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.
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.