Review Summary: All work and no play makes Conrad a dull boy.
Despite the critical narrative that tends to divide up …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead’s discography between everything up to and including 2002’s mammoth Source Tags & Codes
, and everything after (often charitably described as, “well, at least they’re trying”), it would be disingenuous to state that the band’s path has not been an interesting one. Few could accuse the band of resting on their laurels as they traced a path through everything-and-the-kitchen-sink hedonism to reconstruction of their prog-rock destiny to a bare-bones return to their roots. I have always been willing to go to bat for even the band’s most lambasted works – I will defend So Divided’s
it experiments and that ill-advised Guided By Voices cover til I die, and The Century of Self
, whose meandering, imposing structures made for a nearly impenetrable album, remains one of the most underrated releases in their oeuvre. It’s a shame, then, that after 2012’s vibrant, vital Lost Songs
, the feeling that most easily comes to mind after listening to their latest release, the aptly titled IX
, is one I’ve rarely encountered in their work: boredom.
Put simply, the record’s bifurcated nature works against it. A track like opener “The Doomsday Book” is Trail of Dead at their most efficient – thundering drums, groaning guitars, Conrad Keely’s breathless, fantastical vocals writing blood on the page. It clocks in at a tidy three and a half minutes and little to no emotional punch. This paint-by-numbers approach tends to sink much of the first half of IX
, whether it be the faceless “A Million Random Digits” or the straining “Lie Without A Liar,” which wastes a great, anthemic chorus on a song that fails to differentiate itself from its surroundings. They play more like imitations of visceral Trail of Dead songs than the real deal, lacking that spark that made earlier Trail of Dead songs lash out through the speakers, that transform their live show into a chaotic pit. Drummer Jamie Miller is uniformly excellent here, but the pounding tom rhythm of “The Doomsday Book” becomes far less interesting the fourth time through, still set below those droning, ominous guitar riffs. And while Keely has improved immeasurably as a vocalist over the years – you can practically see the spit escaping his sneering mouth on “Jaded Apostles,” full of venomous desperation – what does a Trail of Dead fan need to do to get some more Jason Reece here"
On one hand, the band’s decision to transform the latter part of IX
into a more Tao of the Dead
-style art rock exhibition, beginning with that gorgeous, jangly riff to “The Dragonfly Queen,” is fitting for IX
as a whole. Positioned as almost a career retrospective, with the first half of the record denoting the band’s punk energy and more “rock”-oriented song structures and side B as a nod to their infatuation with lavish, string-infused prog, IX
fulfills its role admirably. IX’s
disservice to the band’s coarser side, then, is almost an insult, making it an exhausting effort to get to the true meat of the record that is the one-two punch of “How To Avoid Huge Ships” and “Bus Lines.” The former is the kind of slow burning instrumental Trail of Dead have been tinkering with since Source Tags & Codes
’ elaborate interludes and codas, perfected here through a relentless crescendo that stomps and crashes with every trick in the band’s orchestrated arsenal. Centerpiece “Bus Lines” is a song that, on an earlier Trail of Dead record, might have been fitted in clothes two sizes too big for it, bludgeoned to death with effects and string swells and layers upon layers of tracks; here, though, restraint rules out. In its expansive, hazy atmosphere, Trail of Dead lose nothing of their classically epic sound, and in Keely’s unusually introspective, intimate lyrics – the nostalgia of old travels, the simple joys of being with friends, homesickness – the band has crafted a song that doesn’t need to pull out all those studio stops to tug at the heart.
In a way, IX
is an odd inversion of the criticism that has so often attached itself to Trail of Dead. The robust rock songs fall flat, rarely achieving lift off from their rote, chugging origins, while even the band’s worst proggish impulses are neatly trimmed down into manageable four-minutes-and-under transitions and slapped with a typically Trail of Dead-ian name, a middle finger in disguise (“Like Summer Tempests Came His Tears,” indeed). Only closer “Sound Of The Silk” really marries the two histories of the band into the kind of complete performance that made Tao of the Dead
such a thrilling ride. That track leaves a perfectly acceptable Keely performance behind to ride reckless through an exotic drum breakdown through the streets of Calcutta before coming out the side with one of Reece’s patented spoken word pieces. Then the guitars rev up, Reece’s poem accelerates and catches fire before everything deteriorates into a raucous call-and-response between him and Keely, an effortless synthesis that has defined their best work for years and years, the theme of the album, and, yes, the band, too, clearer than ever: far better together than apart.