Review Summary: It’s no Source Tags & Codes, and it’s certainly not the cluttered hit-or-miss of their later efforts, but The Century of Self is a fine achievement for a band in a potentially dangerous phase of their career.
Fiercely independent Austin, TX art-rock standbys …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead have been getting heaps of critical dirt thrown on them by zines and fans alike over the past several years, be it for their meandering prog adventures on record or their inexplicable onstage band feuds, and it came as a surprise to no one when major label Interscope finally dropped them in 2007. After throwing away the sizable amount of credibility 2002’s classic Source Tags & Codes and their awesome if rather long band name garnered them over the years, one would certainly expect The Century of Self to be a bit of a compromise to retrieve their lost audience, but although the out-of-left-field experimentalist urges and oddball genre exercises have departed, Trail of Dead remain as defiantly unique as ever.
I can safely say I was in the minority in my opinion of 2005’s Worlds Apart and 2006’s decidedly unhinged So Divided, records that I strongly felt to be “growers” the highest sort. Worlds was self-consciously grandiose and took the band’s prog ambitions to their logical peak, but the epic songwriting and style was intact. Divided took a bit longer to get used to, but although decidedly uneven, it had enough gems to continue to make Trail of Dead one of my favorite modern rock bands. They would have you think that The Century of Self is a “return to form,” but in all honesty it’s the logical next step in the band’s evolution, melding their prog tendencies and multi-layered noise assaults into an enjoyable post-rock stew.
Obligatory instrumental opener “Giant Causeway” begins the album with a burst of static before erupting into a distorted guitar solo accompanied by crashing drums and some heavy-handed piano playing. Trail of Dead is a band best listened to with the volume turned way up; when I say they play loud, I mean they are loud. The drone of feedback announces the first proper song of the collection, “Far Pavilions,” a song that does away with orchestral flourishes and launches straight into an up tempo punk roar. The duo of vocalists Conrad Keely and Jason Reece has long been one of Trail of Dead’s strongest points, and their interplay here is like a blast from the past.
It’s almost impossible for Trail of Dead to write a three-minute song, however, and the band’ compositional wankery is revealed right off the bat with “Far Pavilions”’ swelling bridge and the half a minute of white noise that ends the song. This comes with the territory with them, and in songs like “Far Pavilions” or the atmospheric multi-movement epic “Halcyon Days” it highlights what makes the Dead truly special; the ability to craft dramatic, theatrical works of genuine rock ‘n roll without coming off as ham-fisted egomaniacs. But fairly pointless interludes like piano ballad “Insatiable One” bore rather than entertain, and while fifty-second instrumental “An August Theme” sets up the closer rather grandly, it’s also totally unnecessary.
Then again, this is Trail of Dead, a band who invented a whole myth to explain their name and whose intricate album artwork could be mistaken for the Renaissance drawings of a rather disturbed individual. And when Keely desperately cries out “I have made you in my likeness / and I will make you a keeper of my garden world” or screams out “I heard the voice of God coming in the music / and I felt like Satan,” it becomes just another part of the majestic musical scenery rather than meaningless lines of bull***.
But it’s truly the music that separates The Century of Self from Trail of Dead’s more divisive musical explorations, a potent blend of fist-pumping guitars and thumping drums mixed with a dose of symphonic orchestration that doesn’t overpower the band’s roots. Keely has said that this is the first time the band has tracked everything live without overdubs in years, and it’s a welcome respite from the often jumbled messes of sound that characterized So Divided and, to a lesser extent, Worlds Apart.
The band’s trademark climax/breakdown juxtaposition has been polished to perfection here, from the threatening buildup of “Inland Sea” to the tug-of-war between galloping electric guitar and stomping chants on “Isis Unveiled.” Less polished than their previous two records, it’s Century’s noisy grit and unmitigated passion that make songs like the understated “Luna Park” highlights; the gorgeous, simple piano melody outlining Reece's plaintive vocals and a gradual conclusion that might be the best of its kind on the album.
Keely, normally the primary singer, has never been known for his strong voice, and many a Trail of Dead song has been derailed by pushing him forward too much. “Inland Sea” is dragged down by Keely’s slurred howl and on “Pictures of an Only Child” he is virtually unintelligible in the mix, two extremes that showcase the exception rather than the norm. For the most part, however, the band rides a comfortable equilibrium between the two, and on songs like the rollicking “Fields of Coal,” Keely’s exuberant verses are an essential ingredient.
It’s no Source Tags & Codes, an indie rock masterpiece if there ever was one, and it’s certainly not the cluttered hit-or-miss of their later efforts, but The Century of Self is a fine achievement for a band in a potentially dangerous phase of their career. Excellently produced and performed with a fervor that many have said has been missing from their oeuvre for too long, Trail of Dead’s latest should be a satisfying refresher course in the more destructive, noisier aspects of art rock.