Even in their embryonic stages …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead were clearly equipped with all the necessary tools to distinguish themselves from the ranks of interchangeable me-too rock outfits that congested the post-punk scene; with a distinctive atmospheric, moody sound, a penchant for at least mild experimentation and a greater degree of intelligence than the majority of their tepid contemporaries, the cadre of gifted rednecks occupied a unique niche in the modern music scene, a band of musicians who weren't afraid to takes risks but still managed to remain wholly accessible and rock convincingly on a primal, visceral level.
This isn't to say that the band arrived on the rock scene with all of their talents and abilities firmly in place, bereft of defects and operating at their peak level; on the contrary, the group depicted on their eponymous debut were severely flawed, and their music was a reflection of these early imperfections.
What is beyond impeachment is the band's uber cool nomenclature; allegedly derived from a Mayan prayer to the corn god (I can't verify the veracity of this claim due to my regrettable lack of knowledge pertaining to Mayan rites and ceremonies), their name is an attention-grabbing hook for a band that thankfully has more than enough substance to sustain one's interest once one's overpowering adulation of the group's moniker begins to wane.
While the band already had many aspects of their core sound intact right from the beginning, their debut hardly portrays them in top form, and this inequality can be attributed to one simple fact, namely that the group's songwriting had yet to evolve to a point where they could attain the dizzying heights that they would reach on subsequent outings.
This isn't to say that their early songwriting is bad, but nonetheless it sounds somewhat generic and primitive, especially when contrasted against their later creative, inspired melodies and elaborate, intricate arrangements. The riffs on the album tend to be either maddeningly simple, derivative or both, while the melodies are largely devoid of the complexity and craftsmanship that would characterize the group's later, more accomplished work.
Even some of the album's best moments are marred by the group's evident growing pains. Novena Without Faith is a major highlight, a beautiful track animated by the band's already tangible artistic ambitions, but it suffers from an almost total lack of development or progression over the course of its unnecessarily protracted length. It's clear that the band were succumbing to their more self-indulgent impulses; the song is still quite good, but at a later stage in the group's careers it would either have been judiciously abridged or further crafted into a more dynamic and fleshed out musical entity.
Given that this critique was directed at one of the album's highlights, it's clear that I harbor some serious misgivings against the lesser tracks. No number is outright bad, but there are certainly quite a few flawed moments on the CD. The opener Richter Scale Madness lacks much in the way of personality or imagination, rendering it one of the album's more generic moments. It lacks the group's customary intelligence and has an unfortunate tendency toward dissonance that, sadly enough, recurs throughout the entire debut. It can still be enjoyed if one is inclined to excuse tracks that rock for their lack of depth, in which case it's a moment of mindless fun, but the group is capable of far more than a faceless riff rocker that's as familiar as it is musically primitive. It lacks much in the way of artistic aspirations as well, unless one counts the brief explosion of discord that opens the song as a moment of artistry.
These exact complaints can be leveraged against many of the numbers, but nonetheless most tracks have enough merits that they're still clearly superior to most of the effluvia that clutters the post-punk movement. Half Of What is the album's best cut, a terrific rocker with one of the CD's better vocal melodies enhanced by some great delivery, while the closer, When We Begin To Steal…, is a hypnotic dirge in the vein of Novena Without Faith. Tracks like Gargoyle Waiting are appropriately moody, while Prince With A Thousand Enemies is easily one of the album's best songs with an array of impressive hooks and some healthy, unpretentious artistic tendencies (though I've always wondered if the title's an allusion to Watership Down).
In all …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead's self-titled debut betrays much of the group's best traits, albeit not in peak form. The result is an intriguing hybrid of base primitivism and higher aspirations, and while this may seem like a recipe for disaster the group's innate talents not only prevent this stylistic clash from sabotaging the CD, but even elevate nearly every song to the level of 'good' or higher. The group's gifts salvage the lesser tracks, while the highlights showcase the developing talents of a band that would become one of the best rock outfits of their era. The result is quite a solid, entertaining listening experience that nonetheless was destined to be overshadowed by their considerably superior later work.
