…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – Lost Songs
Richter Scale 2012
It’s really a magnificent feeling when things just come together, when everything runs smoothly and without complications. When things just go right. For alternative pariahs …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, the past decade since 2002’s seminal Source Tags & Codes has been one long question mark, a series of stops and starts and things generally not going all that right that has been as frustrating as it has been occasionally inspiring (see: ex-guitarist Kevin Allen destroying thousands of dollars worth of electronics after losing at Guitar Hero in an Austin, TX bar). Albums like So Divided and The Century of Self were the aural equivalents of watching a movie with your friends that you’ve seen before and have hyped up as endlessly funny, like, the comedy of the year, man, and then for the next hour and a half you keep glancing sideways at them across the couch, waiting for a laugh, any laugh, hell even a smile would be nice, and before you know it the movie is over and your credibility is shot. Tao of the Dead was a nice progression, something with a purpose, but even as it went where it wanted to go without flying (too far) off the rails it was still trapped in that prog-rock dick-measuring contest the band has seemed trapped in for years, the kind that leads to 16-minute-plus songs the band calls “suites” without an ounce of self-consciousness. It’s a welcome respite, then, to see Trail of Dead take that focus and file it down to a sharp, angry blast of guitar-centric rock, with barely a song over five minutes in sight.
There’s no convoluted intro here, no self-referential Mayan death-chants or sweeping orchestral arrangements. The closest they get is the skittering jabs of guitar and foreboding phaser swell of “Open Doors” and a click-clack drum rhythm that sets the tribal pattern for much of the record. Then they fire up that guitar riff and everything, all the overwhelming production and space-age mysticism and the extraneous shit that cluttered up everything before is laid bare and with it comes a piercing clarity, that all this band needs to do is turn those guitars up to eleven and go forth. “Open Doors” is the most straightforward, brutal song the band has recorded since “It Was There That I Saw You” bloodied the opening of Source Tags & Codes. It’s compelling and cathartic in a way much of the band’s material has only pretended to be, cycling up through its verse and chorus higher and louder with a mindless simplicity that is shocking in all the right ways. Then comes “Pinhole Cameras,” and instead of an interlude there’s a thunderous four-bar intro and then the idling guitars rev up, the drum pattern goes into double-time and we’re off once again.
Lost Songs is likely the band’s harshest work since 1999’s Madonna, and while it doesn’t have the kind of epic interlocking parts that made Source Tag & Codes an art-rock classic, it seems like a renewed start for bandleaders Conrad Keely and Jason Reece. Keely has said in interviews that this album was inspired by real world events and, in a callback to their punk roots, is the band’s attempt to draw more attention to these issues. Obvious case in point, first single “Up To Infinity,” criticizes the Syrian civil war in stark, black-and-white terms alongside a classic Trail of Dead structure, building up the song only to break it back down via a scorching guitar riff, mangled by feedback and pissed off screams. Keely’s very “cynical indie musician” politicizing can tend to grate; the problem with lyrical sermonizing, especially with a band as heart-on-their-sleeve as Trail of Dead, is the potential to sound at turns uncomfortably blustery (“Catatonic”) and at others hopelessly clumsy (“Flower Card Games”). But the motivation is commendable, and succeeds in making Lost Songs an urgent, flammable piece of post-hardcore. Standout track “Opera Obscura” is a fine example of refining the band’s strengths while excising all the bloat that tended to find its way around Trail of Dead songs in the recent past. Reece’s frenetic drumming lays the groundwork for an ominous chainsaw of a riff that ratchets its way into the mix with a single-minded ferocity before Keely’s primal howl lets it all fade back to those solitary, syncopated drums again. The riff starts up again, louder and wilder, and when that guitar finally peters out like an overtaxed engine after a dizzying ride, it’s a bit of a surprise to find that less than four minutes have passed.
If there are nits to be picked, it’s with Lost Songs’ almost unwavering determination to pummel you into submission with its single-minded brand of relentless, wall-of-sound songwriting, a singularly passionate yet occasionally destructive approach. It’s something that starts to rub one raw right around the time Reece is screaming himself ragged on “A Place To Rest” (which, in a nod to their prog side, seem to be about Game of Thrones), and while “Catatonic” stands out for its sheer energy and that ascendant guitar solo, the second half of the album tends to bleed together, one vicious riff and thudding tom after another. The title track and closing song “Time And Again” are the only songs here that let up on the pedal even a bit, and both beg to be developed more than their short run times allow. That latter song, in particular, is just as affecting and emotionally honest a song as any the band has written, its geniality all the more surprising given the debilitating beatdown administered over the previous eleven tracks, but its frothy fingerpicking melody, a pleasantly surprising ostinato in treble, and that convivial bass line end far too soon.
The thing is, Lost Songs isn’t anything the band hasn’t successfully pulled off before, and many would say better. There’s something to be said, however, for Keely and Reece taking the passion that has always been there, perhaps hidden under segues and themes and suites, and placing it unapologetically front and center. Lost Songs is brash sincere, a caterwauling beast of chunky guitar chords and drums that never give you a chance to breathe, and in its best moments is as fiery and hot-blooded and rousing as anything off those earlier albums fans are always pining for. Perhaps it’s not yet a complete return, but Trail of Dead sound anything but lost.