It Was There That We Heard Them: Ten Years of 'Source Tags and Codes'

Back in February of 2002, ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead was expected to make a good first impression with their major label debut, Source Tags and Codes. Nobody expected the indie rock group to craft a landmark piece of art. Let's take a look back.

...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead

Source Tags and Codes

US Release: 2002-02-26
Label: Interscope

Indie rock -- raw, passionate, forceful indie rock -- was at a bit of a crossroads around this time a decade ago. Its monuments had long been crumbling. Fugazi had just released The Argument, what would be (and as of now, still is) their final album together. Sonic Youth, long parted from the days of Daydream Nation, was still a few months away from releasing Murray Street, what many would hail as their “return to form”. At the Drive-In had given way to the Mars Volta. Drive Like Jehu and Sunny Day Real Estate had long been dead and buried. The most critically acclaimed rock band at the time (by most accounts at least), Radiohead, technically wasn’t even a “rock band” any more, venturing into the realm of the ambient and the electronic with Kid A and Amnesiac. The list went on and on.

In its stead came what we today term the garage rock revival. Led by the four “The” bands -- the Vines, the Hives, the Strokes, and the White Stripes -- the indie rock scene came to focus upon minimalism, skuzzy, simplistic hooks, and a messy-haired, energetic panache that was at once rocking and easily digestible for the masses. It was fun, breezy music, catchy and small-scale in scope and intention; it’d be as easy to picture a track like “Get Free” by the Vines selling Volkswagens as it would be tearing the roof off of some dingy local club. It was undoubtedly image-centric, with as many people interested in the created mythos of Jack and Meg White or endless cool of Julian Casablancas as there were genuinely interested in the art these guys were making. It was pleasant and entertaining, and major record labels were soon fiercely throwing this movement out on stage at every opportunity. It was cute.

But something was still missing; a void still needed to be filled. For all those who didn’t quite buy into the press’ grandiose proclamations that rock had finally found its “saviors”, those that felt that these nice little groups didn’t pound hard enough, those that wanted something bigger and more ambitious from their rock music, refuge was found in an Austin, Texas outfit by the appropriately ambitious name of …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. When these thrashers’ third full-length and major label debut, Source Tags and Codes, was released in February of 2002, the long-awaited, worthy successors to the indie rock crown had, seemingly, finally, been found.

Now, Trail of Dead was not without their fair share of hype themselves by the time ST&C rolled around. The band had achieved a proper modicum of attention from a few solid efforts, highlighted by 1999’s Madonna. With the group newly signed to Interscope, many were hopeful that the inevitable sheen and polish of major label production would complement the ensemble's raucous, abrasive aesthetic in such a way that would bring visceral, heavy-hitting indie rock back into some sort of public consciousness. Even still, it’s doubtful that anyone truly believed Source Tags and Codes would go on to achieve the near-mythic status it still carries with it today 10 years later. Trail of Dead was expected to make a good first impression. Nobody expected them to craft a landmark piece of art.

In many ways, this sense of surprise and unexpectedness that permeates the whole of ST&C is a large part of what makes the album so gripping. It is a work that grabs you by the neck, whole-heartedly screams at your face, and tosses you to the wayside for 45 glorious, skull-pounding minutes, whether you’re ready for it or not. It’s absolutely huge, such as on the breathtaking “Relative Ways”, with (mostly) lead vocalist and guitarist Conrad Keely throatily howling “It’s okay / I’m a saint / I forgave / Your mistakes” at the top of his lungs, just to be somewhat heard over the growing tidal wave of thrashing, soaring guitars and drummer Jason Reece’s tireless cymbal bashing. Opener “It Was There That I Saw You” is an effective sonic rollercoaster, reaching to the heavens with warp speed guitars before dropping to melodic, somber lows, only to build up the anticipation for each successive lift off again. The words “epic” and “anthemic” are often thought of today as banal descriptors for an apparently endless number of “big sounding” groups, but if there’s ever an album that lives up to this description without chafing, it’s this one.

Source Tags and Codes isn’t all thrash and bash, though. This is an album: a focused project full of actual songs, each packed with a careful attention to melody, hooks, and carefully-crafted songwriting that transcends beyond simple head-banging. “Another Morning Stoner” rides by on an absolutely gorgeous lead riff underneath all the wonderful chaos, and is anchored by Keely’s earnest, affecting wails, featuring a thoughtful vocal coda simply asking “What is forgiveness?” “How Near, How Far” features more guitar workouts, a throbbing, melancholic bassline, and machine-gun style drumming, even including some grim strings to build up the dramatics. Even pure punk crunchers like the Jason Reece-led “Homage” don’t lose sight of this constant need to do more than just wallop the listener’s eardrums, as it features a killer breakdown section that’s reminiscent of heavier, old school emo groups like Sunny Day Real Estate. The majority of tracks are bridged by little orchestral or ambient interludes, serving to unify the vision these young men had: to craft a full-fledged experience, a rock opera of sorts, one which stirs emotion and provokes thought while never losing its intensity or enjoyability. This is art, folks. It’s something many of the garage rock revivalists Trail of Dead were de facto competing with weren’t doing, and probably weren’t ambitious enough to even try to do in the first place.

Naturally, Trail of Dead received near-universal rave reviews and critical acclaim for Source Tags and Codes, not to mention a greatly expanded fanbase. And naturally, the band has never really come close to this sort of success again. Their eventual follow-up, 2005’s Worlds Apart, was (if you’ll excuse me to indulge myself for just a minute here) worlds apart from the sort of artful anarchy ST&C had brought to table. It featured lyrics such as “Look at these cunts on MTV / With their cars and cribs and rings and shit / Is that what being a celebrity means? / Look boys and girls here’s BBC / See corpses, rapes, and amputees / What do you think now of the American Dream?” Yeah. Things weren’t the same, but really it’s unfair to hold this mediocrity against the band; demanding near-perfection more than once rightfully comes off as a bit greedy.

Trail of Dead’s recent releases such as 2010’s Tao of the Dead have been received a bit better, but Source Tags and Codes is one of those albums that has--perhaps unfortunately for Trail of Dead--transcended the band that created it in the first place. Its influences can be seen today in albums like Cloud Nothings’ Attack on Memory, Yuck’s self-titled, or any other indie rock album that strives to earnestly and energetically revive “hard” indie rock. It’s one of those rare pieces nowadays without irony, without smarminess, without the pretentious charade that pretends like actually being coherent doesn’t matter. In other words, it’s not bullshit. It has the audacity to want to matter, and it does. Source Tags and Codes is something vital, something alive. It commands your attention. You’ll be better off for giving in to it.






Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".


Roots Rocker Webb Wilder Shares a "Night Without Love" (premiere + interview)

Veteran roots rocker Webb Wilder turns back the hands of time on an old favorite of his with "Night Without Love".


The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.


July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.


With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.


Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.


MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.


Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.


Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.


John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."


'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.