Posts tagged: …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead

Klap 4 2012

By , December 27, 2012 5:00 pm

25. Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror

End of the Line” Spotify

Sleigh Bells always struck me as sort of a gimmick, a one-trick pony on their debut Treats. To be honest, that trick, which makes Nigel Tufnel’s “but these go to eleven” explanation a parody of itself, is still in full effect here—Reign of Terror is loud and brash, letting the guitar slam out chunky, primordial chords with single-minded fervor. Alexis Krauss, however, is the star of Reign of Terror, putting her former teen-pop resume to good use as the shimmery shoegaze counterpoint to Derek Miller’s bludgeoning riffs. For all its volume, Reign of Terror is nuanced and careful in its use of textures and breathy harmonies, less concerned with fist-pumping and headbanging than focusing on the gorgeous tones and dreamlike atmosphere Krauss’ layered vocals achieve. It is a less brutish and far more beautiful Sleigh Bells than I ever expected.

24. Andy Stott – Luxury Problems

“Numb” | Beatport

I wish my old piano teacher was as cool as Allison Skidmore, who really opens up a whole new dimension to Andy Stott’s realm of negative space. Luxury Problems is intensely atmospheric and intricately layered, as Stott’s brand of minimal techno has tended to be, but Skidmore’s nebulous vocals give a heretofore-unseen emotional aspect to Stott’s slow, pulsing beats. And even where Skidmore is nowhere to be found, as on the grimy “Sleepless,” Stott handles himself perfectly fine with some of the finest grooves of his career.

23. School of Seven Bells – Ghostory

“Lafaye” | Spotify

Shoegaze/dream pop with a healthy serving of goth atmospherics and the deft studio hand of ex-Secret Machine Benjamin Curtis sounds similar to other, more lackluster School of Seven Bells albums, albeit now featuring just one preternaturally talented twin sister. Strangely enough, they’ve never sounded so good. Alejandra Deheza manages to maintain the same ethereal quality by herself that Claudia used to augment with the most gorgeous, yet oftentimes empty, harmonies. Ghostory combines the narcotic drone of Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine with an amorphous concept revolving around the haunting of a girl, but it works even better when you see Ghostory as a hazy kiss-off to the old School of Seven Bells and an enchanting taste of where they could go.

22. First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar

“Emmylou” | Spotify

Like the best pop music, The Lion’s Roar takes the building blocks of songwriter malaise—sadness, heartbreak, nostalgia, loss—and turns it into a glorious celebration. Johanna and Klara Soderberg sing with a maturity and gravitas beyond their years (22 and 18, respectively—those numbers depress me every time), conjuring up wildernesses they’ve never seen and feelings it’s difficult to imagine they’ve experienced, or at least experienced enough to be able to sing with such depth and candor. When combined with Mike Mogis’ warmly textured production, all twang and rugged mountain air, The Lion’s Roar lends more convincing credit to the argument that whatever America does, the Swedes can probably do it better.

21. Hospitality – Hospitality

“Eighth Avenue” | Spotify

As sick as I am of Brooklyn bands on the indie scene, it’s hard to not fall in love with this insolent affair from power-pop quartet Hospitality, which flits around New York landmarks and sassy little incisions from vocalist Amber Papini. It’s twee as fuck (Belle & Sebastian is a major signpost, particularly on excellent opener “Eighth Avenue”), but it’s little imperfections and the raucous stumbling blocks, an unexpectedly ragged guitar lick or Papini’s quick wit, make it a charmingly individualistic album.

20. Jack White – Blunderbuss

“Freedom at 21″ | Spotify

For once, White sounds fully involved in the creation of a record, something that hasn’t happened since the White Stripes’ mid-2000s heyday. Blunderbuss is the predictable exploration into blues, funk, and wonderfully filthy rock-n-roll that White has made his calling card, as well as a general fascination with women and the demon sorcery they employ, but its focus and tight production make it the most accessible and pound-for-pound interesting album he’s made in a decade. Plus, the guitar shreds.

