures. Some of my friendships have remained, some have faded away. It’s been thrilling meeting so many incredible people from all walks of life.

I am probably one of the most fortunate people to be alive on this planet today.

It’s hard to write about all this stuff, because life moves so fast that you never anchor up for long enough to give yourself perspective. Everyone (including me) is constantly looking forward to the next thing, the next year, the next promotion, the next big step up “the ladder” and the next life chapter. It’s exhausting, but the adrenaline rush, the yearning for success, is kind of what makes life so exciting. Why have mirrors in your car when the road ahead is so blindingly dazzling?

But, this kind of lifestyle doesn’t let you appreciate just how lucky you are. Instead, it can often leave you exasperated, deeply unsatisfied, and never truly content with the direction your life is heading. The lack of a reference point makes it hard to pinpoint exactly what happiness is.

Well, Neverender 2017 was my reference point.

Coheed-and-Cambria-Koko-London-Poster

At the beginning of this year, I got an excited message from Richard Pougher, co-Coheed-enthusiast, informing me of some very exciting news. The band had announced an anniversary tour of their third album, “Good Apollo I’m Burning Star IV, Volume 1: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness”. This was the album that we had seen performed on that cold December night back in 2008, and now – nine years later – we’d have a chance to do it all again. There was no decision to make. We were going.

Several months later, in June 2017, I find myself in a London concert hall (The Astoria had been demolished several years previously, but Camden’s Koko was a fine replacement) with that same sense of anticipation that I’d had back in 2008, nine years ago. There I am, standing again with my best friends at my side, feeling that buzz of adrenaline as the house lights go down and that first orchestral note of Keeping the Blade fades in hauntingly from the speakers. There I am, waiting ever so quietly for that acoustic guitar riff that I’d first heard all those years ago, playing Rock Band with my brother in a house I no longer lived in.

Welcome Home comes crashing in, and it’s transcendent.

coheed_koko3

I’ve never had an outer-body experience before, but in all seriousness, Coheed’s set felt as close as I’ll ever get to one. In some moments, I was my present 23-year-old self, with all the extra emotional and experential baggage I’d accrued over the years. In this state, I was screaming each word with raw intensity, as if from some guttural, hidden part of my body, feeling the effects of age on my fatigue and pushing through it. But then, with the transition into the next song, I would fall through the floor and back into my 14-year-old’s consciousness, full of nervousness, naivety and youthful energy. In my joyous visions, I recalled jumping up and down to these very songs nine years ago, and I felt the wonderment and awe as if it were my own, right in the here and now.

Like a hallucinogenic seeping into my neurons, Coheed’s third album poured in and out of my heart. I genuinely felt like crying the entire time.

coheed_koko1

There was a certain poetic beauty to my experience of this show, considering the history of this particular album. In album three, Claudio is singing about the duality between the writer of the story and the character of the story, mirroring his experience of weaving a personal tale about himself in his own music. Similarly, my phenomenology during that show was split between younger and older, and in some ways, the writer and the written. I was looking back at the younger Scott and seeing him as a character in the grander story, the story of an entire lifetime.

Between the songs like The Suffering and Wake Up, when I got to catch my breath and compose myself, I would compare myself at age 14 and now at age 23, and complete the circle in my mind. Scott at 14 was innocent, open-to-experience, inquisitive, fresh, nervous yet determined. He hadn’t yet known the love of woman, the loss of a mother, the excitement of travel. Whereas, Scott at 23 has aged a little, taken life in his stride, matured, seen the world and met many wonderful people. He’s a little torn and battered, but brave and battling on nonethless. There is a decade between these two, but at heart they are one and the same. The ripple of the water had travelled far, but continued to emanate from its source.

coheed_koko2

When Coheed finished their set and departed the stage, I was left sweaty and out-of-breath in the mosh pit area, just as I had been nine years before. I was also smiling from ear to ear. I love this band, I love these people, and I love this life. So much has happened in the last decade, and so much will happen in the next.

So when we left the venue, I put pen to paper once more. See you in another ten years, to complete the circle all over again, and hopefully, with many more circles to come.

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