“What next?” From fans and critics alike, this question was inevitable after the mammoth success of 2002’s Source Tags and Codes. The band’s major label debut, and third album, was a magnificent achievement. With a masterful control of their unflagging energy, combined with a sophisticated whirl of texture and dynamics, Source Tags and Codes established Trail of Dead as a band whose ambitions did not exceed their talents — until now.
Three years later, the mighty Trail of Dead have returned with the long-awaited and delayed follow-up, Worlds Apart. For this first time in their career, the band’s grandiose vision has swallowed them whole, resulting in a bloated misfire that is a distant memory of the band who seemed so assured and commanding on Source Tags and Codes.
The wheels come off right from the start, and the album’s first song is also its longest. After coming charging out of the gates with a great and unrelenting punch, “Will You Smile Again” meanders into moody soundscape territory, complete with a bleating trumpet. From there a muted guitar and minimal percussion marching band one-two tempo takes over for the middle stretch. For nearly two minutes the listener is subjected to little more than a bass, the aforementioned instruments and guitarist/singer Conrad Keely’s lackluster attempt at singing. The song kicks back into high hear for the last two minutes with a reprise of the opening section, but the impact is diminished by the woeful and overly long middle.
The title track and inexplicable first single for the album comes next. For a song that bemoans “This and that scene/ They all sound the same to me/ Neither much worse nor much better”, this is one of the Trail of Dead’s most conventional songs to date. None of the ingredients that made the group so incredibly fresh and potent on Source Tags and Codes are present here, but worse, the band doesn’t even seem to realize it. The song peters out at around two-minute and 15-second mark and the rest of the running time is filled out by an embarrassingly tacked on section of nature sounds.
The album’s blunders are seemingly endless. “Summer of ’91” is the band’s sad-sack, ballad answer to Bryan Adam’s “Summer of ’69” and perhaps is the final evidence that Conrad Keely should, never, ever be allowed to sing again. He can scream, yell and carry on like a witch with rabies, but when he switches to sensitive crooner mode, someone should be slapping him in the back of the head of the studio. The man can’t carry a tune. “A Classic Arts Showcase” displays a band with more ideas than they know what to do with, resulting in a pastiche of styles that hardly holds together in anything near a cohesive fashion. Again, the band kicks off the tune majestically, only to fumble with a string section, choir and sound samples. Perhaps not knowing how to get out of it, the band promptly switches back to the opening passage but without anything close to resembling a transition. Worst of all, for the first time Trail of Dead offers two tracks which can only be described as filler: the aptly titled instrumental “To Russia My Homeland” and the two-minute experiment in Flaming Lips’ style orchestrated pop, “All White”.
Worlds Apart does manage to provide a couple of highlights. “The Rest Will Follow” is soaring, triumphant number that manages to fuse Trail of Dead’s old school dynamics with their new melodic sensibilities without losing any of their power. Sounding like the best Siamese Dream-era song Billy Corgan never wrote, “Caterwaul” gallops at a mid-tempo stride and explodes into its chorus that almost demands to be sung along to. This is also the only song on the album that manages to move from its moody mid-section, seamlessly into its outro (where the band once again reprises the opening — are you noticing a trend?). Even though these songs are brief glimmers of hope, they distinctly pale in comparison with any of the band’s previous work.
Worlds Apart, which was one the year’s first anticipated releases, is also 2005’s first major disappointment. The various tactics they employed on Source Tags and Codes to help embellish an already solid album, are crutches here for shaky songwriting. The strings, samples and otherworldly sounds are employed haphazardly and predictably here. Its clear that the Trail of Dead have made a decided shift in sound, but unfortunately it’s for the worse. The blistering, heart-stopping and innovative rock of their past has been left behind for something that is sadly far more ordinary.