Conrad Keely of …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead is a talented visual artist. His work, mainly surrealist portraits, dons Trail of Dead’s album covers and is as detailed as it is otherworldly. It makes sense, then, why his band creates music as maximal and complex as a tapestry. Keely, along with core Trail of Dead member Jason Reece and a top-drawer band to back them up, offers a phantasmagorical collection of songs on XI: Bleed Here Now that touches on post-punk, folk, and modern classical, though Keely is adamant that genre is “musical confirmation bias” that we would do well to forget.
“Modern music doesn’t have to be (and never should have been) compartmentalized or dumbed down and forced to conform to a genre in order to be appreciated,” says Keely in a four-page essay about the release. It seems cynical, especially given the album’s far-reaching appeal, to complain about how the majority consume music. Genre is the most primitive way of intellectualizing music and is a culturally transmitted heuristic tool available to the musicologist and layperson alike. Declaring genre to be nefarious has the same utility as criticizing the naming of the months.
Keely’s tirade seems misguided; his focus should be solely on the algorithms of streaming giants, which he claims “tilt the balance towards the insipid”, and not artists who stick to one style or consumers who are more than capable of creating their own playlists. Mixing genres is not only OK but desirable, though there’s no avoiding the “alternative” categorization into which XI: Bleed Here Now firmly falls. That said, none of the theoretical prefacing changes the music.
At one hour and 14 minutes, there’s nothing scant about XI: Bleed Here Now. It has an oceanic scope and is teeming with life and ideas. However, it can ask a lot of the listener. Superfluous cuts such as “Sounds of Horror” and “The Widening Gyre” only water down the overall impact of the songs, creating buffer zones between moments of brilliance. For instance, “Taken by the Hand”, a mind-blowing and Homeric take on Southern rock, and the sweet emotion of “Contra Mundum”, are sandwiched between “A Life Less Melancholy” and “Darkness Into Light”, short musical passages that play like a Pink Floyd tribute band warming up. After declaring that “art has a role to play in the upcoming decade(s): it needs to point humanity towards solutions”, Trail of Dead don’t acquiesce to modern-day expectations of slick media and tests its audience with noble but tiresome exercises in psychedelic stamina.
Of the 22 tracks on the collection, the ones that stand out have an effortless sense of fun, as if Trail of Dead had no ambition other than to brighten your day. “Field Song” is winsome and catchy, “Penny Candle” is atmospheric and anthemic, and “No Confidence” is old-school riffage taken to extremes. Throughout these tracks, the members show how their technique knows no bounds, and they arrive at places that once seemed not only too tricky to get to but unnecessary to reach.
“Kill Everyone” is a snappy Oi! throwback that starts under a blanket of lo-fi before morphing into the album’s characteristic sheen. The album was mixed in quadrophonic sound, and unless you have the proper speaker setup, you won’t experience it to its full potential. On headphones, standard speakers, or your smartphone, the surround sound mix doesn’t always perfectly translate, and voices that should be miles away from each other end up battling for space. Nevertheless, the album generally has an excellent sound, regardless of playback.
Other highlights include “Salt in Your Eyes”, a focused burst of Beatlesque melodic energy, and “Growing Divide”, featuring Spoon’s Britt Daniel. This politically charged folk song calls for compassion during political turmoil. But, again, these strong points are served alongside some admirable missteps. Amanda Palmer’s cool timbre is wasted on a track as stuffed as “Millennium Actress”, and “English Magic” is a touching but soppy acoustic ballad liberally garnished with mournful strings.
The juxtaposition of breezy bangers with more challenging musical ideas makes XI: Bleed Here Now a recommendable fare for both the hard-to-impress music snoot and the more open-minded rocker, though both are likely to agree that sometimes less is more.