[5 May 2003]
If you slog through the Trail of Dead’s website you will eventually come across a few intriguing (albeit poorly proofread) articles by singer/guitarist/drummer Conrad Keely, including one called “Art Rock—It Will Change Your Life: Punk Roots in the Art-rock Epic”. (The article argues that the insular unlistenability of early Genesis and Yes predicts punk’s more overt disregard for the audience’s needs. Keely praises these bands for employing “subject matter devoid of any personal meaning to any listener in any time period or economic cross-section.” He claims that “the presumption on the band’s part that any fan of theirs could tolerate such trash is truly remarkable, and therefore deserves many punk points.”
In a recent interview, Keely admitted the article was written “comedically, knowing that most people I know don’t really have an appreciation for that music.” But he confessed a sincere admiration for bloated and arcane wank-fests like Yes’ Relayer (“I like the bellicose nature of that record,” he says) which seems to transcend the ironic kitsch interest his article suggests: “I genuinely do like that music, and I think that it was a level of musicianship and also sheer audacity that hasn’t reoccurred since. It was just that special pocket of time in the ‘70s when [it was] very open-ended as to what rock and roll music could be or where it was going to go in the future. That allowed those British bands to create music like that.” So in Keely’s view, punk rock is the result of the freedom and the willingness to indulge oneself in the creation of music without any assurance of a predictable audience. When the prog-rock behemoths made their ‘70s records, Keely explained, “they obviously had themselves in mind, and they were all fans of mythology and Victorian Literature.” In art rock’s willingness to embrace esoteric topics, Keely finds inspiration for Trail of Dead: “I’m also a fan of all that stuff. We write songs that don’t necessarily have a modern context.” Indeed, their recent EP, Secret of Elena’s Tomb, partakes of that art-rock ethos, opening with a song Keely claims is about “the Merovingian Kings, whose blood line has been kept alive by the priory of Zion,” drawing on Graham Hancock’s “scholarship” in the field of “anomalous archeology.”
But one has to wonder if there isn’t a tension between the approach to music Keely describes—a celebration of uncompromising solipsistic obscurity which finds some expression in his band’s unwieldy, anthropologically derived name—and their recent major label success, which is predicated on them marketing accessible product to a guaranteed audience. As their other guitarist/drummer/singer, Jason Reece, explained, “When you join the major label world you know you are sort of a pawn. One can try to justify it to our fans, but in the end they understand, because we want to reach more people, and I think that we were well aware of the situation, and I don’t regret it at all. We’re in a fortunate position right now—we’re dictating our own terms.”
Two apparent paradoxes emerge: Trail of Dead champion self-indulgence but seek to broaden their fan base, and also they believe they dictate to the label (of whom Keely says, “they’re pretty clueless”) that has made them pawns in the larger game of maintaining industrial profit margins. How can Trail of Dead’s interest in, as Keely put it, “the mysterious origins of mankind that have kind of been shadowed and supposedly are being kept hidden from the public” be reconciled with their simultaneous belief, articulated by Reece, that “the reality of what the music’s about” is “in the end always kind of just more for the entertainment”?
The truth is Trail of Dead posture as if they were using the culture industry system for their own ends, but their aims and its aims concur—they both profit by the band appearing anti-commercial, steadfast in pursuing their aims that might best be called “alternative”, with all the market segment calculation and counter-cultural phoniness that term has come to imply. Keely’s aesthetic interests are relevant here: in discussing his upcoming Filter article (called “Abstract Art Is Shit”), he announced his taste for “academic realism” as well as for the decorative styles treasured by the bourgeoisie: “I like ornament, I like baroque and rococo and art nouveau. I really love the 19th century, I thought that was a peak.” These tastes may reflect an indulgent extravagance—perhaps a quality Keely hopes his band projects—but they are also complacent, reactionary tastes for elitist art whose quality is measured by the poor and uneducated excluded from its appreciation. Such art is easy to understand, yet it panders to its beholder, flattering him for his supposed elevation and discernment. Academic realism and decorative art seem like “alternatives” to more vulgar, commercial styles, but these are in fact the apotheosis of commercial art, art whose only message is the flattering image it offers to those fortunate enough to own it, or imaginative enough to fantasize about such a thing.
