Posts tagged: Tao of the Dead

…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”

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