If there’s one thing that can be said for Texas rockers …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead (aka Trail of Dead), it’s that they’re persistent. In 2002, the band had a major critical hit with their third album, Source Tags & Codes. Almost overnight, the band were hailed as geniuses. Unfortunately, the band didn’t remain critical darlings very long, releasing a steady stream of epic albums with mixed results and poor reviews. To be fair to Trail of Dead, much of the flack the band’s received over the years has little to do with the quality of their music and more with their brief stint as a “flavor of the month.”
But even the most jaded music critic will have to admit that the band’s most recent release, Tao of the Dead, is one of their best. Pared back from six to four members, Trail of Dead still sound larger-than-life but have refined their focus. Trail of Dead has always been a studio band, applying a variety of studio tricks to their sonic-stratum, but on Tao of the Dead, lead-singer/band leader Conrad Keely really gets rid of the clutter. Gone are the over-the-top orchestra flourishes and endless sleigh bells of the band’s previous albums (see Worlds Apart). That’s not to say that Tao of the Dead isn’t ambitious. In fact, Tao of the Dead is nothing but pure ambition. The band has always struggled to find a balance between hard-hitting, visceral rock and their more intelligent prog-rock tendencies.
Make no mistake, Tao of the Dead is a progressive rock album, but it’s one with a huge, beating heart. That heart is what makes the album work where so many other prog-albums fail and leave the listener out in the cold. Though it sounds pretentious, the album is divided into two parts – each recorded in a different musical key (Part I is in D and Part II is in F).
Tao of the Dead has key tracks that one could call singles, but these songs pack a much stronger wallop as part of the larger sonic tapestry. The anti-commercial rock-radio rant “Pure Radio Cosplay” is ironically the band’s most commercial-sounding song. With a guitar lick that borrows a bit too liberally from The Rolling Stone’s “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, the song is infused with prog by having a reprise seven songs later (because nothing screams progressive rock like a reprise).
Other stand-out songs include “The Wasteland”, which is equal parts delicate and trippy, with surprisingly upbeat lyrics and melody. There’s also a piano riff lifted, oddly enough, from “Follow You, Follow Me” by Phil Collins-era Genesis. Although it’s only used in the song two or three times, one can’t help but think its use is some sort of joke.
The Brit-pop that the band flirted with on their previous major-label albums returns fleetingly on “Ebb Away”, which had been fleshed out a bit more (and sung with whiny British accent) and could have sounded like a mid-period Oasis track. With its running time stretched a little longer, this track will make for a rousing sing-a-long at the band’s upcoming live-performances.
Tao of the Dead’s heaviest moment is the bombastic-pendulum “Weight of the Sun (or the Post-Modern Prometheus)”. This is also the track that’s being the most heavily promoted by the band. But, since this song serves as a musical bridge between “Spiral Jetty” and the reprise of “Pure Radio Cosplay”, the song isn’t really able to stand up on its own. In the age of iTunes and the Internet Generation, for whom cherry-picking songs is the order of the day, Tao of the Dead ultimately will suffer because its individual pieces rely too heavily on each other as a whole. Like a work of pointillism, the album cannot simply be viewed up close as a handful of singles; both the first and the second part must be experienced in their entirety.
It’s on that second part, called “Strange News From Another Planet,” where the album fails. Clocking in at over 16 minutes long, Part II is presented as a single track and contains many interesting pieces, but as a whole, it falls into the progressive-rock trap of being too self-indulgent and too long. Tao of the Dead would have been a stronger album had this been shortened by about seven or eight minutes. Tao of the Dead is the product of a band who continues to carry on despite being abandoned by both the critics and former band members. What’s good on Tao of the Dead is dizzyingly good, allowing what lingers a bit too long to be forgiven.
Tao of The Dead was released on February 4, 2011.