It really doesn’t seem like it, but …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead have been around for 16 years. In that time there’s been 7 albums and a few EPs, and the progression of the band is pretty well charted by all those releases. They began as punk rock upstarts with a flair for the dramatic and hints of prog-rock influences. By the time their third album “Source Tags and Codes” came around in 2002, the band had developed their sound to the point where many of the tracks blended into one another or were connected by brief orchestral interludes, truly taking on a life of their own. That was one hell of an epic record, and one of the chosen few to receive a coveted 10.0 rating on Pitchfork and deservedly so. It was that sort of brilliance combined with the band’s intense live shows that often ended with everything on stage getting completely obliterated (instruments included) that really earned the band their name and reputation. Everything they’ve done since then has fallen somewhere between searching for a new way to advance the band’s sound to trying to reclaim the magic of that singular perfect record. The kind of pressure such lofty expectations must have put on the band had to be monumental, and Trail of Dead essentially retreated from the spotlight. Intra-band fights ensued, as did critical slammings and tension with their label. In 2007 they left Interscope Records after citing “lack of support” and instead decided to release new music under their own label, Richter Scale. It’s been just about 2 years since their last album, “The Century of Self”, which saw them slowly crawling their way back towards the top with their new found freedom. They were more creatively electrified than they had been in years, and it was quite evident upon listening to that still epic of markedly adventuresome record. Now in a much healthier place, Trail of Dead return with “Tao of the Dead”, their wildest and most ambitious project to date.
At a time in which the single is more popular than ever and the existence of the full length album is consistently being threatened, …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead have crafted a record that practically demands to be heard from start to finish. “Tao of the Dead” is actually divided into two separate parts. Part I spans 11 tracks and 36 minutes and was recorded entirely in the key of D. Part II is titled “Strange News From Another Planet” and is five separate movements contained within a single 16.5 minute track, recorded entirely in the key of F. Yeah, it’s some high concept shit, though at least they’re not aiming to tell some long-winded story via the lyrics. No, the intention is just to compose two long-form pieces of music that perfectly blend together compositionally. Conrad Keeley cited records like Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and Rush’s “Hemispheres” as direct influences when coming up with “Tao of the Dead”. Doubtless that he’s hoping this new album will be as warmly received and as legendary as those. On that note, there’s some good news and some bad news.
The bad news first, there’s no way “Tao of the Dead” will go down as a landmark album. While that primarily has to do with the challenges the album format presents in this day and age, even if this were the 60s, 70s or 80s where such attempts would be more admirable, one gets the feeling that this record wouldn’t quite succeed at the desired level. What’s really a shame is that it actually comes somewhat close to achieving such a lofty goal. The gigantic, epic-as-fuck landscape is already laid out for them on a platter as it’s a sound they’ve been trying out the last several years with mixed results, with the problems mostly coming from the band trying to take themselves far too seriously. Trail of Dead have always sounded best in a very loose and playful atmosphere, buttressed by the occasional Jason Reece-led punk rock quickie. Reece does pop up on vocals a time or two, though his “Days of Being Wild” tendencies are shaved down in service of the overall concept, which in and of itself is just a touch rigid and demanding. The band attempts to counteract such difficulties via the album’s lyrics and artwork, which have a very fantastical and science fiction-y quality to them. The album cover looks like a damn “Star Wars” or “Indiana Jones” poster, and if you buy a deluxe version there’s a graphic novel that comes with it. All of it is written and designed by proverbial band leader Conrad Keeley, who depending on the record can be as much of an asset to the group as he is a hindrance. His issues are primarily vocal, in that the band’s occasional over-reliance on his often sub-par singing has sometimes made an album worse than it should be. That’s less of an issue on “Tao of the Dead” thanks to an increased sense of atmosphere and more instrumental brute force than normal.
