This Austin, Texas foursome lives up to its lengthy, fearsome name with awe-inspiring sonic ambition. Trail of Dead abandons indie rock formulas in favor of building awesome, precarious towers of sound that are like nothing you've ever heard before.
...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead comes over you like a sudden
storm. Their dense songs are full of rolling erratic thunder (drums, bass, and
more drums), slashing alarming lightning (guitars), relentless needle-sharp rain
(more guitars, anguished vocals), howling winds (effects), and sometimes even
violent, wanton destruction. The storm analogy might seem a little extreme, but
to describe T.O.D.'s swirling,
powerful sonic assault in conventional terms would fail to convey the extent to
which this music sweeps you away.
The band actually started in Hawaii of all places -- back in '94 -- when longtime friends
Jason Reese and Conrad Keely began playing together. The two soon moved to Olympia, Washington, where Reece drummed for Mukilteo Fairies, and then a few years later to Austin, Texas, where they first began performing as ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. There the duo
recruited bassist/effects man Neil Busch and guitarist Kevin Allen. The group quickly became renowned for its terrifying, anarchic live performances. By
1998, they had released a self-titled debut album on Trance Syndicate. In 1999,
they followed that up with Madonna, on Merge Records. The featured track from that album, "Mistakes and Regrets," is a powerful
maelstrom of ferocious end-of-the-world energy that translates cerebral anxiety into
visceral angst in fascinating ways.
On these releases T.O.D. established itself as the obvious successors to
Sonic Youth -- perhaps they're the band SY would have become if its
members had stayed young. Like so many Sonic Youth classics,
T.O.D.'s songs tend to start out brooding and quiet, only hinting at the
seething, boiling energy that lies beneath the surface, before building towards a series of
guitar epiphanies. The music is apocalyptic and angry in a way that seems to befit the
social climate of the new century.
In the new century, Trail of Dead made the major label plunge, moving over to IInterscope Records to release their Relative Ways EP, which saw the band delivering their signature sprawling paranoid post-punk with perhaps focus and confidence -- and higher production values -- than ever before; it's a surprisingly potent release, considering it clocks in at under 15 minutes. The EP whetted everyone's appetite for the band's third full-length, Source Tags and Codes, which astonishingly managed to be both one of the most eagerly awaited and highly regarded record of 2002, earning the band an audience more in proportion with its massive talents. The record will likely be regarded by history as a Daydream Nation for the rock generation of the early 21st Century. It's a masterpiece of epic shaping and mood, noteworthy in its intricate summoning of guitar-based anger, its deep and hypnotic ambient rock excursions, and its uncompromising emphasis on artistry, with strings, accordions, and various field recordings beautifully complementing the band's post-punk flourishes. "Relative Ways," which appeared on both the EP and the full-length, demonstrates Trail of Dead's ever-increasing songwriting acumen, offering a surprisingly cogent meditation on contingency and context.
In 2003, Trail of Dead got around to figuring out how you follow up a career-defining statement like Source Tags & Codes. They wound up with the transitional-sounding but still deeply satisfying Secret of Elena's Tomb; like many of TOD's EPs, it offers a glimpse into the band's creative process, showing the way they consolidate past success while moving in new directions. Much of the epic rock balladry of the last album can be found here in still more melodious form, as evidenced most clearly by the very pretty featured song "Crowning of a Heart," which is marked by a simple chiming guitar line, cellos, and breathy wordless choruses. But the band does sprinkle all sorts of experimental flourishes throughout the EP's 20 minutes, while also exploring the kind of electronics-spiked funky punk that's gained currency over the past years, as on the industrial-underpinned closer "Intelligence." Elena's Tomb leaves it unclear what the next TOD record might sound like, but it seems safe to expect this brilliant, unique, highly intelligent band to be around for a long time.