Releasing another album a mere year after their previous outing in the best tradition of overworked classic rock bands, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead return with another onslaught of loud, exhilarating and chaotic sound, still taking care never to degenerate into the realm of mindless, desultory noisemaking. There's still an abundance of dissonance suffused with their material, but it always manifests itself in the context of rich, catchy melodies, and somehow these patches of discord manage to never mar, corrupt or obstruct the well crafted music.
Admittedly not much has changed since the band's debut, but while the structure of their eponymous album has been faithfully preserved with but a modicum of digressions there's been a tangible progression in the caliber of the elements that compose their trademark formula. Madonna boasts more complex, rewarding melodies than those featured on the group's first outing, while their artistic agenda has been implemented with a greater degree of maturity, imagination and precision. The content on the album is still a far cry from the 'art rock' label that the band were destined to inherit, and there remains more of an emphasis on driving, uncompromising sonic battery than on intricate soundscapes and tricky time signatures, but it's still evident throughout Madonna that group were evolving both intellectually and creatively at an impressive, almost alarming rate.
One example of …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead's innate artistic tendencies can be found in the profusion of brief segues that are riddled throughout the album, curious transitions that seem to serve little purpose but are still welcome additions that further enrich the proceedings. Be it the band's eccentric introduction that announces their presence in about half a minute or the diminutive intriguing instrumental The Day The Air Turned Blue, the group have elected to embark upon a greater undertaking than merely producing a straightforward rock album in the vein of their debut, attempting to transcend the limits of what they'd already accomplished so adroitly on their self-titled offering. Even though the band's first two albums are fundamentally highly reminiscent of one another, on Madonna the group endeavor to leave their comfort zone and achieve something greater in breadth and scope than what they'd enacted on their debut, and even if this attempt is confined to what are basically superficial artistic flourishes that ultimately have little bearing on the depth of the CD these quixotic actions point a way toward a richer future, and it's interesting to witness the band's subtle progression toward artistic relevance.
The songwriting has definitely improved since the band's debut; while that album already sported a plethora of strong melodies, Madonna surpasses that fledgling outing on almost all fronts, resulting in a markedly superior listening experience. Mistakes & Regrets, the album's true opener after the gimmicky intro And You Will Know Them…, is a definite highlight, a track that's sufficiently strong that it overcomes its reliance on its soft/hard contrast, a tired and familiar cliché that it shamelessly abuses for the complete duration of the number. With arresting atmospherics, a stellar melody and a compelling performance, the song immediately elevates the album above its predecessor, with this haunting aural experience opening the CD on a far more gripping, auspicious note than the pedestrian discordant juggernaut Richter Scale Madness.
Elsewhere Totally Natural is a song that excels in both its accelerated verses and slower, moodier passages, while Clair De Lune is one of the album's most overtly artistic anthems that has more than enough substance to justify its lofty ambitions. Aged Dolls is a stunning epic that that never grows dull despite its inflated runtime, and A Perfect Teenhood is another winner even with its intentionally exaggerated Neanderthal tendencies that culminate with the listener being relentlessly bombarded with profanity-laden vitriol.
There are no genuine misfires on the album, and even the superfluous fragments that masquerade as segues at least engender some more personality into the proceedings. Few of the songs are outright classics, as the band still weren't at their peak as rock artists or music scribes, but the album is consistently entertaining for its whole duration, and ultimately Madonna offers a more fulfilling experience than its already impressive predecessor.
Thus Madonna is an essential purchase for any fan of the group, and a necessary step on the way to the realization of the band's full potential. While Madonna is a logical transition between the band's raw debut and the more mature, polished Source Tags & Codes, it's also a compelling album in its own right, offering much more than simply its historical significance for the group.
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead immediately exhibited tremendous potential upon their debut, establishing a unique voice that differentiated them from the hordes of other contemporaneous post-punk outfits attempting to make a name for themselves by trying to see which of them could generate noise at the highest possible decibel level. On their sophomore outing, Madonna, they further refined their formula while gradually introducing more overtly artistic elements into the mix, expanding their sound without forsaking the factors that had distinguished them in the first place.