This may be the same sort of fantasy that Trail of Dead allow their fans to indulge: that by listening to them, they exhibit a taste that elevates them above the ordinary music fan; that by digesting Trail of Dead’s buffet-sized helpings of dissonant guitar noise, they prove their membership in a special club. When the exclusivity of this club is threatened by major label promotional strategies, the band step in and preserve the illusion by insisting on their independence, and by mocking the executives that orchestrate the band’s freedom from the drudgery of day jobs. Trail of Dead’s success allows us to believe that our society tolerates and even supports wayward, independent creativity, when in fact it will only permit such freedom in the mass of people as a fantasy, to be consumed passively through buying product which fosters such daydreams. Says Reece: “When you are working at a dead-end job and you know that you don’t belong there and you know that’s not your purpose in life, either you work harder or you fail and you self-destruct in some way or another.” Perhaps listening to bands like Trail of Dead provides a mitigating compromise—there is enough solace in the sense of superiority derived from listening to the “alternative” Trail of Dead represents that one staves off the self-destruction that would otherwise come from having no socially recognized outlet for self-expression outside of competence at a meaningless job, generating profits for others.
...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead’s portentous band name suggests implacable, savage rites to unleash elemental earth spirits, that they will play some sort of daemonic tribal music; but judging by the crowd at Irving Plaza, the tribe turns out to be primarily suburban male teenagers, likely the descendents of those for whom the middlebrow ornamental art Keely treasures was originally made. During their performance, nothing dangerous is unleashed; instead the music discharges the crowd’s unfocused aggression harmlessly rather than directing it at worthy targets. As Reese said, echoing the standard sentiment of mass media entertainers: “In the end you know we’re just a rock band, and you have only so much to say. We’re reflecting on what we’ve experienced and putting it down to tape.” No matter what peculiar subject matter their songs tackle on the surface, in the end they are about their life as a touring band, they are about the enviable experience of being embraced by the “system” as professional entertainers. They have escaped the dead-end future of white-collar suburban ennui that confronts the affluent teenagers in their audience; their concerts allow the audience to indulge the fantasy of a temporary escape of their own.
This may explain why so few in attendance seemed disappointed by their show, which seemed almost bafflingly limp, relentlessly tedious despite rote flashes of their patented destructiveness (they dismantled their drum kit at an arbitrary point in the set, and Reece stage-dived into the crowd during one of their typically turgid instrumental breaks). But the uncritical adulation of the faithful was only one of many obstacles Trail of Dead failed to overcome at Irving Plaza. They also had to battle a horrible sound mix (too much vocal, no guitar, way too trebly and tinny), a silly light show (lots of fast-moving rainbow-colored lights entirely out of synch with what they were playing), booze (they claimed to be drinking all evening with some New York friends), and most of all, the absurd hype which touts their live show as a cathartic, spiritual experience.
Trail of Dead are one of those bands that has no one talented enough on any one instrument to take any leads, so instead they have ambient, discordant, contemplative Sonic Youth noise breakdowns; they mask their lack of talent with a cloak of faux-artiness and experimentalism. They can switch instruments with ease because no one plays any of them with any special distinction or character; they smash their instruments and stage dive to generate the excitement their music inherently cannot—they must be aware of this at some level. They provide crowd-pleasing mayhem lite.
In the end they brought the crowd on stage with them, which was an appropriately accommodating gesture, and the crowd politely did as they were told and danced quietly and self-consciously in place. For a few minutes anyway they could pretend there would be a big stage for them in life at some point, too, even while their discomfort assured them that they had already accepted the idea that it wasn’t really for them.