(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Recording review - ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, Lost Songs (2012)

Raging against apathy, an album for the times

…And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead are hard to pigeonhole. That’s true of many bands, but Trail of Dead makes it harder because they’re adept at juxtaposing hardcore punk thrash against melodic post rock jams, zooming from dense peaks of noisy assault to sparse sections of delicate psychedelia. Their more recent projects have been sculpted with a finely attuned sense of dynamics. Lost Songs still balances some soft with the loud, but it’s much less exploratory than Tao of the Dead or The Century of Self, their last two albums.

Instead of a heady mind trip or an evocative prog rock story, Lost Songs is a different flavor of concept album. Co-founder Conrad Keely has identified global politics and a reaction to apathy as the album’s themes. But rather than a disengaged, intellectual approach, Trail of Dead takes inspiration from bands like Fugazi and Public Enemy to focus on expressing strong emotional responses. Much of the album is steeped in righteous anger laced with an incoherent anguish. Reacting to an unjust world, they still have the resolve to face it down with punk rock intensity. Structurally, the music reflects a constant chaos under the surface, goading it to rise on a cathartic tide.

Lost Songs starts out heavy, catches its breath for a couple of songs, then builds to a climax with the punk punch of "Catatonic". While the album is front-loaded with fury and frustration, the band finishes out on a softer, optimistic tone that seems drained by the rage and exertion.

The first track, "Open Doors" quickly transforms from a percussion driven post-rock vibe into a frantic rush with thrashing drums and guitars. But the album really hits its stride with the next song, "Pinhole Cameras". The intro is a little off balanced, but the main groove is similar to "The Far Pavilions" from The Century of Self. It runs headlong with a persistent anxiety:
It makes me sorry
My pinhole camera
These photographs
Reveal no answers
The sonic space is packed; layers of guitar distortion and pounding drums threaten to bury the vocals. The bridge opens up the sound with a heavy bass line and some guitar shred. Then the tension breaks for an airy dynamic drop into a trippy dreaminess. A chorused and corroded guitar lays down a lead while the background is filled with ambient sounds of cymbal jangle and washes of guitar. The interlude passes and the last verse takes over to close the song.

The pace continues through the power punk/pop of "Up To Infinity", the dark pressure of "Opera Obscura", and the uptempo new wave of "Lost Songs". The first real relief comes with "Flower Card Games". The open, psychedelic looseness seems overdue, like a breath of cool air. The bass and simple guitar riff add a post punk moodiness that develops until it’s reminiscent of Jane’s Addiction’s sound on Nothing’s Shocking. Trail of Dead assembles the same kind of pensive bass groove, droning guitars, and echoed vocals that rise up to a near wail. This pause is short-lived, though, and the tempo picks up again after the last meandering notes fade away and the next track begins.

"Catatonic" tackles apathy head on:
I see dying in your palm
I see nothing in your eyes
I see torment in your past
I see boredom in your glass 
The sneering vocal recalls Green Day, along with the punk energy, but the music is richer with a background full of low grade chaos. The drums have the relentless drive of a twitching, restless leg. The bridge drops back to a simple guitar/drum line that’s eventually buried under a heap of noise. The angst and disdain remind me of Tommy’s "Smash the Mirror". The build up creates a sweet transition to the next track.

Where "Catatonic" tries to shock the listener out of apathy, "Awestruck" cajoles instead. The music kicks off with a mellow bass line. The droning vocal and lush guitars are a sharp contrast to the prickly walls of noise and heavy drumming throughout Lost Songs. The tone is cleaner and meditative. The chorus punches it up – “Get out!/ Get awestruck” – but the relative languor remains. As the song fills out, it climbs into an ecstatic indie rock naïveté. After the anger and anxiety, it’s a great palate cleanser.

While Lost Songs sacrifices some of the dynamic subtlety Trail of Dead often displays, it’s a powerful statement. In times like these, with unrest and threats around the world, it seems appropriate to rave and rage, even if we’re tempted into apathetic distraction.

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture)

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