Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Music Review: ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, "So Divided"

For those of you who don't know ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead (referred more popularly as "Trail of Dead"), yes, that is their name, and no, they are in no way a metal band. Instead, they are one of the better "unknown" (though by no means unheard of) and original bands of the last 10 years, blazing their way out of Austin, TX via the sonic assaults of their self-titled debut and the searing "Madonna" (as in religion, not as in pop-singer), and refining their sound to incorporate more epic and varying influences on "Source, Tags & Code" and "Worlds Apart." Now, 10 years after their debut, they release their fifth LP, "So Divided," and not is it only one of the best albums and the most epic album of the year, it is also is the best album they've done, seeing their exploration of new sounds reach new heights, even as their sound becomes tighter both musically and vocally.

The album kicks off in typical Trail of Dead style, with atmospherics and converging lines of music lasting for just over a minute and leading into the New-Wavey "Stand in Silence," as good a take on New Wave as any out there right now. However, from there, it's nonstop brilliance. "Wasted State of Mind" clearly makes it obvious that this isn't your older sibling's Trail of Dead (unless, like some anonymous reviewers, you've been around long enough to have bought the first albums yourself). A Tahitian drum and piano drive the music, while vocalist/guitarist Conrad Keely makes it clear that he is now intersted not just in the low guttural growl/high nasally sneer vocal style, but intersted in increasing his ability as a singer. The track also reveals the stylistic explorations that Trail of Dead always hinted at but never fully immersed themselves in, as we move from the aforementioned Tahitian-drum intro to a 2-minute conclusion driven by, of all things, an accordion, setting the pace for the rest of the album.

Track four, "Naked Sun," doesn't relent, bringing us a bluesy guitar line with equally-bluesy lyrics (the way Keely declares that he's "the naked sun" and you'll feel his burn is vaguely reminiscent of the numerous seventh-son lyrics of bluesmen, with their equally suggestive sexual meaning), yet ultimately and seamlessly leads first into a brass improv section and then, again seamlessly, into an orchestral piece by the end, with horns, strings, and timpanis joining the simple blues guitar/drum setup of the first three minutes, leading the song out in a majestic sweep for the last two minutes.

After "Gold Heart Mountain Top Queen Directory," we arrive to the title track, which, like "Naked Sun," spends about 6 minutes going through varying sounds (slowburn guitar to snare rush and accoustic guitars to a loud, pounding, epic wall of sound) without sounding like "Naked Sun". After "Life" (which features a woman singing for the first time on a Trail of Dead album in a beautiful, lilting finale to a song that explores subdued beauty in ways Trail of Dead never has before), we get to "Eight Day Hell," which, with its poppy sound, harmonic-driven lyrics, and multiple lyrical lines, sounds like it could be the New Pornographers or Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys (no, really). Yet it never sounds like a ripoff, and as depressing as some of the Pornographers' lyrics could be (see: "The Slow Descent into Alcoholism"), nothing they ever did quite matches the absolute irony and creeepiness as Keely & Co. cheerfully sing "You're in an eight day hell."

The final three songs don't relent. "Witches Web" continues to show their complexity, this time employing a slide guitar and giving the otherwise normal accoustic track a nice little western touch and Keely slipping into a gentle falsetto (two more firsts in the Trail of Dead repetoire). The album closes with "Segue: In the Realms of the Unreal" (another lead-in track) bringing us to "Sunken Dreams," wihch, in a style typical of the album and of Trail of Dead's new direction, goes from relatively tranquil to a bombastic choir and guitars closing out the song as Keely shouts across the sound, providing the perfect end to one of the year's finest and most focused albums.

What is truly remarkable, is this never comes off as musical posturing, nor does it ever sound like a hodgepodge of songs that have nothing to do with each other. This is due primarily to the fact that, throughout it all, Trail of Dead never fully abandon their noise-rock origins. Instead, they are just intersted in finding new noises and musical combinations. All this adds up, without hyperbole, to one of the 5 best albums of this year, one that you must buy now. Hopefully, after this album, the rest of the world will indeed know them, not just as the Trail of Dead, but as one of the best young rock groups out there today, for that is what they are.

6/6 square glasses