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…And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead – [Album]

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Thursday, 12 March 2009

Over the last eleven years and five albums, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead has evolved from purveyors of the densest, most martially anthemic rock n' roll on the planet into thematic and delicately layered musical dramatists of a sort the world has never seen before. Released in 2005, Worlds Apart (their second album for Interscope) was the first and finest bowshot in the band's self-imposed redefinition of its parameters, but the real surprise was contained in the follow-up So Divided that appeared the following year; extending on the same path, Trail Of Dead illustrated that this new, incredibly tight and generally remarkable sound wasn't a fluke and it might in fact become the conventional practice for the band in the future.

The journey still wasn't over though. As The Century Of Self illustrates, there are more twists and turns to the Trail Of Dead.

“On the last two albums, we were really meticulous recording to click tracks and doing overdubs,”explained Trail Of Dead singer Conrad Keely of his band's creative wanderlust. “This time, we threw all that out. We learned the songs and all tracked [them] live.”

One might assume that, with such a declaration made, at least a partial return to the ways and means of the more rhythmically charged Sources, Tags And Codes [Interscope, 2002 -ed] might be on the brew, but such is not the case. Rather, The Century Of Self represents not a new direction again, but certainly a different approach which yields different, more sinewy and taut results. The Century Of Self opens with the funerary and languid piano pall of “The Giants Causeway” which instantly sends a chill up the spine of any long-time listener because the methodical delivery is just so alien for this band – after the last couple of albums, no one would be expecting such a comparatively unadorned introduction, and while listeners are still engaged by it, there is an element of confusion that accompanies this unhappy opener.

It doesn't last long. As soon as the band kicks the engines over and launches into “The Far Pavilions,” they emerge, spring forth with teeth bared and lay waste with an incendiary conglomeration of lean, unadorned guitars and dead-blow drums that anyone listening will feel in their chests but still beg for more. The most significant, noticeable difference between Century Of Self and Trail Of Dead's two previous albums (particularly in the early going) is the seemingly conscious avoidance of major label or glossy production; while every instrument and arrangement is tight as a snare, the effects are minimal and Keely's voice is totally bereft of processing. Even so, the songs don't lose one tooth of bite because the band is just playing incredibly hard; throttling their instruments  and creating naturally overdriven distortion with volume and attack rather than with stomp box effects.

To say that Trail Of Dead makes an impression early betrays a gift for understatement – “Isis Unveiled” hammers listeners with concussive, searing guitars which are matched by Jason Reece's drums while Keely wrings every drop of pathetic fallacy and catharsis out of his vocal until the whole thing winds down like a clock only to be reset and done again for Halcyon Days.” This pattern continues until the bells finally toll in “Bells Of Creation” and the band claps the leashes on to take a breath.

If this Century Of Self is an example of Trail Of Dead reveling in their independence and making the point that they're no label's product, they're making a convincing case; other band's that have exempted themselves from the major label machine recently (like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead) haven't had half the favorable result that Century Of Self expresses.

The second half of the record is where Trail Of Dead treads into fits of transcendence. Even as early as in “Fields Of Coal,” the band begins to sound an awful lot like they might be the new millennium's answer to the unbridled power, passion and compositional ebb and flow of Tommy-era Who as they ride  the cresting beauty of “Inland Sea,” the crushing elevation of “Ascending” and bracing strings of “An August Theme” but also contrast those tremendous designs with the delicate majesty of “Luna Park,” “Pictures Of An Only Child” and “Insatiable” (parts one and two). The contrast between the extremes of rock mania and classical composition that characterize The Century Of Self add another dimension to Trail Of Dead that has been hinted at but never before committed wholly to. For the first time, the band proves that they're capable of being more than simply a rock n' roll band; they have a gift for composition and when they place those extremes next to each other in such close quarters, they show that while their sound has always been anthemic and expansive in scope, they illustrate that it's bigger than anyone could have imagined here. There is a universality in the combination of these songs  that everyone who hears them will find breathtaking and empowering.

As good or great or remarkable a rock band as …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead might have been regarded before, The Century Of Self casts them onto a whole other playing field – apart from the acts that might have been considered their peers. This is the sort of album that every band hopes to make, but few actually achieve; The Century Of Self is a classic and career-defining opus of spectacular depth that no one plans to make, it happens by accident and all that a band can do afterward is sit, watch and try to gauge how far its influence reaches as decades pass.

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The Century Of Self is out now. Buy it on Amazon .

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