[25 October 2012]
...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead (whom I will refer to henceforth as Trail of Dead, since AYWKUBTTOD is too ridiculous an acronym to use) have suffered the critical fate that has befallen Mogwai: peaking too early. For many, Mogwai peaked at the very beginning with Young Team, the blueprint for guitar-centric post-rock. Trail of Dead’s breakthrough came in the form of their third LP Source Tags & Codes, a crossover effort of sorts that had just enough prog inflection to rope in fans of hardcore-leaning alternative looking for something out of the ordinary. Its acclaim was so significant that it’s now something of a minor classic, usually appearing in the lower hundreds of the many “Best of the Aughts” lists populating the many music e-zines.
Now, I don’t hold as negative a view of Mogwai’s career as many do. I’d argue their newest effort, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, is their strongest in years. However, while I don’t think Source Tags was as big a flash-in-the-pan moment as many have made it out to be, I am of the belief that the smoke left from that lightning strike has long faded. The aforementioned Mogwai album is probably the best summary of the state of Trail of Dead that I know; while hardcore hasn’t lost its appeal, this band’s take on it has worn thin five albums later. It’s now to the point that the band doesn’t sound hardcore at all anymore; hearing a genre like “prog” thrown around in a discussion about them is almost enough to make one laugh. And it’s not because there aren’t hints of the genre on their most recent work; there are, however minor they may be. Instead, the problem with Trail of Dead is that despite trudging along admirably since Source Tags’ 2002 release, it doesn’t sound like they’ve truly progressed. With the release of their eighth studio record Lost Songs, there’s an argument to be made that they’ve even regressed.
Lost Songs is both the same Trail of Dead we’ve come to expect and the most accessible the group has been to date. Even with the proggier fare of the record preceding this one, 2011’s Tao of the Dead, the sense that with a few modifications any of the tracks could have been reasonably successful on the radio was present. On Lost Songs, it’s not difficult to pick out any number of tracks for selection as a single. Heck, if one saw this album under the “If you liked Taking Back Sunday” section on Amazon, it wouldn’t be cause for alarm. The fittingly titled first track “Open Doors” is as close to an audition tape for Warped Tour as these guys could get to. The only major difference between these songs and any more mainstream hardcore or punk band is that Trail of Dead are more content to repeat a single riff for several bars longer than a typical band would (see the latter half of “Pinhole Cameras”). When it comes down to it, these tracks really aren’t that bad, but it’s hard not to have the echoes of savvier songwriting in your head when listening to a group like Trail of Dead, whose history has shown them to be more sophisticated musicians than the ones present on Lost Songs.
This overarching problem with the LP ends up really undercutting the political and social themes these guys attempt to convey through the music. The balance of “pointed political criticism” and “most banal songwriting of a career” is really uneven, and what could otherwise have been meaningful songs about the tumult identified in these lyrics comes off as boilerplate punk posturing. The clearest example here is lead single “Up to Infinity”, dedicated to the now-notorious Pussy Riot, a group of musicians unjustly jailed by a judge who clearly has not heard any “In Soviet Russia” jokes in his life. For one band to reach out to another like this as a gesture of solidarity is certainly a kind thing to do, and I won’t attempt to tar their name for being nice. But what’s interesting is how this act almost paints the picture of a master-student dynamic, with Trail of the Dead on the latter end and Pussy Riot on the former. Pussy Riot have only been around for a year now, yet their music feels significantly more hardcore and vital than Trail of Dead’s, a group who has had ten years to perfect their craft. Maybe it’s a sort of Hardcore Entropy, where edginess tends to fade away over time. Whatever it is, it’s clear that Trail of Dead will have to do a lot of work to have the vigor of Pussy Riot, or even to just their older self.