Turned loose from the Interscope fold following the release of 2007’s commercially lukewarm So Divided, …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead is a band now well-versed in the role of casualty. Their most recent outing, The Century of Self, sees the Austin three-piece seeking solace in familiar territory with an album of pummeling grandiosity and cascading dynamics. Aside from a handful of glorious moments, though, tepid songwriting and a number of recyclables from the already battered hardcore playbook mar the effort, registering a “should have been” in place of a genuine comeback.
The new album occasionally resembles the band’s 2002 masterwork Source Tags & Codes for its intertwining of titanic prog gestures within the more rough-hewn fabric of Texan hardcore. But while that album’s arrangements represented triumphant feats of vision, comparable tracks on The Century of Self would seem to signify the work of a far less sophisticated ensemble than that responsible for orchestrating the flawless triad of “Another Morning Stoner”, “How Near How Far” and “Relative Ways”.
Instead, Trail of Dead’s latest jaunt overvalues the band’s onstage prowess. Opener “Giants Causeway” is cartoonishly enormous, and when the bass drum and snare finally kick in with sluggish brutality one minute from the song’s end, the album already seems to have made its most profound statement. “Far Pavilions”, a song abounding with energy, is nonetheless disappointing for its lack of a strong melody. Annoyingly like its second-act compatriot “Ascending”, the song favors the visceral excitement of dueling vocal lines from frontmen Conrad Keely and Jason Reece over the substance of sounder songwriting.
Elsewhere, The Century of Self proves rife with technical trickery way past the sell-by date. “Isis Unveiled” is pure caricature, the cocksure triplets of its opening bassline rumbling into little but the uninspired thudding of roomy toms and a unison vocal interlude. Far too often, Trail of Dead seems to lapse into autopilot, murderously burying the beginning hints of melody with annoyingly overlong cymbal raids or too eagerly cuing the background choir (also cartoonish).
What’s curious, though, is that the album’s best songs are guilty of pretty much every aspect of the album’s greater crime against musicality. “Halcyon Days”, for instance, has all the ingredients of unbearable melodrama, yet somehow transcends this aggravation by harnessing the upward force of hyper-aggressively willing a memorable song into the red zone. Likewise, on “Bells of Creation” and “Fields of Coal”, the band’s lack of self-consciousness unquestionably saves them, reminding the listener to always take their occasionally ludicrous levels of pomposity into stride. After all, that same audacity has been at the heart of almost all of Trail of Dead’s finest moments.
For all its flaws, The Century of Self is not nearly as vainglorious as its title implies. When it comes to art rock, nuance wins over outspokenness eight or nine times out of ten. This album shows no exception. Nevertheless, while there’s a certain temptation to call “Ascending” one of the most insipid songs I’ve heard this year, I’d much rather leave you with this impression of the record: more than anything else, Trail of Dead succeeds here by putting together a collection of songs that accurately reflects the kind of band they have always been. This is still a brash, sweeping, “ring the alarm bell!” brand of music. It’s just not that fun to listen to anymore. (Bonus points, though, for the absurdly detailed, hand-drawn cover art by Keely.)