Words. Photos. Will Sellers. Graphic. J Thomas Codling.
Seemingly neverending touring rock & roll Texan foursome ...and You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead rolled into southern California; promoting their latest release, Tao of the Dead, and shattered the Glass House in Pomona along the way.
Despite multi-instrumentalists Conrad Keely and Jason Reece being the only two remaining members of the original lineup, the veteran band, who have been active for about a decade and a half now, returned to the basics by performing as a four-piece group as opposed to recent tours where they had as many as five or six members on stage at once. It doesn't hurt that new drummer Jamie Miller has the skill of five percussionists (seeing how Trail of Dead used to perform with two drummers simultaneously), while new bassist Autry Fulbright II held his own alongside mainstays Reece and Keely, who both look as young and energetic in 2011 as they did the first time I saw them live way back in 2002.
Impressively, Trail of Dead kicked off their set last week with the 16-minute closing movement from Tao of the Dead, titled "Tao of the Dead Part II: Strange News from Another Planet". Other songs they played from Tao, such as "Weight of the Sun" or "The Spiral Jetty", manage to pack in some massive, anthemic choruses at much shorter song lengths.
After getting the solid new material out of the way, the band played some classics from their back catalogue, such as the sprawling "Will You Smile Again?" from 2005's Worlds Apart, which is truly an experience to hear live. Reece's fellow World Apart cut "Caterwaul" also still sounded great, as did "How Near How Far" and "It Was There That I Saw You" from 2002 masterpiece Source Tags and Codes.
It's always a welcome sight to see that Trail of Dead are coming to town and are still going strong. Their catalog of albums is essentially flawless and packed with unforgettable songs that should have made them hugely popular in a different world with better taste in the arts. Below is a brief career retrospective of Trail of Dead's work (along with grades for each album), each album being very well worth anybody's time:
...and You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead (1998)
...and You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead's 1998 self-titled debut album proves that these young Texans were not one of those bands that started off with a smaller sound that eventually got bigger and bigger. Forty minutes of music is spread out over eight songs and range from the spiraling and evolving seven-minute piece "Gargoyle" to one of Trail of Dead's wildest punk songs in "Prince With a Thousand Enemies". Trail of Dead's first album definitely signaled the start of something fresh and unique while never sounding like a typical debut.
Listen to ...and You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead track "Ounce of Prevention":
The year after their debut, Trail of Dead followed up with Madonna Madonna was the first Trail of Dead album that caught my attention, and any album with songs that sound as revolutionary and electric as "Mistakes and Regrets" and "Totally Natural" will be very influential on a high school freshman like I was at the time. The band's young and angry sound got them plenty of buzz at the time and they soon left indie label Merge for Interscope, but not before gifting the music world with Madonna and its songs such as "Aged Dolls", both majestic (with its classicist piano and strings) and monstrous (with its standard Jason Reece snarl). Listen to it below:
Source Tags and Codes (2002)
...and then in 2002 came Source Tags and Codes.
Source Tags and Codes' level of prestige and quality is so high that it's basically controversial. It was infamously branded with a 10.0 review from Pitchfork, yet infuriatingly got not much help from Interscope's promotion department. I very clearly remember hearing "Another Morning Stoner" played on Los Angeles rock radio behemoth KROQ sometime in February or March 2002 as deejay Jed the Fish's "Catch of the Day" (meaning it would likely be played that one time on that one day and never again) and calling the radio station later that day to request it and the operator then telling me he had never heard of it and the album was not at the radio station.
Source Tags and Codes is one of the greatest albums ever made, yet should definitely be given an equal chance to be heard today as all of their other albums. In fear of understatement, it IS indeed a shining cosmic masterpiece of an album that, if truly heard, has the power to make any listener curl up into a fetal position on the floor and bawl their eyes out at its pristine beauty. That probably won’t happen the on first listen, as it’s one of those albums that really comes together as a whole and deserves to be listened to in one sitting rather than split up into various mp3s.
Here's Source Tags and Codes' "How Near, How Far":
The Secret of Elena's Tomb (2003)
After delivering quite the statement with Source Tags and Codes, Trail of Dead's next release was the EP The Secret of Elena's Tomb in 2003. This unique EP saw the band experiment with a variety of sounds on each respective track. "All Saints Day" very much resembled Source Tags and Codes, "Counting Off the Days" is as close to an acoustic ballad as the band had ever gotten up to that point, and "Intelligence" is a surprisingly rowdy dance-punk song. Put it all together, and The Secret of Elena's Tomb is a very underrated EP and one of the best uses of limited EP running time I've ever heard.
Listen to "All Saints Day":
Worlds Apart (2005)
2005's Worlds Apart had the tough job of being the album that had to follow Source Tags and Codes. In this light, it was unfairly panned as a weaker follow-up that seemed to be filled with more radio-friendly material. This assumption was very far from the truth. While this album doesn't quite have the grade scale of Source Tags and Codes, the quality of songwriting is still extremely high, and in retrospect, still superior to most other music released in 2005. "Will You Smile Again?" contains one of the best extended opening to any song I've ever heard and still gets plenty of plays from me even as a lot of hard rock music has sounded stale in recent years. "Summer of '91", "The Rest Will Follow", and "Let It Dive" are a trio of songs that truly define the year 2005 for me and are as good as the glowing nostalgic feeling I get whenever they come on.
Check out "Let It Dive" here:
So Divided (2006)
So Divided saw the band get back into writing lengthier songs like its title track and "Life", with its Bonham-esque stomp. Trail of Dead's 2006 album contains perhaps the band's greatest single song "Wasted State of Mind". So Divided came out quickly after Worlds Apart and was the final album they released for Interscope. If it was an album they quickly released to get out of a contract, then it still doesn't sound rushed at all. The band managed to find time to experiment somewhat with the folk rock ballad "Witch's Web" and by covering Guided By Voices song "Gold Heart Mountaintop Queen Directory". The band rarely (if ever) plays songs from this album live, which is a shame because the quality of songs on So Divided are too high to be disowned by the band.
Listen to the incredible "Wasted State of Mind" below:
The Century of Self (2009)
Trail of Dead took some time after So Divided to work on 2009's The Century of Self, which they eventually released on their own Richter Scale Records, free from Interscope. New label, same gameplan: The Century of Self is yet another solid album full of towering jams such as "Bells of Creation" and "Isis Unveiled". Lots of quiet-loud-quiet moments on these songs ("Pictures of an Only Child" and "Insatiable (Two)" come to mind) resemble Trail of Dead's earliest work with fantastic results.
"Pictures of an Only Child":
Tao of the Dead (2011)
Now seven full-length albums in, Trail of Dead continues to speed right along and still bring fresh ideas to the table. Tao of the Dead is the most conceptual and experimental album yet from a band who already have a diverse and wide-ranging sound. This rock opera-like album is split into two halves. The first is a steady flow of relatively short pieces (the best being "The Spiral Jetty" and "Cover the Days Like a Tidal Wave") that make up 'Part I: Tao of the Dead', while the second half was released as one 16-minute multi-sectional piece ('Part II: Strange News From Another Planet'). There's a lot going on during both half of Tao of the Dead that you'll be coming back to it again and again to dissect all of the little movements that make up this great record.
"Cover the Days Like a Tidal Wave":