Despite the inherent underlying promise that these excursions into the realm of post-punk demonstrated, however, they offered no indication that the band could produce a work of the stunning caliber of Source Tags & Codes, a modern masterpiece that can be counted amongst the finest rock albums of the new millennium. Suddenly what once were subtle hints of artistic aptitude have been replaced with full fledged art rock genius, the band's customary solid melodies have uniformly evolved into brilliant, deeply creative and distinctive yet extremely catchy music and the once ubiquitous gratuitous dissonance of old has been so cleverly integrated into the mix that it enhances the potency of the compositions.
Source Tags & Codes is bereft of filler, as each track boasts innovative hooks and deeply engrossing melodies. While the band has always had a unique voice, in the past it had served to make somewhat standard fare sound more original; now each song is unmistakably the work of the group, idiosyncratic in both form and execution. Likewise despite the fact that the group has a distinctive sound each track sounds completely unique, with absolutely no risk of monotony ever setting in.
As far as artistic touches go, on Source Tags & Codes the band has made the sagacious decision not to clutter the track listing with the brand of brief segues that the group had embraced on their previous outing, instead simply situating these sonic digressions at the beginning and end of each song. The exception to this rule is After The Laughter, a track adroitly positioned before the closing title track in order to give the listener a breather after the exhausting relentless intensity of the rest of the album. The segues are, as they were on Madonna, at least moderately effective, a welcome attempt to find a unifying theme for what is ultimately a rather varied, unrelated selection of compositions, and these aural interludes are also less distracting from the music than they would be were they to occupy their own separate tracks.
The songs are universally brilliant, from the wall of guitars that introduces the opener, It Was There That I Saw You, a track with a terrific vocal melody and exhilarating momentum, to the alternately beautifully moody and hard rocking classic Another Morning Stoner. Elsewhere Homage rocks mercilessly but is more noteworthy for its atmospheric interludes, while How Near How Far is a gorgeous masterpiece that no one would have imagined the group capable of were their knowledge of the band confined to their first two albums.
The centerpiece of the album, however, is the fantastic title track, a driving epic with an unforgettable melody that's devoid of the discordant passages that typified the band's earlier work. As I'd alluded to earlier, there certainly are dissonant portions on the album, but the group has learned to only use them when they can actually ameliorate the experience, resulting in comparatively tasteful lapses into discord and large sections where the band opts to remove it altogether.
The amount of growth in the intervening years between Madonna and Source Tags & Codes is simply remarkable, as the band has suddenly learned precisely the best ways to apply their considerable talents and diminish their liabilities. The album betrays a level of intelligence that was conspicuously absent in their prior works, unveiling a degree of artistry and creativity that would have been unthinkable just a few short years earlier.
What was once a group infamous for their hardcore, relentless guitar pyrotechnics and little else, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead are now penning imaginative melodies that can sometimes even be called mellow, exhibiting a range hitherto unseen in their work. While tracks like Novena Without Faith were certainly pretty, they're practically inert and lifeless compared to numbers like the dynamic How Near How Far. The band have learned that there's more to composing pretty songs than simply abstaining from dissonant jamming for ten minutes, and the result is a rich and varied experience that's accessible to both diehard fans of the group and the timid audience intimidated by the band's usual ferocious demeanor.
Simply put Source Tags & Codes is a true masterwork, instantly elevating …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead to the forefront of the modern rock scene. Filled with unforgettable classics and high quality performances the album represents the zenith of the band's abilities, effortlessly topping two albums that were already extremely impressive in their own right. Somehow the band underwent a metamorphosis during their three years sabbatical, reemerging as one of the best rock acts to be found without compromising their legendary aggression or doing anything that could be even remotely construed as selling out.
The Secret Of Elena's Tomb is everything an EP should be: compact, hard-hitting and a self-contained experience that's rewarding on its own merits. It's not an overextended EP masquerading as a miniature LP, it's not so short as to come across as a glorified single and most importantly it's not a thinly veiled advertisement for the band's next album. Rather, it's a collection of five terrific songs, all of which richly deserve their place in the band's canon, rendering The Secret Of Elena's Tomb a listening experience that never professes to be more or less than a straightforward EP and is all the better for it.
