Don’t let anyone ever tell you that …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead aren’t an ambitious band. They are beyond ambitious, and often to a fault. Ten years ago, they were unfortunate enough to be cursed with an almighty 10.0 on Pitchfork’s richter scale, and they’ve always seemed like a band still trying to recover from that madness. Being told you’ve crafted a perfect work of musical art is enough to make any artist lose his or her mind, because that little voice inside your head essentially teases you with the idea that maybe you can maintain the impossibly high standard you’ve established for yourself. The reality is, you’ve got to keep pressing on like it never happened, and hope that the lightning in a bottle once again shows up at your doorstep. Unfortunately for Trail of Dead, they felt like the next logical step was to take their sound bigger and more robust than ever before. It led to two gluttonous major label efforts, Worlds Apart and So Divided, that left long-time fans feeling like they were standing on the wrong side of the gulf those two titles implied. Those were the days of such sharp backlash and disappointment it sent the band soaring downward in a shame spiral one might never expect them to recover from. After a bunch of in-fighting and stripping down the lineup to just the four core members, 2011’s Tao of the Dead was the start of a real recovery for the boys. They continued to defy expectations with that record, creating a conceptual premise built on two seamless parts that were recorded only in the keys of D and F. In spite of how gimmicky it looked on paper, the record’s pure rock drive and generally shorter songs were a blessing in disguise showing how far they’d climbed back up from a low point just a few years earlier.
Now about a year and a half later comes Lost Songs, a straightforward, pure Trail of Dead rock record the likes of which they haven’t done in 10 years. The high-minded concepts are gone, as is pretty much any song that clocks in at over five minutes in length. If you go strictly by the standard edition of this album, it’s the band’s shortest since their 1998 self-titled debut. Even the cover art, unlike the intense and complicated pieces created by frontman Conrad Keely in the past, is black and white simplicity showing four silhouettes standing in the middle of a desolate town. This is about as basic as the band can get both musically and stylistically, which is why they’re practically hardcore punk once you clear all the debris away. The energy and intensity hits you immediately with “Open Doors,” then refuses to let up or give you a true breather until “Awestruck” arrives 10 tracks in. This heavy punch to the gut almost starts to wear thin after about 30 minutes, but Trail of Dead’s ingenuity and ability to showcase the quiet instrumental builds to explosive finales serves them particularly well here, leaving you satisfied even as you know what curveball is waiting around the corner. Songs like “Up to Infinity” and “Pinhole Cameras” are invigorating in exactly the ways they need to be early on. It’s also extremely pleasing to hear Jason Reece get behind the microphone again a few times on this album, as he’s been largely stuck behind the drum kit the last couple records. He’s a larger than life sort of guy, throwing himself fully into whatever he does. It’s the main reason why the percussion is so strong on this record, and why the songs featuring Reece’s vocals are some of the album’s biggest standouts. “Catatonic” in particular feels like a special moment for him, to the point where you can almost hear a stage dive built into it.
But Trail of Dead want Lost Songs to be about more than just a forceful collection of rock songs. They have every intention of using their power as musicians to consistently challenge both themselves and their audience, which is why much of the new album revolves around world politics. This isn’t the same sort of politics that the new Local H record is about, though. On a much closer level they’re trying to take up the mantle left behind by a band like Rage Against the Machine. The goal seems to be less of a commentary on our leaders and more of an effort to cure social injustices. The band dedicated their single “Up to Infinity” to Pussy Riot, even though the song was written about the Syrian Civil War. On “Pinhole Cameras” they empathize with those that appear to be “starving, living in this land of plenty.” In other parts of the record they spit venom at despots and try to slap people out of comas of ignorance to serious world issues. Heroic though these efforts might be, and as much as it fills a void in the current music climate, it’s unlikely to truly spark a revolution. You’ve got to give them credit for trying though, and if that’s what fueled the post-hardcore aesthetic of this album, so much the better. Trail of Dead have reclaimed the spark they lost many years ago. In the best sense, that makes this record full of found songs, for they are lost no more.