To This Day, Coheed and Cambria’s Sci-Fi Prog Rock Embodies Mass Effect to Me

On connections between the games we play and the music we listen to when we play them.

Progressive Rock band Coheed and Cambria’s tenth studio album, Vaxis II: A Window of the Waking Mind, is out — and it’s excellent. It’s refreshing to hear a band be around this long and still constantly evolve its sound and structures. The record not only leans hard into the band’s melodic but progressive composition, but also extends into its poppier sensibilities.

A handful of songs, such as “A Disappearing Act,” “Love Murder One,” and “Blood” marry Coheed’s storytelling style with sounds that would be at home on an electronic album. I really dig it, both because the songs are bangers and because I like when Coheed sounds like a science fiction band. That’s something that’s always tied their music so closely to the Mass Effect series in the 15 years I’ve been a fan of both.

The music we listen to when we play games often finds itself inseparable from those games. To this day, I can’t listen to Red Jumpsuit Apparatus’ Don’t You Fake it without feeling nostalgic for Pokemon Pearl, or hear Diplo’s “Wish” without thinking of Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City skyline. But my connection to Coheed and Cambria’s progressive rock music with BioWare’s science fiction RPG dates back almost 15 years ago. Their music co-existed with and even gave narration to my experiences in the Mass Effect universe.

My dad bought me Coheed and Cambria’s first four albums for Christmas in 2007, and shortly after, I used my Christmas money to buy the first Mass Effect at a local GameStop. 15-year-old me didn’t know it at the time, but he was getting what would become his favorite game series and his favorite band all in the course of about a week.

Coheed was the band that inspired me to learn guitar, and I still remember how to play most of the songs on their Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV album. Mass Effect was one of the few games I truly loved at that point in my life, as I started finding my hands preoccupied with strings on a fretboard more often than a controller. In a way, they both served as symbols for a diverging point in my life. My love of music was spearheaded by Coheed’s concept records, whereas Mass Effect’s RPG elements helped me express myself in a way not too dissimilar from how music did, which would go on to be a pillar of my career writing and talking about games.

They both came into my life in a matter of days, but it wasn’t just proximity or random chance that kept them intertwined. It was the science fiction worlds they explored, with the angst of love and heartbreak at their centers.

All but one of Coheed and Cambria’s albums tell stories set in the science fiction concept of The Amory Wars, which was conceived by the band’s vocalist/guitarist Claudio Sanchez. It’s been made into a comic series, novels included with their most recent albums, and there was even a (lapsed) deal with Mark Wahlberg for a film adaptation, at one point. My feelings on the story have ebbed and flowed depending on the album. Because even with a science fiction backdrop, a lot of Coheed’s music has given a fictional form to the entitled misogyny that’s prevalent in a lot of music from the time.

Women die to further men’s pain, and one album in particular is all about adding a metatextual element to the story — where its writer is coping with a breakup — all leading to violent ends both in the story itself and out.

But when Coheed’s music wasn’t using proper nouns to reference characters in The Amory Wars, I often found myself inserting Mass Effect into the spaces in-between. For probably a year, that first game occupied the same space a live game would now. I played through a few times to really nail down what choices I would eventually import into Mass Effect 2, but there were probably a dozen playthroughs where I’d just exist in BioWare’s science fiction while listening to Coheed and Cambria’s. As such, the band’s music became like a secondary soundtrack to the RPG.

Years Later, Coheed and Cambria's Sci-Fi Prog Rock Reminds Me of Mass Effect

I still remember one instance where the title track of No World For Tomorrow came on shuffle through my Xbox 360, where I’d ripped all four of the albums onto the hard drive, as I was playing through Mass Effect’s climactic fight on the Citadel.

As Commander Shepard, I was fighting my way through Saren’s forces as Sanchez’s words flowed over the driving guitars and drums. It was a battle cry for a version of Mass Effect’s protagonist, whom I’d played primarily as a Renegade, frustrated by galaxy leadership at its inaction that had led to the Citadel — the center of galactic society — being overrun.

If anyone had listened to me, we wouldn’t be in this position. And as I fought through the Geth invading the Citadel, the song’s frustration was a beat pulsing through my character.

So march to the drumming

Show them you’re coming

You’ve been their play toy

Cut to the carving

Bleed them ‘til robbing

Enough! They’ll take no more”

That connection stayed with me as future Mass Effect games came out around the same time as future Coheed albums. Mass Effect 2 launched in 2010, which was followed a few months later by Year of the Black Rainbow, the heaviest album the band has produced, largely thanks to influence by ex-Dillinger Escape Plan drummer Chris Pennie, the who kept the band’s beat going from 2007 to 2011. But “Here We Are Juggernaut” remains, to this day, a song that still brings images of Mass Effect 2’s Suicide Mission to my mind.