19. Chromatics – Kill For Love

“Lady” | Spotify

Ballsy move opening with not just a Neil Young song but one of the Neil Young songs, but Kill For Love is ballsy in more ways than one. It is a cinematic masterpiece that moves at a glacial pace, 16 tracks and seventy-seven 77 gorgeous, druggy minutes and pretty much the perfect encapsulation of Johnny Jewel’s overall ‘80s aesthetic/fetish. It’s not the easiest of listens, but that same sprawling, repetitive, genre-twisting nature rewards dozens and hundreds of listens, which will help the hangover between now and Jewel’s next batch of creativity in 2017.

18. Islands – A Sleep And A Forgetting

“In A Dream It Seemed Real” | Spotify

I don’t know the details of the breakup that inspired Nick Thorburn to commission that void of an album cover and write the bleakest album of his career, but I feel like I now know Nick Thorburn the person more than ever before. A Sleep And A Forgetting is Thorburn’s most personal record, one that delves deep into a shattered romance and confesses everything with nearly overwhelming amounts of shame and grief. While the understated chamber-pop that informs much of the record dials back Islands’ more manic characteristics considerably, it remains an intensely cathartic record for anybody whose been on the wrong side of a sour relationship, mainly because of Thorburn’s seemingly limitless capacity for self-flagellation. A Sleep And A Forgetting ends not with hope but with a dirge (“Same Thing”), devoid of anything but an exhausted, worn out expression of nihilism.

17. Grimes – Visions

“Genesis” | Spotify

I don’t really consider myself qualified to discuss all the influences that Visions chews up and digests and Claire Boucher as an artist even less so. Frankly, the term “post-Internet” makes me want to blow my brains out, while her story of sailing down the Mississippi on a rickety, soon-to-fail houseboat with a bounty of chickens and potatoes is so bluntly DIY as to be unbearably contrived. Yet Visions is so delightfully weird without going too far off the rails that it’s hard for me to ignore the strong pop fundamentals underlining all the outsider art clichés. It’s a fascinating combination of skittish loops, industrial beats and Martian synths married to vocals almost as alien in their articulations, an effective synthesis of the past and possible future.

16. A Fine Frenzy – Pines

“Now Is The Start” | Spotify

A bizarre concept album about a tree that has been given the “gift” of free will and accompanied by a e-book and a short animated film, Pines is Alison Sudol’s third album as A Fine Frenzy and a seismic stylistic shift from 2009’s Bomb in a Birdcage. Sudol has always had a gift for composition, and in Pines’ hour-plus run time her craftsmanship achieves hypnotic heights, turning a dangerously silly tale into a mystical set piece of mountains and lakes, rivers and maps that winds its way slowly and delicately onward, painting forests and seasons and something more elemental until exploding into woozy bubblegum pop on the sinfully catchy “Now Is The Start.” It’s hard to describe an album as rambling and ambitious as Pines with any one tag, although rustic folk is a good place to start, and Joanna Newsom and Lisa Hannigan are convenient touchstones. Pines, however, is an enigma that stands securely on its own.

15. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth

“Cry for Judas” | Spotify

At 45, Darnielle still trudges along with his motley crew of junkies, disorders and blips in history, painting his 3-minute picture books of agoraphobics and dead R&B singers with the more expanded studio brushes he has become accustomed to filling in the edges with. While the birth of his first child may have heralded a change in demeanor, aside from the brazen optimism of opener “Amy AKA Spent Gladiator I,” this is still the same Darnielle you’ve always known, the one who can make desperately waiting for your dealer a warm and inviting proposition on “Lakeside View Apartments Suite.” “The loneliest people in the whole wide world are the ones you’re never going to see again,” Darnielle sings on “Harlem Roulette,” and it’s that struggle to live, for things to have meaning, that remains the central theme of the Mountain Goats and Transcendental Youth. Just, you know, with more horns.

14. Woods – Bend Beyond

“Cali in a Cup” | Spotify

Formerly tinkerers of a lo-fi sound that traversed a number of decades, Brooklyn group Woods’ steady one-LP-a-year output has led them to refine their sound into concise, accurate blasts of gravelly Americana and instrumental jam sessions that call to mind more experimental bands such as Neu! It’s easy to take a band for granted when they produce at the pace Woods has, but the focused songwriting and sharp production of Bend Beyond is another piece of evidence in the argument that the group hardly needs to change in order to grow.