From a songwriting standpoint the EP retains all of the progression achieved on the band's last album, resulting in an experience as complex, artistic and gratifying as Source Tags & Codes, albeit a considerably shorter one. The EP's diminutive length is really the only factor that prevents The Secret Of Elena's Tomb from equaling the group's magnum opus from the year before, and given how well it functions as an EP its brevity isn't even especially detrimental to the overall experience.
Unsurprisingly the EP features instrumental segues in the vein of those contained on Madonna and Source Tags & Codes, as these artistic flourishes have become a staple of the band's work. While they sometimes feel as if they're merely artificial, self-conscious attempts to be artsy, they still ultimately enrich the experience as opposed to detracting from it, making the EP come across as a thematically unified whole, an impression that wouldn't have been made if the songs were simply thrown out there bereft of these stylistic accoutrements.
For a conventional EP, containing even a single egregious misfire could sabotage the entire experience, given the dearth of superior content to redeem it; thus The Secret Of Elena's Tomb would have been irreparably marred were a misstep to be found amongst its five tracks, as the sonic culprit wouldn't have been able to hide amidst a vast track listing. Fortunately the EP's tracks are uniformly brilliant, with each ranking amongst the band's best output.
Mach Schau opens the EP with an adrenaline rush, a terrific driving rocker that remains both ferocious and melodic simultaneously. It's All St. Day, however, that earns the title of the EP's best cut, a rousing, anthemic creation with alternating melodies all of which are equally fantastic and moving.
Crowning A Heart and Counting Off The Days are both absolutely beautiful, while the closer, Intelligence, is far more difficult to categorize. Incorporating elements of electronica into the mix to great effect, it demonstrates that the band would continue to produce outstanding work even if they took their craft in a radically different direction. While not the EP's best track it certainly stands out the most, and is far too rich and compelling to be dismissed as a curious novelty.
Ultimately The Secret Of Elena's Tomb is indispensable for any fan of the group, a brilliant EP that, by strictly adhering to the rules of its form, evades the self-indulgent mistakes or mercenary motives that tend to mar the bulk of EPs that hit the market. Boasting five terrific songs that depict the band at their finest, The Secret Of Elena's Tomb is an immensely enjoyable experience that only differs from the band's finest work in length and in length alone.
In their embryonic stages, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, despite their relentless barrage of sonic ferocity, possessed a certain innate intelligence that could just be discerned through their overpowering aural onslaught, an element that served to differentiate them from the myriad vacuous, empty post-punk acts. Over time this inherent intelligence evolved and expanded into a pronounced artistic side, culminating in the group's final transformation into a full-fledged art rock outfit on Worlds Apart, when the intellectual aspects of the band finally triumphed over their raw, savage side.
In this regard it's difficult to imagine that the group responsible for the angsty, primal fury of Half Of What can also take credit for the lush, elegant string arrangements on To Russia My Homeland. While the group's rougher side is still represented on the album, it passes through a filter of artistic refinement, transfiguring the viscerally charged viciousness that typified the band's early work into a more subdued, restrained kind of sonic venting.
This artistic side manifests itself in the form of more elaborate arrangements, increasingly complex and multifaceted melodies and a lesser reliance on raw power to convey the group's messages. The lyrics, as always, are far from erudite or insightful, but the array of creative hooks compensates for this deficiency.
An emphasis on artistry, in and of itself, is hardly a virtue, and likely would have sabotaged most groups of this kind who opted to pursue such an ambitious course, but fortunately …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead are equipped with all the necessary tools to effect an artistic transformation of this nature. Their songwriting has never been stronger, and their musical progression adroitly complements their deeper aspirations.
The group also makes sure to strike a balance between their rawer and more polished sides so as not to lose sight of their core strengths, and thus the perfect marriage of primal aggression and artistic pretensions can be perceived on the true opener (after the bombastic yet effective intro Ode To Isis) Will You Smile Again? which proceeds from forceful jamming to a complex vocal melody and back with the utmost fluidity and precision.
Overall there's far more of an emphasis on vocal melodies than there had been in the past; the group hardly eschews instrumental hooks, but nonetheless there's a greater focus on vocals when contrasted against their early works, hence songs like the anthemic title track with its superb vocal delivery and axiomatically gratifying yet distinctive hooks in the refrain.
