Beleaguered Austin band ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead have been accused of many things over the years. Having a sense of humor is not one of them. That’ll most likely change when people get a glance at frontman Conrad Keely’s Baron Munchausen on even more acid cover art for their brilliant new album Tao of the Dead. Maybe the band has just been taking the piss all along. At least that’s what the gun toting fox on the album cover seems to think.
When Trail of Dead dropped the unfairly maligned World’s Apart in 2005, the same reviewers who heralded the band as the saviors of rock ‘n’ roll in the wake of 2002s Source Tags and Codes were now quick to deride the band as pompous hooligans who squandered mountains of major label money hard earned indie credibility on a bloated catastrophe of an album that blatantly and unrealistically courted a mainstream audience. Six years, three albums, and one acrimonious label divorce later, the band is still in search of a fair shake. 2009s The Century of Self was pitched as a return to form but it was never clear what form people were expecting the band to return to. If their proggy tendencies and that Keely’s vocal limitations weren’t obvious back in 2002 then people weren’t listening very hard. On Self, the band was too desperate to show that their mighty wall of noise hadn’t crumbled in the wake of their split with Interscope and they ended up with something as overblown as World’s Apart. A quasi concept album that features two distinct movements recorded in different keys, Tao of the Dead finds Keely and co-founder Jason Reece rebuilding the band from the ground up to create an album that’s massive yet surprisingly succinct. The fact that a band who at one time require several months and a six figure budget to produce an album could come up with something as whole sounding as Tao in under two weeks speaks volumes to their maturity as musicians and creates exciting possibilities for the future.
The Chris “Frenchie” Smith produced “Part One: Tao of the Dead” makes up the bulk of the album. Here, the band seamlessly crafts a concise set of songs without sacrificing any of their trademark excessiveness. Opening salvo “Let’s Experiment” is a typically bombastic Trail of Dead curtain raiser and instant reassurance that the band’s force has not been diminished by the departure of founding guitarist Kevin Allen. Its searing guitars and swirling melodies effortlessly segue into the psychedelic “Pure Radio Cosplay,” a snarling indictment of corporate radio that has corporate radio (if there’s still such a thing) written all over it. People don’t usually approach interlocking song cycles looking for hit singles but Part One is teeming with them. The sci-fi guitar drenched “Summer of All Dead Souls” gallops forth with barely controlled aggression and fist-raising, shout-along choruses. In just under two and a half minutes, “The Wasteland” moves from pastoral folk into full on power pop. The run of songs that begins with “The Wasteland” and climaxes with the throbbing instrumental “The Fairlight Pendant” represents the bands strongest work to date. If you’re willing to overlook Keely’s Hobbit lyrics (I’m still not sure why the Ferryman needed to see the Winter Queen), you’ll find sheer aural bliss in the 3/4 anthem “Weight of the Sun”. “Pure Radio Cosplay (Reprise)” hits even harder the second time around and Jason Reece finally does something that resembles singing on the towering “Ebb Away”.
Before you have a moment to recover from Part One’s breathtaking finale, the 16-minute Chris Coady produced “Strange News from Another Planet” hits like an aftershock. The tone is darker and far less restrained as the band careens through five movements that channel everyone from Can to Led Zeppelin. “Rule by Being Just” features a particularly strong vocal turn from Keely (nice falsetto, guy) while “The Ship Impossible” sees the band finally earning all of those Sonic Youth comparisons. Keely has been quoted as saying that he wanted this album, this final track in particular, to echo the concept heavy work of classic era Yes or Pink Floyd. While this track is indeed a hive of exciting musical ideas, it helps shine some light on the reason why people who like prog rock generally do not like this band. Trail of Dead lack the sort of star performer that kids turn to bands like Rush to study. Without a Neil Peart or a David Gilmour to nerd out over, a sixteen minute song is always going to feel like a bit of a challenge for some.
Maybe the reason Tao of the Dead works so well is that the band has discovered a way to inject some much needed fun into prog rock. By putting the songs ahead of the performances, Trail of Dead has finally come up with something that demands to be listened to again and again. People may have lost faith in this band years ago but they’ve clearly never lost faith in themselves.