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Reviews: ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead's Tao of the Dead

...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead's Tao of the Dead

Newsflash: Tao of the Dead is …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead’s fourth LP since their heralded 2002 LP Source Tags & Codes.This fact is surprising because I’ve treated each of their previous three LPs as a chance to properly follow up ST&C’s majestic blast of ordered chaos, making it seem like Groundhog Day, 2004. The resulting disappointment with each record is my fault as much as the band’s; at some point, I had to accept that Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway* is as much of an influence on them as Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation and adjust my expectations accordingly. That point occurred with my first glimpse of the album cover for Tao of the Dead, a manga-meets-Super-Nintendo-meets-fantasy-novel design by frontman Conrad Keely. (The package also includes a graphic novel.) There’s no doubting the group’s prog-rock intentions when you wonder, “Is that Starfox on the cover?” The ST&C Trail of Dead is gone, no question about it.

This realization took much longer than it should have. Half of Trail of Dead’s ST&C line-up has since departed, with bassist Neil Busch departing for “severe health problems” in 2004 prior to the release of Worlds Apart and guitarist Kevin Allen leaving the group prior to Tao of the Dead. They went from having Keely and Jason Reece switch off drumming duties to having two drummers and a keyboard player in their six-person line-up circa So Divided to a freshly pruned four-piece for Tao. They went from smashing their equipment on stage with an independent label budget (i.e. nothing) to smashing their equipment every night on stage with Interscope’s funding (which turned their destructive tendencies into mere habit) to smashing their former major label. They went from having three songwriters trading off lead vocals (Keely, Reece, and Busch) to one dominating the albums (Keely). Their album covers have featured the history of human warfare, a Final Fantasy-esque female face, a World of Warcraft-aping airship, and an intricate pen drawing that is the end-all, be-all of high-school notebook sketches. They founded their own label, Richter Scale Records, but partnered with Universal. This history is filled with contradictions, resets, new hope, The Phantom Menace, and a towering stack of Yes albums. It would make a thoroughly entertaining episode of Pitchfork: Behind the Music.

It does not, however, provide a solid foundation for Trail of Dead’s endless ambition. Not enough has been made of Neil Busch and now Kevin Allen’s departures from the band. In addition to losing Busch’s songs (most notably Madonna’s “Mark David Chapman”), they lost the push back-and-forth between Keely, Reece, and Busch for slots on the album. They lost accountability, since I seriously doubt the group’s third substitute bassist is going to put his foot down** about the unnecessary “Pure Radio Cosplay (Reprise)” making the cut for Tao of the Dead. Most of all, they lost that sense of instrumental coherence that makes ST&C so replayable. Scott Tennent’s 33 1/3 book on Slint’s Spiderland (an excellent volume I’ll review in full one of these days) explains how the group spent an entire summer rehearsing four songs from Spiderland, five days a week, six-to-eight hours a day. I have no doubt that such laborious diligence helped perfect Slint’s material. I can’t claim to know Trail of Dead’s rehearsal schedule or writing process, but if the proof is in the pudding, the switch from natural, proven dynamics to jarring shifts that have been smoothed over with production touches might indicate less time rehearsing the songs and more time tinkering with their demos on a computer, cutting and pasting pieces together. Think of how many potentially great post-ST&C songs have been submarined by an inexplicable or unnecessary part. My two favorites, “Will You Smile Again” and “Isis Unveiled” (helped by a video edit!), each start with focus and inspiration***, but veer off course rather wildly. Pulling in prog-rock influences shouldn’t mean the absence of editiorial control, should it?

If you’re looking for cohesion—the molecules between pieces fitting properly—then Tao of the Dead is a marked improvement over So Divided and The Century of the Self. If you’re looking for coherence—those pieces making sense as a whole—good luck with this jumble of grand melodies, periodically nimble riffs, shout-along choruses, boggy, synth-laden bridges, spoken-word pretention, acoustic whimsy, and distorted bluster. The rock-opera scope of Worlds Apart and The Century of the Self remains, but the links between scenes have been lost on the cutting room floor. Tao of the Dead is an epically long 52 minutes, with the final 16 of those covered by the five-part pastiche “Strange News from Another Planet.” If you pare it down to the good ideas and sturdy songwriting, there’s a 20-minute EP waiting to be released. And I mean “released” in the “from the clutches of the evil warlock high atop Mount Doom” sense of the word.

Why bother, you ask? For the same reason I’ll watch virtually any mediocre-to-crappy action/sci-fi movie. If they pull it off, it’s surprisingly entertaining; if they don’t pull it off, it’s bound to be a spectacular failure. That’s the silver lining of unattainable ambition. I’d rather face it than middling aims meeting modest success. Maybe the next Trail of Dead album will feature both cohesion and coherence to go along with its inevitable space-opera album art. Maybe there will be a perfect film adaptation of Dune. Who knows!

* A necessary footnote: The Trail of Dead’s website has annotated lyrics for most of their albums. The annotation for Worlds Apart’s “A Classic Arts Showcase” mentions that “[t]he song riff, in 7/8 time signature, was inspired by—if not completely plagiarized from—the Genesis song ‘Dance on a Volcano.’” I saw this after coming up with my chosen prog-rock point of comparison.

** Lyric annotation footnote #2: The annotation for “Crowning of a Heart” (from The Secret of Elena’s Tomb EP) mentions, “Keely fought to have it included on the album, but by that time the band was exhausted and the idea was received with very little enthusiasm.” Willing to bet this doesn’t happen anymore.

***Lyric annotation footnote #3: The final one, I swear! I was amused to read that the opening riff of “Will You Smile Again”—one of the best things the group’s ever done—was inspired by Jesus Christ Superstar, but it makes perfect sense now.

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On Nov 3, 12:28 PM Jesse said,