When the Mars Volta's knotty epic Frances the Mute debuted in the top 10 a few months ago, prog a genre once the proud home of noodlehead legends like Yes and Rush, but long since relegated to the margins of pop was officially back. The beast roared anew. But something has changed since the golden era. Musically and lyrically, the new prog is not your father's prog, and the strongest evidence yet is the third album from Mars Volta peers Coheed and Cambria.
Certain prog traditions have, of course, survived lugubrious album titles, for one, and song cycles, for another. Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV: Volume 1. From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness continues a tale begun on the band's first two discs, of a future when parents are forced to kill their children in order to prevent a plague. (Coheed and Cambria are the names of one of those sets of parents.) Or something like that: It's hard to tell exactly what's going on, given that parts of the disc are supposedly narrated by the writer of the story, and others by his characters. (The separately sold comic books, written by C&C singer-guitarist Claudio Sanchez, help somewhat, especially when confronted by lyrics like ''In these arms that whored out amongst the worms that mate in these fields.'') And in grand prog manner, the songs twist and turn, guitars squirm and squiggle, time signatures shift on a dime, and Sanchez often sings in an adult-castrato voice that owes no small debt to Rush's Geddy Lee.
Even Rush, though, might find Coheed and Cambria a tad confounding. The original prog sprang from the hippie utopianism of the '60s and '70s. Much like the sci-fi and fantasy books that inspired it, the genre's beautifully intricate sound spoke of distant and (perhaps) better worlds.
Not the new prog. Reflecting a very different era, Good Apollo is bleak and despairing depressing, apocalyptic stuff. There's that child-massacre story line, of course. But the music has shifted too. Prog was once steeped in classical but now pledges allegiance to speed metal. The result, on Good Apollo, is songs that are gloomy and numbing. Save for a detour into mewly power balladry on ''Wake Up'' and the charged, truly exciting ''Ten Speed (Of God's Blood & Burial),'' Good Apollo is unrelenting and a little tuneless. The songs are long, unwieldy, and anything but uplifting. (You could never say that about, for instance, Yes' ''Heart of the Sunrise.'') In the new prog, the dungeons and dragons of the past once dispatched with a fret-shredding guitar solo or by songs with multiple sections have taken over the world.