VIENNA, Va. - February 8, 2011 - For a long while Austin, Texas was well known for being on the edge and the start of many cultural trends. In particular, the indie rock scene that spun out of their hardcore punk scene in the ‘80s garnered considerable attention over the years. … And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead took the spirit of that scene and turned themselves into the quintessential Austin indie rock band over the last decade or the very least became the most identifiable band of that region.
They might not be what a typical band from the Austin scene sounds like (or any scene for that matter) but they’ve come to epitomize the atmosphere of experimentation and the off the beaten path mentality that Austin became known for in music.
The Trail of Dead has been known as something of a sprawling band ever since the band’s first release in 1998. They’ve always been able to incorporate elements of noise rock and art rock into a post-hardcore foundation that allows for them to wander sonically not only from song to song but within each song itself and never losing the listener’s interest in the song. As their full name might suggest, their sound in the past could be quite intricate and complex, and occasionally cumbersome.
At first glance it seems that the band is flying primarily in the face of that notion on their seventh album Tao of the Dead. The band seemed to make a specific point of scaling things back from previous efforts (with stalwarts Conrad Keeley and Jason Reece holding things down). The membership has dropped from the six-piece on the last two albums to a four-piece this time around. The album definitely has a stripped down feel to it on the first listen.
After a quick initial look at the songs on the album, most of them clock in well under three and a half minutes. This is a fairly big surface level departure from the rest of their discography, which comprises mostly of songs of 4 minutes or longer. The songs taken individually give a short and concise sense of a pop song, which territory they haven’t really ventured into too often in the past.
It seems like they play up a British influence on this album. “Weight of the Sun (or the Post-Modern Prometheus” in particular definitely seems to be invoking something from the forgotten of era Brit-Pop. This could all just be front man unique Conrad Keeley’s inflection on several songs that gives off that impression, but it definitely enhances the pop atmosphere created on the album.
Stopping right there, Trail of Dead has created an album that they didn’t to interested in creating before now. Each song is tight, to the point, and never really wanders on its own. The songs exist as individual bits of clever pop. If that’s where the band wanted to stop, then they’ve managed to craft a perfectly enjoyable album that exists independently from the band’s previous recordings.
Although Tao of the Dead doesn’t stop with the first listen. On the surface, the album might not feel like it fits in with the rest of the Trail of Dead’s discography. While the songs are nicely concise, it doesn’t seem like they take twists and turns that previous Trail of Dead songs seem to take. There seems to be a lack of experimentation on each individual song which used to be something of a staple for the band. That’s only if the songs are taken as solitary bits of music though.
Take a step back and view the entirety of the album as a whole, and the album really begins to shine. Instead of each individual song weaving in and out to create a winding experience, they’ve managed to do it with the entire album. Each song is looked at as part of a greater whole. They are constantly foreshadowing and referencing back both sonically and lyrically to various points in the album (and at times, they vaguely reference previous albums).
This is where the Trail of Dead shows that they’re in some ways the same band they’ve always been, but on something of a much grander scale. The aesthetics that they’d apply in the past to a single song, they’ve decided to apply to the entire album this time around. It’s the kind of approach that begs for multiple listens, to make sure that not an inch of the landscape has been missed.
The songs while enjoyable on their own, aren’t really meant to be taken that way but seen as something the benefits the larger whole of the nearly hour long album. It’s a new approach to an old concept that shows that they’re still willing to push forward some 15 years later.
Read more of Steve’s work in Riffs at the Washington Times Communities.
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