It’s heavy, and at times just a wall of sound, but retains the band’s melodic tendencies as Sanchez wails the chorus. The song describes a unit, a couple in the band’s concept, but the chorus resigns that they’ll fight together to face some unknowable thing. I’ve always attached its sentiment to my Commander Shepard leading their crew into assured death, and coming out alive on the other side.

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Not every tie was in combat. My favorite Coheed and Cambria song, “Key Entity Extraction IV: Evagria the Faithful,” is part of 2012’s The Afterman: Ascension. This was several months after Mass Effect 3 came out, but the game was still in the center of my mind as I spent the better part of a year reflecting on the series and my relationship with it and its main character.

The Key Entity Extraction suite of songs all tell the stories of dead characters, as the protagonist experiences their memories. But “Evagria the Faithful” expresses his regret in a moment he believes he will die, wondering if he left something behind for his lover to treasure when he’s gone.

Mass Effect 3’s final decision sees Shepard pondering death and seeing flashbacks of their friends and lovers as they leave one last echo of their will into the galaxy. This uncertainty is captured in the song’s instrumentation. Its riff is ethereal over eerie electronic effects that give way to a beautiful shift in the chorus, as the protagonist declares he was a man unworthy of his lover, which played into the feelings of guilt my character still has around Mass Effect 3’s ending.

I chose the Destroy option, which ends the galactic threat of the Reapers at the expense of all synthetic life. My Shepard lived to reunite with his lover, Kaidan Alenko, but I always imagined what happened here would be a shameful footnote in his military career. It’s one that Coheed’s music amplifies for me as I listen to my favorite song.

And from the other side she’ll save me

Her courage, strength, and heart beyond

I wish she’d stay mine

But her place is in some other time

Goodbye forever, my darling

Whether I was everything you thought I’d be or not

I was a bad man to stop you, girl, from loving me

Years Later, Coheed and Cambria's Sci-Fi Prog Rock Reminds Me of Mass Effect

Even with Shepard gone in 2017’s Mass Effect: Andromeda, Coheed and Cambria’s music still hit just right as the band members entered the next step in their life: fatherhood. 2015’s The Color Before the Storm is the only album by the band completely removed from The Amory Wars, but it still explored similar themes to my playthrough of Andromeda, in which my player character, Ryder, was also entering fatherhood alongside his boyfriend Gil. The band has since returned to the concept, but we haven’t had a Mass Effect game since.

Listening to A Window of the Waking Mind without a Mass Effect game to attach it to feels odd. It’s got some of the most explicit sci-fi sound the band has had in its career, but I don’t have a Mass Effect universe to play in while I listen. Sanchez’s voice naturally brings to mind images of Commander Shepard and Pathfinder Ryder’s adventures, but we don’t really know what’s coming next for BioWare’s RPGs. A new game is on the table, but the studio’s drip feed of information has made it hard to parse just what’s coming, and some of the theories don’t sound that enticing.

Perhaps, one day, Coheed’s songs of warfare and heartbreak will untie themselves from Shepard’s galaxy-defining decisions. But in a lot of ways, my relationship to Mass Effect mirrors how Sanchez describes his relationship to The Amory Wars. In an interview with AP about A Window of the Waking Mind, Sanchez talked about how he’s used the concept and the music set within it as an outlet to explore his own aggressions while allowing himself to be a nurturer in life.

“At that time in my life, all I could think about was self-destruction, not wanting to be in Coheed and Cambria,” Sanchez told AP. “And in a way, I knew that was silly because it’s everything I’ve wanted with my life. What I realized as I was going was I could allow my avatar to be the one that destroyed everything. And I could be at peace with who I am in reality.”

The fashion in which Sanchez uses The Amory Wars as a fictional basis for his own reflection parallels the one I used for Mass Effect. At a younger age, I saw Shepard as a vessel to better understand myself without collateral damage. I explored my identity, my emotions, and my beliefs through an avatar — one whose own cycles of violence and self-destruction were mirrored in the concept of a band whose work was set in galaxies I’ll never see.

Coheed’s music and BioWare’s games are full of parallels and connections that may not have been intentional, but 15 years after I started to explore both, it’s hard for me to imagine how my life might’ve gone differently had I experienced one without the other.