Review Summary: Continuous thread/Beyond description, beyond affliction/It does not exist...
It seems to be a defining characteristic of ...Trail of Dead's career that, for better or worse, they cannot decide whether to make elaborate, concept-heavy progressive rock or no-holds-barred, balls-out rock. However, most Trail of Dead fans would tell you that this indecision is the reason for the band's small but dedicated fanbase - because, instead of sticking to the one style, Trail of Dead bounce between the two with impressive and seemingly effortless ease. Of course, the reality doesn't always match the vision when it comes to their music (look to 2006's So Divided
for a clear example of the band's attempts at mixing prog with poppier tendencies going badly wrong), but it was hard not to be impressed when the four-piece slid with seeming ease from the 2011 prog-fest of Tao of the Dead
to the blisters-on-my-fingers rock of Lost Songs
in less than two years' time. Which brings us to the present day; having seemingly satisfied their noisy, angry side last year, Trail of Dead have returned to the more drawn-out and conceptual tendencies of Tao of the Dead
, and with a direct sequel EP no less.
"Tao of the Dead Part I" consisted of the first 11 tracks of Trail of Dead's 2011 release, each one flowing into the next to form a cohesive whole of nearly forty minutes, whereas "Tao of the Dead Part II", also known as "Strange News From Another Planet", was a 16-minute epic made up of five distinct movements. The newest EP follows the formula of Part II, containing only one song of nearly twenty minutes that sometimes builds to almost post-rock-esque climaxes featuring heavy percussion and fuzzy guitars, only to ebb back down to peaceful, abstract ambient sections. The piece was intended to be recorded in only three days by the band, and it shows; the synthesiser-heavy, extended jam sessions found in "Strange News" are gone, having been replaced by simple and repetitive yet strangely hypnotic sections, at some points featuring acoustic guitar or spoken word pieces. Take, for example, the build-up that starts at 4:27 in the song; after a relatively simple vocal-and-guitar section from Conrad, a basic repeating percussion beat takes the forefront while the guitars swirl and shimmer in the background, only to build to an explosive climax as Keely comes in with a monotone, almost incantation-like vocal melody.
This brings us to the most divisive aspect of the record, and arguably of the band in general - Conrad Keely's vocals. Fans would argue that his constantly out-of-key and whiny voice fits the music of the group, but then, critics would argue that his vocals are exactly that - out-of-key and whiny. Whatever your opinion on Keely's vocal talent (or lack of), "Tao of the Dead Part III" sees him at the top of his game, as he reaches for somewhat impressive falsetto notes that he hasn't really touched since "Witch's Web". Of course, Keely isn't the sole lead vocalist of the band, and Jason Reece deserves a mention in any conversation about the band for his gritty, powerful vocals (not to mention beautiful, poetic lyrics); but regrettably, he is nowhere to be heard on "Tao Part III". This should hardly come as a surprise, as his lead vocals were scaled back considerably once the band moved into proggier territory with So Divided
(since then he has mostly stuck to penning softer tunes such as "Luna Park" and "Ebb Away", at least until his punk rock tracks came back in force with Lost Songs
) but nevertheless the lack of even a short Reece section on "Tao Part III" (such as the surprisingly bright and pop-punky "A Strange Epiphany" movement in "Strange News") is sorely felt. In all fairness, though, it seems that the band are well aware of the distaste many have for Keely's vocals, and they counter it on "Tao Part III" with the addition of an ethereal female vocalist at 11:20 who first harmonises with Keely before taking over lead herself and weaving an otherworldly passage of beautiful harmonies over some tribal percussion.
It's invariable that fans will spend a lot of time comparing "Tao of the Dead Part III" to its previous two chapters and evaluating how each section stacks up. "Part III" is somewhat more experimental and forward-thinking than its predecessors, and this will undoubtedly earn it some mixed reactions. Having said that, everything that the fans love and have come to expect from the band is here (except, dammit, Jason Reece vocals) and it's hard to ask for more than that.