The Summer Of '91 also excels in the vocal department, while the irresistible chorus of The Rest Will Follow boasts the kind of charming yet stunning simplicity that breeds the most memorable of melodies. Caterwaul is a return to rougher dynamics, A Classic Arts Showcase is ambitious yet fundamentally catchy, even during its densely orchestrated interlude, and Let It Dive is one of the rare simple sing-along moments in the band's repertoire. Elsewhere All White is powerful despite its inexplicable brevity, The Best is another winner and The Lost City Of Refuge ends the album on the perfect note.
Overall Worlds Apart is an exceptional follow-up to the band's seminal masterpiece Source Tags & Codes. It may betray the band's past identity to some extent, but upon future inspection one will find that the group didn't abandon their old elements, rather simply translating them, intact, into a new context, adapting them to better suit the great artistic strides they'd made over the last few years. At times one will miss the raw power that the group commanded in their early years, but given the high caliber of the material one shouldn't be too heartbroken over these losses. Beyond the art rock trappings and complex flourishes one will discover an album that's simply extremely well written and performed, and this should console those mourning the lack of the band's prior hardcore edge.
While Worlds Apart was certainly the recipient of effusive accolades from myriad critics, this laudatory reception never translated into strong sales for the album. The group was so disheartened by this commercial failure that they nearly disbanded in response to it; fortunately before a final dissolution could transpire inspiration struck and the band returned to the recording studios for what was intended to become their second EP.
Perhaps this return to recording stimulated the group's creative faculties even further, as the EP grew progressively long until the band was left with a complete LP in their hands. Entitled So Divided, this offering from a group on the verge of collapse was the band's fifth full album and a worthy successor to the brilliant Source Tags & Codes and Worlds Apart.
While …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead may have been considering a breakup, this morbid contemplation is never apparent on So Divided, as the group sound as confident, polished and self-assured as ever. The band's resolution never appears to be compromised or undermined by their potential disbandment, as the album offers no indication of the group's agitated state. If anything this internal tension seems to have spurred the band on to greater heights, as on So Divided they sound as inspired and passionate as they ever have.
So Divided largely eschews the segues that had become synonymous with the band, confining them to two tracks, the opener Intro: A Song Of Fire And Wine and the penultimate number Segue: Sunken Dreams. If anything this reduced role and subsequent compartmentalization of the band's signature artsy transitions is a positive step for the band, as by now the group has discovered and honed plenty of other ways to express their artistic side, no longer requiring something as transparently calculated as these segues to effect that end.
In addition to attempting to prove their intelligence and artistic leanings the band also aspires to demonstrate their musical versatility on So Divided. There's an eclectic range of styles featured on the album, from the infectious blues rock of Naked Sun to the poppy Eight Days Of Hell to the straightforward (except for a brief, somewhat incongruous interlude) hard rocker Stand In Silence. This diversity greatly enriches the album, compensating for the lack of any central, overarching thematics.
Most importantly, the band's songwriting is as impeccable as ever, resulting in a plethora of worthy additions to the group's oeuvre. As previously alluded to Stand In Silence is an exhilarating way to start the album (discounting the rather extraneous Intro: A Song Of Fire And Wine), providing plenty of visceral rock excitement, while the aforementioned Naked Sun is irresistible with its driving beat and unexpected majestic coda.
Wasted State Of Mind boasts exotic percussion and an imaginative artistic arrangement that makes the song truly stand out. As always the group extends their full efforts toward making the song work, resulting in a track that's excellent even without its artistic flourishes, and is thus simply enhanced as opposed to made by these more ambitious elements. This is a formula often applied by the band that ensures that their songs are never all style and no substance, a testament to their dedication as songwriters and performers.
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead's cover of Guided By Voices' Gold Heart Mountain Top Queen Directory, while entertaining, is somewhat misguided, as it was Pollard and company's minimalism on the song that had constituted much of the track's charm. Nevertheless the song still works even if it is over-arranged, and it's certainly fundamentally intriguing to hear what was once an aggressive post-punk outfit reinterpreting a lo-fi indie classic.
