Welcome! If you are looking for a place to recommend to you, monthly and in alphabetical order, bands that you may not have heard of before, then you have certainly come to the right corner of the internet. You also have oddly specific requirements for music related columns.
But in any case, let’s get right to it.
When confronted with the challenge of picking a first band and record to tackle in this very first instalment of muicalphabet, I first was unsure whether to go with something so obscure I could be certain only a minute minority of readers might have heard of it, or something well known to get everyone into the spirit of the thing. I considered Basque psychedelic stoner rockers Arenna, on the obscure side of things, and alternative indie pop-rock sensation and hipster-favourite Alt-J on the other end of the popularity scale. Incidentally, this should give you some idea of what kind of music this column will primarily be about. There will be the occasional oddball, but generally we will focus on rock in its many-splendored varieties while leaving everything by the wayside that falls into the category of “mainstream”. Not because mainstream music is necessarily worse or inherently less interesting than southern-rap jazz fusion or such like, but because I want to showcase bands that not as many people have heard of as I would like. By definition, mainstream acts are well known and are therefore of no concern for this column.
All this is just a roundabout way of saying that for the very first band to review I have chosen …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, specifically their album Tao of the Dead.
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead (I shall from this point forward refer to them simply as Trail Of Dead, because if I write …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead every time this article is going to be unnecessarily long and I will have carpal tunnel syndrome by the end of it) and their infectiously eclectic brand of psychedelic alternative rock have been around since 1995, having officially released their self-titled debut LP in 1998. Source Tags & Codes, their third effort, put them in 2002 finally on the musical map of every fan of alternative rock all over the world. The record received universal acclaim, including a perfect score from Pitchfork Media, who called it “one of indie rock’s truly epic albums”.
Three albums, Worlds Apart, So Divided and The Century of Self in 2002, 2005 and 2009 respectively, failed to recapture their predecessor’s grandeur, while still being worthy and thoroughly enjoyable pieces of music. Tao of the Dead, which came out in 2011, however, might be one of those rare examples of lightning striking the same spot twice.
Tao is completely different from Source Tags, and yet they are strangely, impossibly, somehow the same. Trail of Dead have stripped themselves of a lot of the bombast and overbearing orchestral-esque arrangements, to lay open their true strength: brilliantly melodious guitar-driven rock’n’roll. Where Worlds Apart, and especially So Divided dragged on with excessive runtimes and twice-too-many choruses and elaborate instrumental scaffolding that, tarp removed, revealed a house of cards, “Tao of the Dead” is focused and to the point. This material – out front with the melodies, easy on the extraneous racket, alternately lovely and bruising – is among the most memorable the band has ever produced.
The intro “Let’s Experiment” eases into sweaty rocker “Pure Radio Cosplay”, which laments the death of rock radio, while – ironically – being one of the most radio friendly tunes ever heard on a Trail of Dead album. It’s the perfect start to the album, encompassing all the moods we are about to be plunged into – from euphoric triumph to muted fervor, but never going so far as to become melancholic. It comes as a bit of a surprise when, two thirds into the record, the reprise of “Cosplay” comes around again, picking up where the original left off and tying together the first part of the record into what, in retrospect, seems a bit like one giant song. Clever as Trail of Dead are, they made us think that they ditched their beloved 15 minute tracks in favour of short and sweet ones, while at the same time morphing the whole of Tao of the Dead into an enormous two-part concept album. Sneaky bastards.
This impression is being reinforced by the seamless transition between the songs, which makes it at times difficult to be sure whether you’re still in the late stages of, say, “The Wasteland” – a beautifully willowy psych pop number – or if this is already “Spiral Jetty”. And anyway, when did the buzzing spoken-word dalliance of “Cover The Days Like A Tidal Wave” slip into “The Wasteland” in the first place? Oh, “Fall Of The Empire” was in between, but you’d never know it from just listening. Everything flows into one another, never breaking its stride, never losing momentum. So when “Pure Radio Cosplay (Reprise)” comes in to tie it all up neatly, one might be excused for thinking that this was just the first song, were it not for the roughly 30 minute runtime up till then.
This is being followed by what seems, at the time, like the closer to the album: Ebb Away, a beautiful tune, maybe the most delicate and lovely Trail Of Dead have made in years, certainly on this record. A little understated guitar tumble gives way to a crunchy alt-rock chorus that the Queens Of The Stone Age would have been proud of. And it seems like this could be it, because it would have been a hell of a closer, but Tao of the Dead isn’t going to let go of its prey that easily. Onward and upward they soar into“The Fairlight Pendant”, a psychedelic trip through cosmically weird guitar whirls. It overstays its welcome a little bit, though, but I suppose it wouldn’t be a Trail of Dead album without at least one overblown throwback jam.
And then there’s still the little matter of “Strange News From Another Planet”, the sixteen-and-a-half minute, 5 part, key-of-F closing suite that makes up the entirety of part two of Tao of the Dead all by itself. “Strange News” is a bit like the past three Trail Of Dead records compressed into one intensely dense microcosm, with lots of movement, shifts, and strange little corners to explore. It goes from a reeling stoner-rock swirl to sampled spoken-word pieces over ambient guitars and back to indie-rock, without any transition ever seeming forced or unwieldy.
Some, like myself, will find “Strange News” to be the most thrilling bit of Tao; others may view is as a entirely separate piece, possibly even skipping it outright. But to me, “Strange Times” is a lovely reminder of all that which made me fall in love with Trail Of Dead in the first place, right at the end of an album which recaptured that same love by entirely different means. It’s a grandiose celebration of past brilliance, and I love them for it.
A lot has been made, and rightfully so, of bands that put out one monumental, seminal record and then spend their whole career trying and failing to push the stone up that particular mountain over and over again. Some actually succeed and push the stone a little bit further up the mountain eventually, and those are the bands we remember even 20 years later.
Trail Of Dead have chosen a different path. After 9 years of sisyphean struggle they simply turned around with their stone, and found themselves a different mountain. That is not to say that they changed completely. They stayed true to their roots, kept, if I may stretch the metaphor a little beyond its limits, to the same mountain range. I daresay if you love this record, you will also at the very least thoroughly enjoy their other material.
In fact, after you listened to Tao of the Dead, go and check out Source Tags & Codes. I’ll just wait here till next month.