After a few albums of focused hard rock, Trail of Dead confidently begins to reintegrate the more pop-oriented experimentations that killed their early '00s buzz.
…And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead co-founders Conrad Keely and Jason Reece have been fighting an uphill battle against critical opinion for almost a decade now. The shadows of the critical acclaim for 2002’s Source Tags and Codes (which sadly did not make PopMatters’ recent list of Top 100 Albums of the 2000s) and the subsequent critical excoriation that 2005’s Worlds Apart and 2006’s So Divided received have loomed over the band ever since. It’s made them somewhat of a pariah amongst certain indie rock crowds, who seem to regard them as a one-album wonder who’ve never been able to recapture the magic. And worse, they once did a tour with the cartoon band Dethklok, which is clearly not something a band with any indie rock credibility would ever do.
That’s one side of the narrative. Another version of that story would go something like this. Trail of Dead followed up their best album by using as much of Interscope Records’ major label money as possible to make a record that expanded their sound and accessibility. This bid to jump from indie buzz band to mainstream rock success didn’t work out, and the album itself was a mess. In baseball terms, they swung for the fences and instead of hitting a home run, ended up with a fly ball to deep centerfield. That failure led to the too-quick So Divided, which further expanded their sound but failed to highlight the group’s strengths. At that point, the band left Interscope and that Dethklok tour probably did a lot to help keep them solvent.
Since then, Keely and Reece have played with an ever-shifting lineup of musicians as the band has put out a trio of albums that have included elements of hardcore, punk, metal, prog rock, and power-pop. 2011’s Tao of the Dead was even a concept album anchored by Keely’s ornate artwork and a steampunk-style fantasy setting. Their embracing of this kind of D&D-style nerdiness probably hasn’t done anything to restore their indie cred, while their particular mixture of musical styles often leaves them adrift between genres. Not heavy enough for metal, not angry enough for hardcore, and not technical enough for prog rock fans.
Still, …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead soldier on, and the simply titled IX finds the band pushing outside of its wheelhouse for the first time since their aforementioned mid-career bumps in the road. This time around, though, Keely and Reece find ways to experiment without completely abandoning their signature style. But first, the album kicks off with a quintet of tracks that are quite typical for the band. Opener “The Doomsday Book” is propelled by a creative drumbeat, widescreen guitar riffs, and a soaring vocal melody that nevertheless stays within Keely’s limited range. “Jaded Apostles” isn’t quite as successful, but another cool drumbeat carries the song through its somewhat repetitive guitar lines; the same could be said about the punkier “A Million Random Digits". Reece’s hoarse vocals are a welcome change of pace on “Lie Without a Liar”, but in this case it’s the interplay between guitars and drums that support a middling vocal melody. “The Ghost Within” finishes out the first half of the record with a standard issue Trail of Dead power ballad. It’s mid-tempo, features a lot of piano, and gets louder and louder as it approaches the end before fading away quietly.
It’s “The Dragonfly Queen”, at the midpoint of IX, that signals a change for the band. This low-key rocker could easily pass for a rolling country song with a couple of sonic tweaks to the string arrangement and guitar tone. Keely uses an acoustic guitar throughout the track and the rest of the band manages to find a happy medium between all-cylinders hard rock and subdued ballad, and lets the simple vocal and electric guitar melodies drive the song.
From there, Trail of Dead’s music continues to take interesting turns. The nearly five minute instrumental “How to Avoid Huge Ships” opens with just French horn, cello, and piano, trading an arpeggiated melody between the latter two instruments. Eventually, bass and drums join in to buttress the sound, followed in the late stages by electric guitars and crashing cymbals. It’s one of the more effective slow, steady builds the band has ever done, and considering that they once did the amazing ”Would You Smile Again”, that’s saying something. There’s also the poppy, shoegaze-influenced “Bus Lines”, which puts Keely’s voice front and center (a technique that contributed greatly to the unevenness of Worlds Apart). But at this point in his career, Keely is savvy enough about his vocals to keep himself reined in and in tune. The poppy melody of “Bus Lines” is strong enough to make the very standard breakdown, build up into full-on rock section seem worth it once that melody returns at the end.
Reece’s seven and a half minute “Lost in the Grand Scheme” sounds like a couple dozen other Trail of Dead rockers at the start, which isn’t a good sign. However, it peters out around the four minute mark and spends the last half of the song quietly meandering before jumping back to rock out for just a bit at the end. It’s probably the least successful track of the back half of the album, but at least Reece tried something a little different. This segues into another instrumental, the pretentiously titled “Like Summer Tempests Came His Tears". This piano and string-powered track isn’t as successful as the record’s other instrumental, but it serves as a nice transition into the album’s powerful closer “Sound of the Silk.”
In an album full of interesting rhythms, “Sound of the Silk” takes the cake with its music nerd-baiting time signatures. The music shifts from a recurring pattern of three measures of 5/4 and a measure of 6/4 to a bridge section in 7/4. It’s an unusual beat that makes the listener sit up and pay attention, and when the music returns to a standard 4/4 feel, it’s in the context of an Indian-style breakdown, complete with sitar-style sounds and unusual percussion instruments. The song ends with another stylistic right turn, speeding up and returning to a 7/4 beat and featuring a spoken word monologue that seems to be about driving out of Austin and finding “the real Texas". “Sound of the Silk” is a bit messy, but it effectively takes Trail of Dead’s hard rocking sound in a different direction. After nine albums, that isn’t easy to do. That’s also a pretty good summation of IX itself. Messy, occasionally repetitive, and short of excellent, but strong enough in its best moments to show that …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead haven’t stopped challenging themselves and their audience.