The good news about this record is that it does a whole lot more right than it does wrong. The band is smart to stick with pretty much the same sound they’ve been dishing out for years now, but repurposed just a touch. There’s less in the way of outright balladry and more intense/loud moments flanked by some of the band’s sharpest drum work in recent memory. And while the concept seems to take precedence over anything else this time around, the first part of the album also has its fair share of workable singles as well. “Pure Radio Cosplay” is fun and exciting and memorable to the point where it earns the 3 minute “Reprise” version several tracks later. First single “Summer of All Dead Souls” is solid, but interestingly enough not the most obvious or easiest choice in terms of marketing the record. Atmosphere plays a huge role in “Cover the Days Like A Tidal Wave”, where the melody builds and builds until it overwhelms and buries you in pure noise. “The Wasteland” is an exercise in restraint, bringing in some lighter acoustic guitars amidst the jabs of louder electric guitar moments, which is taken over by the brief “The Spiral Jetty”, complete with somber piano, electro ambiance and a defunct guitar solo. Though a song like “Weight of the Sun (Or, the Post-Modern Prometheus)” seems deserving of single status (it’s certain to be a crowd-pleaser at live shows), there’s something just a touch off-putting about the loudly shouted chorus of “You! Will! Pay!” in general because of how simplistic it is. Jason Reece finally reports for vocal duty on “Ebb Away”, a song that’s so triumphant that it feels like it should close out the entire movement. Instead, “The Fairlight Pendant” takes care of that, a nearly 6 minute instrumental that goes huge before going home. The keyboards go nuts, the pace accelerates to breakneck speed, and there’s some serious psychedelic/krautrock debts that are paid in full. Rather than actually feeling like a proper closer to Part I of the record, it instead does some solid work bridging the two divided halves of the album.
The 16 minute opus “Strange News From Another Planet” is the left turn where “Tao of the Dead” sails over the edge of sanity. At over 16 minutes, it’s the longest single track Trail of Dead have ever done, even if it is technically five separate songs smashed into one. Of course thanks to creative blending and the idea that the entire piece be heard as a single symphonic movement, it’s a small challenge to identify exactly where each of those five songs ends and the new ones begin. Much of it is instrumental, which actually works to the band’s benefit as they space out while going for broke. There are several time signature changes, a section of spoken word/found sound audio clips (a reference back to their early days), intense shredding guitar solos, and a brief Jason Reece vocal appearance, all amidst an ebb and flow that continually builds up, explodes and breaks down with enough force to keep things interesting for the duration. To some, it will be a grand masterpiece, a thesis statement for the entire record and a testament to the brilliance this band genuinely possesses but has failed to deliver upon since that one perfect album nine years ago. Others will view it as an agenda piece, with Trail of Dead trying so hard to create this massive epic and prove their worth that they’ll throw this incredibly long track at you with the hopes that you’ll either be impressed by the sheer ambition of it or too worn down by the end to actually come up with a valid criticism of it. Personally I fall somewhere in between those two extremes. Trail of Dead take the risk and actually do a solid job of making it work, but it does scream pompous and overblown just a bit and the extreme running time for a single track gets both taxing after awhile and a challenge to listen to unless you’re in the middle of a long car ride or have nothing better to do. At least in the first part of the album, though intended as a singular piece divided into 11 separate tracks, you can stop or pause between them should you need to.
For long-time Trail of Dead fans that have sat around moping since “Source Tags and COdes” changed their life, there’s good news for you courtesy of “Tao of the Dead”. The band you once knew and loved dearly is now closer than ever towards reclaiming the crown once placed upon their heads those many years ago. This new album really was a gambit from its creation, and the guys could just as easily have fallen on their faces as they could have emerged triumphant. Thankfully, they earn their keep for the most part by crafting a smart and well-adjusted record that’s reins in a lot of their past mistakes in favor of interesting new doorways to explore. There are a couple issues, from the intense sincerity of the material to a weak track or two, but those are more minor than most everything else. Conrad Keeley’s not-always-great vocals are used better this time as well, both by not always leaving them front-and-center in the mix or just breaking out more instrumental passages than ever before. There are still moments when he’s reaching beyond his capacity however, and that strain doesn’t help things. Still, the supporting cast in the band, now slimmed down to a mere four-piece, excels at nearly every turn and seems to prove the old adage that too many cooks in the kitchen can spoil the broth (the argument here being that the extra members were weighing them down). “Tao of the Dead” may not go down in music history as one of the finest single-piece concept records, nor will it even be considered Trail of Dead’s most important work, but what it does do is provide legitimate hope. Hope for a band that lost the plot years ago and many were beginning to believe wouldn’t ever find it again. Everybody loves a good comeback story, and thanks to this album, …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead are now poised to do just that. Now if only they’d lighten up a little bit and start smashing things on stage again.