If you’re jonesin’ for some good ol’ fashioned prog-rock mania—the kind of vivid storybook shit that calls to mind sword-fighting knights and fire-breathing dragons; the sort of divisive musical excess in which narrative concepts are not only encouraged but necessary; the sort of instrumentally dense, over-the-top, unrelenting drama that can bring fans of both Tolkien and Yes to their knees—then…well, you’ve come to the right place.
...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead—that never gets easier to type—have been all of those things throughout their 13-year recording career. Never easily pigeonholed, The Dead (No, not those other guys) have definitely made some of the decade’s most “progressive” music this side of a King Crimson b-side, but their brand of prog is unique, never favoring extended solos or flights of fancy. Instead, they’re gritty: blue-collar art-rock outfitted with punk vigor, distortion, reverb, guitars swelling and exploding underneath Jason Reece’s “never-met-a-grandiose-fill-he-didn’t-like” drum kit and Conrad Keely’s emotive, dynamite-lit voice—the kind that would drive a vocal coach to tears.
Their magnetic albums and demented live shows (featuring the most unnecessary on-stage instrument destruction since The Who’s early days) have brought both press and praise—2002’s _Source Tags & Codes_has been labeled a modern masterpiece by many critics—but a trio of more eclectic, ultimately less consistent follow-ups has earned more confusion than accolades. In short, they’ve been in a slump.
With Tao of the Dead, they’ve constructed a majestic return to form. For their seventh studio album, they’ve outfitted their brooding prog with more than a new wardrobe: fleshed-out synths, programming, and stretches of motorik muscle, replacing the hazy, ancient, slightly out-of-reach grandeur of their last album, 2009’s The Century of Self, with immediacy and color.
This time out, Trail of Dead recorded quickly—very quickly—laying it all to tape in a band record 10 days. They also stripped down for a four-piece, losing the auxiliary percussionists and doo-dad tweakers filling up their live stages for the past five years. They wanted to have fun, aiming to create more spontaneous songs, instead of laboring and crafting for months on end. On one hand, they’ve achieved exactly that—these 12 or two or 15 tracks, depending on how you divide the tracklist, are way more accessible than those on their last three albums, getting to the melodies sooner than later, even dressing up their ambient stretches with more interesting sonic touches. It’s difficult to imagine Trail of Dead destroying any amps to “The Wasteland”, a surprisingly slick, borderline radio-worthy track with a lyrical guitar riff and bright production. “How Much Fun,” meanwhile, is a fairly straightforward riff-rocker (albeit one with a well-versed sense of dynamics and drama). One man’s textural pussyfooting is another’s prog majesty, but on Tao of the Dead, they most avoid the former option (one exception being the goofy, skippable, spoken word-supporting “Cover the Days Like a Tidal Wave”).
On the other hand, the 10-day recording period is a tad misleading. While they did gain immediacy and a hint of their earlier punk energy, this is still some of the most densely constructed art-rock you’re likely to hear all year, which only makes the quick process even more impressive. The psychedelic “Somewhere Over the Double Rainbow” is a repetitive, hypnotic instrumental, suggesting the boys have been cranking the kraut-rock as of late. Career highlight “The Ship Impossible” ends the album with 16 minutes of all that makes this Trail worth following: epic emotions, giant soundscapes, instrumental skill, hooks, and that indefinable quality you just can’t quite put your finger on—the kind that suggests this is a band with something to say, and no other way to say it.