13. The Tallest Man on Earth – There’s No Leaving Now

“1904″ | Spotify

Give Kristian Matsson a guitar and some tape and chances are the result will lead to someone invoking the D-word, but that’s more a testament to Matsson’s incredible consistency and that abrasive, airy voice, an acquired taste but one impossible to shake. I love Matsson for his ability to write lyrics that I can relate to even when I have little to no idea what they are about—a lyric like “and when the night is young but the bridge is up / something passing by I was sure / and the only one you can tell it to / well it’s the only one that ever knows” from “1904” is hard to translate but nevertheless hits so hard, maybe because of that forlorn guitar lick, maybe because when Matsson sings it makes me feel something, nostalgia, without ever knowing why. It’s a gift.

12. How To Dress Well – Total Loss

“& It Was You” | Spotify

If Islands’ latest is a straightforward breakup record for sitting at home and staring at old photographs, Total Loss is its drunken, Ecstasy-popping cousin, shambling home from a dim club night after rain-soaked night to lose itself in someone’s anonymous bed. Tom Krell coats his loss in thick, fuzzy electronic textures and a soulful falsetto, a narcotized, dreamy landscape where it’s hard to tell where resolution is supposed to come from. What makes this a superior record to 2010’s Love Remains is it no longer loses itself in the samples and sound collages and disorienting fog, but instead makes it easy to follow Krell on a heavy yet enjoyable journey from the fevered dreams of “Cold Nites” to the almost content “Ocean Floor For Everything.”

11. …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – Lost Songs

“Catatonic” | Spotify

Lighting a match to all the unnecessary, indulgent refuse that burdened most of their post-Source Tags & Codes follow-ups, Trail of Dead finally began to move on from that Sisyphean weight of an album with Lost Songs. It’s brash and loud and wonderfully anthemic and goes over five minutes only once—in short, a minor miracle for a band that considered five-part suites just another way to close an album once upon a time. Without getting bogged down in their own ideas, Trail of Dead has reignited the raw passion that distinguished them in the first place.

10. John Talabot - fIN

“Destiny ft. Pional” | Beatport

I’ve never been to Ibiza, or anywhere on the western Mediterranean seaboard for that matter, but when I do go I imagine (and hope) that this is the kind of record that will be soundtracking what should be the most epic summer dance party. fIN has perfected the art of the buildup, creating a yacht’s worth of sensual, slow-burning tension and then gradually releasing it in the most exhilarating ways—the mesmerizing break in “Destiny,” the horror undertones in “Oro Y Sangre” unloading with a glammed-out scream, the deep house high that closes out the album on “So Will Be Now.” I didn’t know I wanted fIN until it was here, but now that I do it’s impossible to forget.

09. John K. Samson – Provincial

“Longitudinal Centre” | Spotify

I don’t know much about Manitoba or really anything about Canada aside from the fact that it’s really cold and the maple syrup there is pretty ace, but I know about hometowns and the people in them and the loneliness and the quiet despair that comes with wondering if you’re ever getting out. Samson has mellowed somewhat since his days in Propagandhi, but the rather gentle folk tunes here only serve to highlight Samson, who is as strong and relatable and in love with his town as ever, every broken, dark, crumpled corner of it.

08. Lost in the Trees – A Church That Fits Our Needs

“Golden Eyelids” | Spotify

An album about the life and suicide of Lost in the Trees’ leader Ari Picker’s mother is about as grim as it sounds, but it’s Picker’s maestro-like command of the proceedings that gives A Church That Fits Our Needs’ its epic, sweeping span. Picker’s classical chops are evident, masterfully arranging a full complement of orchestral instruments and a strong command of meter and melody to relate an overwhelming story of grief. “My song can try / but there are things that songs can’t say,” Picker’s full, measured tenor explains, yet A Church That Fits Our Needs is not only a fitting memorial for Picker’s mother but signals the proper arrival of a blossoming baroque pop artist.

07. Wild Nothing – Nocturne

“Only Heather” | Spotify

This is a dazzling record, one imbued with a careful sense of craftsmanship that distinguishes it from 2010’s occasionally more off-kilter Gemini, yet maintains that record’s starry-eyed wonder and teenage love navel-gazing. Jack Tatum is one of the best songwriters of his generation, putting the emotional connection before the exquisitely detailed production, the shimmering guitar tones and the ambient swoons that color in all the shadowy parts. A song like “Only Heather” sounds downright perfect in an aesthetic sense, sure, but that only accentuates the heart of the song, the juvenile love that makes this music such a blissed-out escape—it could be for you, for anyone, and Tatum is more than happy to facilitate that—and that is what properly earns it its dream-pop moniker.

