…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead: Tao of the Dead

Written by February 8th, 2011 at 11:48 am

…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead
Tao of the Dead
Richter Scale
Rating: ★★★½☆

For the better part of a decade, …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead have waged war against Source Tags and Codes, the indie rock cornerstone the band has spent nearly nine years trying to follow up. In the three full-lengths and three EPs that they’ve released since 2002, Trail of Dead have lived under their third album’s shadow while trying to move a million different directions at once away from it. The band’s seventh album in 16 years, Tao of the Dead, finds the band with a more singular focus, and they’re back to combining the ambition and the reckless abandon that once made them critical darlings.

By now Kanye West’s perfect-10 score on Pitchfork for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is well documented. In some corners of the Internet, the review itself was discussed nearly as much as the album, especially given the site’s noted stinginess with perfect scores (11 have been awarded to non-reissued albums since the site’s inception in ’95).

Source Tags and Codes was one of those earlier recipients. At the time, Pitchfork’s influence was far from being as ubiquitous as we recognize it today, and Trail of Dead were anything but a household name. People were more likely to know about the band because of the length of its name than anything else. Even though though web-furor was on a much smaller scale, the ripples that glowing review sent through indie rock circles were still enough to catapult the band into that precarious position of knee-jerk backlash and lemming-led admiration.

Debating whether or not Source Tags was a perfect rock album too often distracted from what was still an exceptional album either way. Before that album, the band was mostly a Sonic Youth-aping band known more for its volatile equipment-endangering live shows than its songs. But Source Tags presented an ambitious and snarling set of guitar rock that often ventured into the grandiose. In that regard, it should have come no surprise that the band also harbored affinities for arena rock excesses and soft spots for bands like Yes and Rush. When follow-up album Worlds Apart made those influences more obvious, a lot of admirers jumped ship.

But the real missteps in Trail of Dead’s subsequent work has had less to do with style than songwriting. They’ve struggled to pen memorable tracks and have too often leaned on shear sonic ambition to save otherwise unengaging songs. They’ve regained a lot of their mojo on Tao of the Dead.

Concision has never before been one of the band’s strong suits (look at their name for chrissakes), but the majority of the 12 tracks on Tao of the Dead hover around the three-minute mark. Each song leads into the next, maintaining the band’s ever-present sense of epicness. They save much of their full on prog-rock indulgences for the album’s final two tracks. The last, “Tao of the Dead (Strange News From Another Planet),” plays out in a five-part suite, naturally.

Through the entire record you can hear the band’s preponderance of ideas running head first into their limited ability. None of this is to say that Trail of Dead can’t play – they’re more than adept – but they reference the likes of Rush and Yes. There are definitely no Neil Pearts or Steve Howes in this band. That tension between vision and execution made icons of artists like Joy Division, Television, Velvet Underground and Nirvana.

Now, Trail of Dead doesn’t belong in that pantheon, but they’ve been unfairly cast aside. The urgency and frantic energy on “Pure Radio Cosplay” is so good, they basically put it on the album twice (the second time with “Reprise” added to the title). “Summer of the Dead Souls” finds them finding their metaphysical muse again. Even the band’s occasional penchant for overwrought sap gets transformed into a boon on “Ebb Away,” where the band is somehow able to turn a coda of “there is no light in this darkness” into a fist-pumper.

Sure, the album has its fair share of missteps, not excluding the cartoonish album cover. “Fall of the Empire” floats along without leaving any sort of impression, while “The Wasteland” veers off into a Muzak bridge, which serves as a reminder of where the previous three albums missed the mark. The spoken word part in “Tao of the Dead (Strange News From Another Planet)” about how the worst part about flying is coming down sounds pretty hokey, too.

But there’s plenty more on Tao of the Dead that works. After years out in the cold as music critic whipping posts, this should go a long way toward reclaiming some lost luster for Trail of Dead.

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