Elsewhere Life is a captivating, moody rocker, Witch's Web is quite enjoyable and Sunken Dreams, the epic closer, is yet another classic from the band that ends the album on a high note. Some of its dialogue sampling can be distracting from the song's (quite strong) melody, but ultimately all of the track's disparate elements come together to make a dark, brilliant anthem.
Thus So Divided is another excellent offering from the band, filled with topnotch songwriting, unprecedented diversity and great performances. Despite the context the album was spawned from it never feels like a band on their last legs; on the contrary, the CD proves that …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead still have much more to say, and prematurely retiring them now would deprive the world of more stellar material from one of the foremost rock groups of the new millennium, an eventuality that would truly be a pity.
In many respects The Secret Of Elena's Tomb was an ideal EP, providing a handful of exclusive tracks that were well worth adding to the group's canon. The EP managed to eschew most of the vices that tend to plague the medium, as in no way was it a thinly veiled ploy to promote an upcoming full-length release nor was it a brief sound-bite designed to educe money from hardcore completists filled with album-overlap and slightly modified cuts of preexisting tracks.
Unfortunately this doesn't hold true for Festival Thyme, an EP whose transparent purpose is to hype the upcoming album The Century Of Self. The EP contains a mere four tracks, two of which are alternate cuts of songs that are destined to resurface on the aforementioned LP, a fact that greatly devalues an already criminally short (around 17 minutes) listening experience.
Thus two significant questions arise, a pair that might seem interchangeable but are vastly different in the long run: is Festival Thyme an enjoyable listen and is it worth buying?
The former is the easier of the two questions to answer, as Festival Thyme is a profoundly entertaining EP while it lasts, containing four superb songs that reaffirm the notion that …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead are one of the top acts on the contemporary rock scene.
The second question, however, offers a far trickier conundrum. While clearly enjoyable, an entire half of the EP is devoted to material that will imminently be readily available on The Century Of Self. Admittedly these are indeed alternate takes, but this doesn't change the fact that tracks that are fundamentally the same songs are going to reappear a few scant months later, rendering the bulk of Festival Thyme wholly redundant.
This leaves the unenviable task of justifying the purchase of around eight minutes of new material to the remaining two tracks, a feat that would be difficult for even the finest of rock songs.
As it stands, the title track is a short but enjoyable number, somewhat mellow by the group's standards but still catchy and entertaining. Better is the epic instrumental The Betrayal Of Roger Casement And The Irish Brigade, a stirring, powerful barrage of sonic grandeur and eloquent guitarwork that recalls accomplished works like Procol Harum's Repent Walpurgis; it doesn't reach the level of that particular masterwork, but this association is still high praise indeed.
The question remains: do these two tracks truly merit spending full price on such a diminutive offering? The overlapping songs are certainly quite strong, as The Bells Of Creation is a rousing anthem in the group's signature style and Inland Sea is a worthy offering in its own right, but the problem persists that they'll be extraneous once the album proper is released.
Ultimately I can only recommend Festival Thyme to diehard Trail Of Dead fans; the two exclusive tracks are quite impressive, but the EP is still sorely lacking in the value department, suffering from criminal brevity and an overly hefty price-tag for such a limited product.
Given this uncharitable assessment it may seem strange that Festival Thyme receives such a high grade, but this rating is given purely in a context independent of the upcoming album. When the inevitable overlap is ignored then the EP is very much worth owning, boasting four terrific tracks; it's merely when the dawning reality of The Century Of Self is introduced that Festival Thyme begins to lose its allure, exposing the EP as the cynical advertisement that it is.
Ever since the ideal formula was discovered on the seminal classic Source, Tags & Codes, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead have adroitly negotiated the balance between art rock and a more straightforward brand of post-punk aggressiveness, but from time to time they've lost that perfect equilibrium and their work has suffered accordingly.
On The Century Of Self (a title derived from a much lauded BBC Documentary), this problem manifests itself in the form of a plethora of tracks that feature excessive and often incongruous mid-song digressions, an artistic gambit that seldom pays off. These interludes sometimes feel like art for art's sake, out of sync with the rest of these songs and perhaps out of sync with the band's overarching vision altogether.
