This is not the first time that we here at PopMatters have discussed …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead‘s Source Tags & Codes. Jon Garrett initially reviewed the album in 2002. He focused a lot on how surprising the high quality of the record was in light of a terrible, drunken live performance he had witnessed a couple of years prior. He also talked a bit about the head-scratching decision by major label Interscope Records to sign such a non-commercial band.
Jeff Dunn celebrated the album‘s 10th anniversary by comparing the band to other major rock acts of the day. He also covered the intensity level of the tracks and the oddball instrumental interludes between proper songs. That piece included a reflection on the group’s creative struggles following Source Tags & Codes as well.
Today, with 20 years of distance, the legacy of this record has developed as one that’s intertwined with Internet-based music journalism itself. 2002 was a transition time for rock music. The garage rock revival of the Strokes and the White Stripes was brushing up against grunge and nu-metal leftovers like Puddle of Mudd, Godsmack, and Staind. Pop-punk acts like blink-182 and Sum 41 still had some juice left, while Foo Fighters were as popular as ever. Looking back over various lists of the year’s most popular rock tracks, there is an obvious gap. Some of these lists include the acoustic guitar pop of Jack Johnson and even Eminem’s rap singles. Almost nowhere in these charts, though, will you find indie rock acts.
The modern rock radio stations still left over from the 1990s had gradually narrowed their playlists, focusing on not particularly adventurous or fresh acts. With the term “alternative” growing stale, the moniker “indie” started being applied to certain artists instead. It didn’t particularly matter whether or not these bands were on actual independent record labels. Rock radio and the still-influential MTV weren’t particularly interested in this new underground, but the burgeoning number of online pop-culture sites were all over this type of music.
Social media had yet to take off, and YouTube was still a couple of years away. For a few years in the early 2000s, these sites had an outsize, tastemaking influence. They could drive buzz and break bands, at least to a certain degree. Nobody was headlining arenas based on positive reviews from PopMatters or Pitchfork, but they could sell out some clubs. The boost provided to Arcade Fire’s Funeral in 2004 by rave reviews from music sites paved the way for the band to win Grammys and play 10,000-seat venues eventually.
Source Tags & Codes was a relatively early beneficiary of this boost. Trail of Dead had released two independent albums, with the second, Madonna, being uneven but showing real potential. Interscope scooped them up, and the band set to work on Source Tags. They immediately reached that potential; creatively, at least, if not commercially. The AV Club, Pitchfork, and yes, PopMatters all gave the album stellar reviews. Metacritic, the online review aggregator, ranks it as the #12 best-reviewed record of 2002.
It’s a record that effectively blends the band’s aggressive noise-rock tendencies with a newfound appreciation for melody and, in particular, melodic guitar riffs. Opener “It Was There That I Saw You” sets the template for the album. Lead vocalist Conrad Keely shout-sings over crashing guitars and Jason Reece’s expressive drums. The band then drops into a slow, quiet section before slowly building back up. The initial theme returns for a high-powered finish, and that’s the whole song. Two sections, two very different moods, and yet it works.
A song like “Another Morning Stoner” has a more melodic tone, and while Reece’s drums are just as loud, it feels relaxed. It features a catchy guitar lead, which does a lot of work to set the song’s mood. On the other end of the spectrum, “Homage” is full of hardcore energy as Reece takes over on vocals, shouting his head off. The band is savvy enough to provide dynamics amongst the fury, though, with a pair of passages where the noise drops away and even a piano-driven solo mid-song.
The album’s best tracks find the balance between power and dynamics. “Days of Being Wild” is another one that starts aggressively, gets quiet, and builds back up, but it doesn’t return to the same musical place. “Relative Ways” keeps the speed consistent but changes the time signature and the instrumentation for contrast. “Source Tags and Codes” manages to sound easygoing while reaching musical climax multiple times within the song.
On the less melodic songs, Jason Reece’s drums provide the hooks. None of the record’s three vocalists (bassist Neil Busch also takes a couple of turns on the mic) are standout singers. Sometimes the band’s guitarists are focused more on atmosphere and walls of sound than riffs. In these places, Reece’s knack for memorable, catchy rhythm patterns gives the listener something concrete on which to focus.
This album still justifies all the hype the online music community gave it in 2002. It’s also a singular record in Trail of Dead’s now-expansive catalog. 2005’s Worlds Apart found the band attempting to be more commercial and essentially failing, while 2006’s So Divided was a course correction that didn’t entirely succeed, either. Having blown their chance at mainstream success, the band created their own record label and went independent again.
For better or worse, Source Tags & Codes was the final album the original Trail of Dead lineup recorded. Bassist Neil Busch departed in 2004, and Worlds Apart was credited to the remaining trio. I saw the band perform in early 2009 as a six-piece. Keely, Reece, and three other members all dressed in essentially the same black-on-black outfits, while founding guitarist Kevin Allen stood sullenly off to the side in jeans and a white t-shirt. It was not a surprise when he left the band a year later.
Keely and Reece have kept at it ever since, with a rotating cast of players filling out the band. Their later material is often just as energetic as Source Tags, but with a notable increase in prog-rock influences. Keely’s artwork, a staple of the band since the beginning, has informed this approach. Trail of Dead is now in the midst of an epic steampunk fantasy musical story that has continued for several albums. The complex tale is in the liner notes online for anyone dedicated enough to follow it. Revisiting Source Tags, though, takes me back to a time when the band’s lyrics were just as inscrutable, the songs were abrasive but catchy, and figuring it all out didn’t feel like homework.