06. Passion Pit – Gossamer

“Constant Conversations” | Spotify

There’s no album I listened to more this summer, and that’s partly because Gossamer is the neon-colored summer album to end all summer albums and also because it was far too easy to connect to Michael Angelakos’ anxious lyrics and the sense of frantic, rushing panic that lies uncomfortably around every major-key sunburst. “Constant Conversations” is all that you could ask for from pop music—honest, heartfelt, and not afraid to explore the boundaries of a band’s sound. Gossamer does much the same thing for all twelve of its impossibly peppy, slightly deranged songs.

05. Tame Impala – Lonerism

“Feels Like We Only Go Backward” | Spotify

Lonerism is an album’s album—the kind of record meant to be played from beginning to end, one long journey where the songs and emotions bleed into each other and it’s difficult to tell just where you end up, but damn is the trip worth it. What Kevin Parker has done takes all the choicest bits of psychedelia, metallic grooves and Britpop and infuses it with the remoteness of his native Perth, creating a massive collage that is impossible to place in any one time period, isolated from its contemporaries and incredibly easy to get lost in. As daunting as Lonerism seems on paper—a veritable army of effects and tracks that would turn the ghost of John Lennon green with envy—what Parker and producer Dave Fridmann (of the Flaming Lips) have accomplished is an expansive, kaleidoscopic album that is not all inspired when broken down into its component parts, but unpredictable and exquisite when combined under Parker’s unique vision. Lonerism has the very tough task of taking the sounds and clichés of decades past and making it sound inventive and exciting. That Parker not only succeeded but also created a classic to stand alongside those same influences is only the most impressive of Lonerism’s many accomplishments.

04. Menomena – Moms

“Plumage” | Spotify

Breakups are hard, but you wouldn’t know it from Menomena, who followed up a split with founding member Brent Knopf and another in a long line of critically acclaimed albums with Moms, which just might happen to be their best yet. Little of Knopf’s (amicable) split surfaces on Moms—instead, the breakups involve those of family, more specifically both Danny Seim and Justin Harris dealing with the loss of a parent and the emotional baggage that comes with it. It’s pretty heavy, heady stuff, examined under a searing lamp that renders everything in unflinching detail, from the ugly (“Pique”) to the reluctant (“Capsule”) to the implacably hostile (“Heavy Is As Heavy Does”). It’s a purging of old stories and older feelings that fit nicely in with some of the most aggressive music of Menomena’s careers, like the sweltering solo that roars in right after Harris finishes off a particularly virulent, self-loathing sermon on “Pique.” The production fits the lyrics, loud and clear and almost desperately urgent. It leads to some of their catchiest melodies, not so much thrown together as in records past but deliberately and forcefully constructed, even when, as on “Plumage,” the band seems to exhaust all of their energies, leaving them weary and resigned and petering out in amplifier feedback. By turning inward, Menomena have released an emotionally cathartic, venomous album that hits as hard as a punch to the gut and leaves its wounds open for all to see (and, perversely enough, to dance along to). It is also the most deeply satisfying record of their career.

03. Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself

“Give It Away” | Spotify

Maybe it’s just a function of Andrew Bird’s rather “lit’ry” approach to songwriting, all gentle plucks and crafty wordplay, but Break It Yourself begs to be described in superlative adjectives like “mellifluous” or “meticulous” or “contemplative,” although I’m partial to just “fucking beautiful.” On paper, Break It Yourself seems to check off all the boxes rather perfunctorily: it is along, twisty and rock-strewn dirt road into the heart of staticky AM folk and dusty alt-country that Bird has been steadfastly traveling for quite a while; it is an album impeccably designed and prudently arranged; it still revels in the effortless use of words commonly found in textbooks and the clever syllabic arrangements that remains Bird’s signature. Yet Bird has never written an album this emotionally direct yet still frayed around the edges, sepia postcards warped by time and the long, crushing weight of emotions experienced and discarded, one on top of the other. “We’ll dance like cancer survivors / like we’re grateful simply to be alive” needs no adorning, no phonetic wizardry from an artist who has finally connected the emotional underpinnings of his music with the nostalgia and vaguely melancholic miasma that his vast palette of looping strings, fiddles and that wistful whistle naturally conjure. Although the pop structures that inform his core aesthetic are well in evidence here, Bird is much more interested in building something up just to break it down. Melodies drift along string motifs that wind around as an ethereal counterpoint to Bird himself, who seems more grateful for the lovesick memories that haunt him then regretful, more pleased with the chances he’s received than the ones he’s squandered. The best songs here—the slow, bubbling “Lazy Projector,” the time-worn pastels of “Sifters,” the eight-minute-long crackle of “Hole in the Ocean Floor”—take their time, and when they arrive, as with “Lazy Projector’s” oddly triumphant climax or “Hole in the Ocean Floor’s” near-religious vocals and eventual disintegration, it’s a sad remembrance but also an infinitely hopeful one. An album like Break It Yourself never fails to remind you, for all the weight and heartbreak, life is still a pretty wonderful thing.

02. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

“Werewolf” | Spotify

This album doesn’t know when to quit, and I love it for it—indeed, I never want it to quit anyways. It’s debilitating, taxing, draining, any sort of word you want to use to describe the kind of bloodletting and incisive surgery that Fiona Apple deftly accomplishes, with Charley Drayton standing off to her side, handing her the scalpels. It’s also empathic to an almost extreme degree, telling you things you may not have heard before and perhaps don’t want to hear but too bad because here it is for everyone to consider, possibly with the occasional vocal jag that reminds you that Apple’s emotional walls are already long destroyed, so who are you to hide yourself? Everything is fair game on The Idler Wheel…, and what’s left is an album that speaks to the human condition directly and unequivocally, more than any other in her career.

01. The Walkmen – Heaven

“Heaven” | Spotify

It’s fitting that of all the “The” bands that stormed out of New York City in the early millennium, bands that lived fast and died young (or slid into irrelevancy), the Walkmen have ascended the slowest and the surest. Heaven is the high point of a career that seemed destined to fail years ago in a wonderful haze of Jameson or cigarette smoke, whichever burnt out Hamilton Leithauser’s seemingly ageless voice first. Bows + Arrows was all youthful piss and vinegar, the Walkmen taking their deserved chomp out of all the teenage drama TV marketing dollars that cannibalized the NYC scene, but beginning with 2008’s You & Me, the Walkmen found something more substantial and lasting in their sound. Less a flammable statement and more a smoldering collection of resonant tunes, that record and 2010’s near-perfect Lisbon marked a graceful maturation that has reached its peak with Heaven. Growing old has proved an unexpected golden age for the group, a transformation carefully considered and precisely handled (never better than in the video above): in Paul Maroon’s glowing guitar and that steady rhythm section; in the warm and confident tone maintained by Leithauser, whose gradual mellowing out over the years has only enhanced the timbres and depth of his voice; in the heartfelt, straightforward lyrics that the band finds in everyday life, still pockmarked with cynicism but realizing the comfort of settling down and the joy in families. With Heaven, the Walkmen truly can’t be beat.

“Our children will always hear

Romantic tales of distant years

Our gilded age may come and go

Our crooked dreams will always glow.”

…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – Lost Songs

By , October 24, 2012 10:00 am

…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – Lost Songs

Richter Scale 2012

Rating: 8/10

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.




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…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – Tao of the Dead

By , February 14, 2011 8:00 am

…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – Tao of the Dead

Richter Scale 2011

Rating: 7/10

“What a beautiful death, to die in the exercise of your passion,” remarks Philippe Petit in the excellent 2008 documentary Man on Wire. It’s a literal statement as well as philosophical – high-wire artist Petit could literally die if he falls off his balancing wire between the World Trade Centers, but it’s also a testament to how committed he is to his craft. …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead frontman Conrad Keely would probably be the first to agree, so caught up in his own band’s mythology and defiant independence that to compromise his own artistic values would probably kill him (most likely accompanied by a full symphony and a choir of wailing female voices). No, Keely has been more than content to steer his own ship, from 2001’s noise-rock master thesis Source Tags & Codes through convoluted orchestral messes like 2006’s So Divided, losing much of their fanbase and most of the considerable critical cachet ST&C afforded them in the process. He’s been content to exercise his own passion, and it’s indeed resulted in a sort of commercial death for the band . . . but damn if Keely isn’t plunging full speed ahead anyways. Tao of the Dead is a fearless two-part affair, one split into eleven chapters in the key of D and the second a 16-minute epic in five movements and in the key of F and both resolutely proggy in the vein of your favorite Rush or Yes record, if Rush or Yes had had an upbringing in full-throated punk and feedback-drenched indie rock.