Because of the group's prodigious songwriting gifts these borderline superfluous flourishes are invariably engaging and well-written, but this doesn't change the fact that some songs are superior in more compact, concise forms, and shouldn't become needlessly tangled and convoluted courtesy of excessive multipart structures.
A deeper artistic ambition has always been one of the group's greatest assets, but the band needs to learn that not every track needs to be a miniature symphony, something they lose sight of all too often on The Century Of Self.
It's unmistakable which side of the band reigns supreme on The Century Of Self, as the group are firmly entrenched in the art rock camp for the bulk of the album, and while I tend to be disposed in favor of that genre it's still evident that …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead need to exhibit at least a modicum of self-restraint in that department.
This penchant for self-indulgent song structures would be a crippling flaw for most groups, but for a band of the caliber of Trail Of Dead it's hardly an insurmountable obstacle. As I stated, even these extraneous sections are extraordinarily well-crafted and deftly implemented, and were they confined to fewer tracks I'd hold no objections to their presence at all.
The fact of the matter is that even with its transparent liabilities The Century Of Self is a superb product, filled with the group's usual brand of catchiness, aggression and majesty. This becomes apparent from the album's first notes, as the group have lifted Festival Thyme's cornerstone The Betrayal Of Roger Casement And The Irish Brigade, retitled it The Giants Causeway (thankfully omitting half the instrumental so as to not completely devalue that unfortunate EP) and converted it into a rousing opener that can't help but instantly captivate any listener with its anthemic power.
From there the album rarely lets up. Festival Thyme's Bells Of Creation and Inland Sea remain stellar tracks eminently worthy of inclusion on the album proper, while Isis Unveiled is a definite highpoint, with its fiery riff and relentless fury that segues into another strong (if less energetic and potent) melody only to return to the vicious pyrotechnics that introduced the number.
Elsewhere The Far Pavilions and Ascending are as close to straightforward rock songs as one will find here, save for the inevitable digressions that accompany both numbers. Both tracks remain tight and compelling, however, as the band's mastery of art rock hasn't compromised their ability to pen old fashioned lean, punkish adrenaline rushes of this nature.
Fields Of Coal is somewhat lesser, sounding somewhat pedestrian upon first listen, but repeated exposure to the song reveals the presence of a solid melody and a highly memorable sing-along chorus.
Luna Park enables the band to demonstrate that they're more than capable of first-rate balladry, and while the presence of two cuts of Insatiable feels like a forced artistic gimmick, almost attempting to ascribe concept album status to a set of songs that's anything but, it doesn't dilute the potency of both versions, even though admittedly only one would suffice.
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead are simply a great art rock band, and The Century Of Self is a great art rock album. The band's lapses into artistic overkill are unfortunate, and do mar the proceedings to some extent, but they aren't enough to compromise what's simply a terrific overall product, one that's on par with some of the band's finest outings. The Century Of Self may not reach some of the dizzying heights that the group have attained in the past, but brilliant songwriting and first rate performances still elevate the album to a level that few bands in the modern rock arena can ever hope to achieve.
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead's romance with art-rock started innocently enough. It began with their sophomore album, Madonna, when, in an effort to appear ambitious or high-minded, the band interspersed some pseudo-pretentious segues with their more conventional rock songs. This gesture may have felt forced and inconsequential, but it seemed harmless enough. While the band-members could hardly pass for seasoned prog or art-rockers at that stage of their careers, the very fact that they would want to was refreshing in a generation where lofty pretensions still carried an unenviable stigma.
On their breakthrough album, Source Tags & Codes, the band integrated these artsy transitions into the songs themselves. While they didn't add much weight to the compositions, they certainly didn't detract from them, and under normal circumstances these art-rock flourishes would once again be dismissed as the innocuous pastime of youths who didn't yet understand their place in rock.
Something had changed, however. On Madonna, the art-rock elements were confined to window-dressings on hardcore post-punk music. On Source Tags & Codes, however, the songs themselves had begun to grow considerably more ambitious, complex and artistic. This wasn't the gimmicky artistry of superfluous sampling or avant-garde posturing. This was genuine artistic maturity, the kind of growth that could justify the ambitions that had been hinted at on albums past.