Keely has stated in interviews that it’s this kind of record that he grew up listening to and wanted to emulate, and maybe that’s why Tao of the Dead ends up being the most focused Trail of Dead effort in years rather than a space-rock sham. Sure, there’s the instrumental opening track, as routine in the Trail of Dead universe as Keely’s fantastical album artwork (my God, is that Star Fox on the cover?!). There are tracks with names like “Weight of the Sun (Or, the Post-Modern Prometheus)” or “Cover the Days Like a Tidal Wave” and pointless changes in time signature. There’s Keely taking himself way too seriously, whether it’s ranting about ferries of the dead or the utter darkness that will consume us all. But damn if the songs don’t go! “Pure Radio Cosplay” is one of the best tracks Trail of Dead have put to record in recent memory, and not only do the guitars punch and the melodies soar, all with X-factor Jason Reece’s inimitable drumming anchoring things, but it sets a template for the rest of Tao of the Dead to follow. This is important when considering that prior Trail of Dead efforts were just as likely to indulge in New Pornographers-esque indie pop as they were to sludge forward in forests of multi-tracked guitars. There’s a fluidity to this record, one that knows when to slide back into haunting atmospherics (“Cover the Days like a Tidal Wave”) and rise back up to another anthemic track like “Weight of the Sun.”

It’s a crucial ebb and flow, and one that Trail of Dead long ago proved they had mastered. The best part about Source Tags & Codes was how it all seemed like one cohesive statement, an album’s album. Tao of the Dead has that same sense of togetherness, and in as prog-rockish an album as this one, that’s an accomplishment indeed. Few bands could go from Who-influenced space jams to pounding punk assaults as effortlessly as they do here, yet remain nimble enough to throw a ballad like “Ebb Away” in the mix and still make it sound like the missing link to instrumental closer “The Fairlight Pendant.” The key is in those transitions, the moment where the feedback that closes “The Spiral Jetty” eases into “Weight of the Sun” or where the intro’s guitars whine down only to explode forth again on “Pure Radio Cosplay.” They’re insignificant in the greater scheme of things, but it’s these carefully crafted shifts that give Tao of the Dead that continuous 52-minute feeling that Keely was aiming for.

Nowhere is it more evident how far the band has come then in that last 16-minute track, an exercise that could have been a shining example of where noodling goes wrong but instead comes off so driven, so focused that it’s impossible to begrudge the band their five movements with names like “Rule By Being Just” and “The Ship Impossible.” There’s typically frenetic guitar work, spoken-word samples and vaguely krautrock interludes that seem like they should clash but instead come together as an organic whole. It’s Keely’s best realization of his version of the classical suite that his ambitious mind could put down, and it’s a fitting summation to a record that always seems like it should be flying off the rails but never comes close. Things could always be improved – the production is too same-y, too rock radio, and Keely will never be lauded as a master of lyrical restraint. But for the first time in a while, Trail of Dead have an identity that suits them: loud and blatantly brash, modesty not even an afterthought, but with that style, that sound at their forefront. Keely and company may well die before they see another record with the success of Source Tags & Codes, but Tao of the Dead proves their passion should never be questioned.

…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – “Pure Radio Cosplay”

…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – The Century of Self

By , February 24, 2009 12:00 pm

…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – The Century of Self

Richter Scale 2009

Rating: 8/10

 

Fiercely independent Austin, TX art-rock standbys …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead have been getting heaps of critical dirt thrown on them by zines and fans alike over the past several years, be it for their meandering prog adventures on record or their inexplicable onstage band feuds, and it came as a surprise to no one when major label Interscope finally dropped them in 2007. After throwing away the sizable amount of credibility 2002’s classic Source Tags & Codes and their awesome if rather long band name garnered them over the years, one would certainly expect The Century of Self to be a bit of a compromise to retrieve their lost audience, but although the out-of-left-field experimentalist urges and oddball genre exercises have departed, Trail of Dead remain as defiantly unique as ever.

I can safely say I was in the minority in my opinion of 2005’s Worlds Apart and 2006’s decidedly unhinged So Divided, records that I strongly felt to be “growers” the highest sort. Worlds was self-consciously grandiose and took the band’s prog ambitions to their logical peak, but the epic songwriting and style was intact. Divided took a bit longer to get used to, but although decidedly uneven, it had enough gems to continue to make Trail of Dead one of my favorite modern rock bands. They would have you think that The Century of Self is a “return to form,” but in all honesty it’s the logical next step in the band’s evolution, melding their prog tendencies and multi-layered noise assaults into an enjoyable post-rock stew.

Obligatory instrumental opener “Giant Causeway” begins the album with a burst of static before erupting into a distorted guitar solo accompanied by crashing drums and some heavy-handed piano playing. Trail of Dead is a band best listened to with the volume turned way up; when I say they play loud, I mean they are loud. The drone of feedback announces the first proper song of the collection, “Far Pavilions,” a song that does away with orchestral flourishes and launches straight into an up tempo punk roar. The duo of vocalists Conrad Keely and Jason Reece has long been one of Trail of Dead’s strongest points, and their interplay here is like a blast from the past.

It’s almost impossible for Trail of Dead to write a three-minute song, however, and the band’ compositional wankery is revealed right off the bat with “Far Pavilions”’ swelling bridge and the half a minute of white noise that ends the song. This comes with the territory with them, and in songs like “Far Pavilions” or the atmospheric multi-movement epic “Halcyon Days” it highlights what makes the Dead truly special; the ability to craft dramatic, theatrical works of genuine rock ‘n roll without coming off as ham-fisted egomaniacs. But fairly pointless interludes like piano ballad “Insatiable One” bore rather than entertain, and while fifty-second instrumental “An August Theme” sets up the closer rather grandly, it’s also totally unnecessary.

Then again, this is Trail of Dead, a band who invented a whole myth to explain their name and whose intricate album artwork could be mistaken for the Renaissance drawings of a rather disturbed individual. And when Keely desperately cries out “I have made you in my likeness / and I will make you a keeper of my garden world” or screams out “I heard the voice of God coming in the music / and I felt like Satan,” it becomes just another part of the majestic musical scenery rather than meaningless lines of bullshit.

But it’s truly the music that separates The Century of Self from Trail of Dead’s more divisive musical explorations, a potent blend of fist-pumping guitars and thumping drums mixed with a dose of symphonic orchestration that doesn’t overpower the band’s roots. Keely has said that this is the first time the band has tracked everything live without overdubs in years, and it’s a welcome respite from the often jumbled messes of sound that characterized So Divided and, to a lesser extent, Worlds Apart.

The band’s trademark climax/breakdown juxtaposition has been polished to perfection here, from the threatening buildup of “Inland Sea” to the tug-of-war between galloping electric guitar and stomping chants on “Isis Unveiled.” Less polished than their previous two records, it’s Century’s noisy grit and unmitigated passion that make songs like the understated “Luna Park” highlights; the gorgeous, simple piano melody outlining Reece’s plaintive vocals and a gradual conclusion that might be the best of its kind on the album.

Keely, normally the primary singer, has never been known for his strong voice, and many a Trail of Dead song has been derailed by pushing him forward too much. “Inland Sea” is dragged down by Keely’s slurred howl and on “Pictures of an Only Child” he is virtually unintelligible in the mix, two extremes that showcase the exception rather than the norm. For the most part, however, the band rides a comfortable equilibrium between the two, and on songs like the rollicking “Fields of Coal,” Keely’s exuberant verses are an essential ingredient.

It’s no Source Tags & Codes, an indie rock masterpiece if there ever was one, and it’s certainly not the cluttered hit-or-miss of their later efforts, but The Century of Self is a fine achievement for a band in a potentially dangerous phase of their career. Excellently produced and performed with a fervor that many have said has been missing from their oeuvre for too long, Trail of Dead’s latest should be a satisfying refresher course in the more destructive, noisier aspects of art rock. 

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