Nevertheless, even though the band had achieved a more real, organic form of artiness, they persisted with their childish games. They continued to embrace the superficial trappings of art-rock even as they attained a mastery of its more meaningful form.
Thus from this point onwards there was a certain bifurcation in the band's art-rock identity. The songs would continue to exhibit growth and further sophistication, while the band continued to indulge in shallow artsy trickery.
Sometimes the band would, to their credit, rein these tendencies in. The opener on Worlds Apart, while a display of pretentious, bloated excess, could still be enjoyed, by no means marring the overall product.
Moments like these could give one hope that the band had grown, dispensing with more shallow manifestations of art-rock in favor of genuine artistry. Furthermore, as long as the band continued to compartmentalize their real songs and their cheap gimmicks, there would never be any concern for the overall works.
Then, however, The Century Of Self was released. While I wouldn't call the newfound needlessly complex, convoluted song structures 'gimmicks,' it was certainly a merger of the band's labored progressive tendencies and legitimate artistic songwriting, elements that had always been quarantined from one another in the past.
This complexity felt forced, as if the band were once again trying to be something they were not. Worse, for the first time the group's music was truly harmed by their misguided notion of what art-rock truly is.
Fortunately the band's songwriting remained strong, easily compensating for their gratuitous lapses into artsy pretentiousness. Still, it was clear that the balance between real art and faux art was beginning to waver, as the band seemed more determined than ever to prove their art-rock credentials at any cost.
In the wake of the brilliant but flawed The Century Of Self, I certainly had misgivings about the direction of the band. I was, however, unprepared for a misfire of the magnitude of Tao Of The Dead.
Tao Of The Dead is clearly the band's attempt to permanently cement themselves as a full-fledged art-rock group, eschewing their hardcore post-punk once and for all. Rather than prove this in an intelligent, reasonable and tasteful way, the group have opted for the easiest shortcut, namely creating their own Close to the Edge.
The album is divided into a pair of multipart suites, massive behemoths fashioned in the best tradition of Supper's Ready or Thick as a Brick. The sidelong track has been a fixture in prog/art rock ever since Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Tarkus. At the time, every major prog group simply needed to have their own, and …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead have decided to jump on the bandwagon, albeit decades too late to have any real meaning.
As brilliant as some of these past epics have been, the sidelong track has been a gimmick even from the beginning, an attention-getting stunt to prove one's prog-cred. This is fine as long as one has enough musical ideas to sustain such a lofty undertaking; sadly, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead do not, or at least they don't at this juncture.
The band have always been a song-oriented rock outfit, and it's clear that there's no convincing reason for them to make a two-song album save their own self-indulgence. Tao Of The Dead doesn't exist because it deserves to, but because it proves a point. Some of the suite's better moments could have easily be salvaged and used on a future album. Instead, they're buried amidst a sea of generic soundscapes and desultory jamming.
At times Tao of the Dead can even be called 'dull,' a description I never thought I'd ascribe to a …Trail Of Dead album. There's very little memorable music to be found, and some sections only stand out for the wrong reasons.
For example, Pure Radio Cosplay is only notable for using a slightly modified version of the Jumping Jack Flash riff. The band is quite lucky that Jagger and company aren't in a litigious mood right now, as they certainly have a stronger case for plagiarism than when they (successfully) targeted The Verve's Bittersweet Symphony.
As is inevitable when dealing with a group of the caliber of …Trail Of Dead, there are some quality passages. Summer of All Dead Souls and Weight of the Sun would be welcome additions to any of the band's albums, as they sound more like songs than excerpts from a symphony. As I've said, conventional songs are the group's strength, and these numbers are ample proof that the band can still perform well when concentrating their efforts in the right direction.
Tao of the Dead is simply a two-song album for the sake of being a two-song album. Worse, it hardly represents the band at their finest hour. Far too often entire passages will pass by without a catchy hook or creative idea to latch onto. The reason that Close to the Edge is still revered by prog-rock fans is because it features myriad compelling elements to entertain listeners for the full duration of the entire song. Tao Of The Dead, while not creatively bankrupt, is hardly overflowing with inspiration, and the defining trait of its songs is not their quality but their length.