Let's face it. The 2005 and 2006 releases from ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Worlds Apart and So Divided (respectively), sucked.
Perhaps future music scholars will treat them more kindly. It's possible that fan expectations based on the epic brilliance of the band's 2002 Source Codes & Tags were just too high. Or, then again, maybe the pointlessly ambitious, bloated, artsy-fartsy songs truly were as bad as the band's ardent followers thought.
Whatever the case, the band had its work cut out for it if it wanted to regain the trust of a listenership that thought the band had lost its way. And, as such, most longtime fans will be approaching Trail of Dead's just-released The Century of Self with a heavy amount of skepticism—if they give it a chance at all.
But skepticism be damned; the album's a powerful return to form, with several moments of greatness. The band hasn't completely ditched the keyboards that plagued the previous two efforts, but instead, it now uses them in a far more complementary pairing with the melodic maelstrom of oddly tuned guitars, shouted choruses and pounding drums that define the band at its best. In fact, the only possible knock on the disc is that, at times, it almost sounds too much like Source Codes & Tags—right down to the instrumental interludes.
Perhaps no release from the band could ever again match the unexpected wallop of Source Codes, but The Century of Self, released just this past week, has at least recaptured the energy that created the band's breakout release.
Jason Reece, who co-founded the group with Conrad Keely in 1994, is forthright about the band's desire to get back to its earlier sound. In fact, he welcomes the comparison to Source Codes.
"That's great," he says, speaking over the phone from a private Spin magazine performance's sound check in New York City. "In a way, we wanted to revisit parts of our history and find a way to not rehash, but sort of bring everything together in whatever we've done in our history."
And to do so, Trail of Dead did things the old-fashioned way—which, it turns out, is pretty simple.
"We wanted to return to loud guitars and playing live in a room and have that human feel to the music," Reece says. "The last two [records] were very much studio creations. We were trying to experiment with building tracks from the drums first, which is very Brian Eno-esque. This time around, we sat in a room, turned up our amps and played very loud."
Reece downplays the fact that this return to form comes on an indie label—the band's own—after a stint on the Interscope Records roster, but he does acknowledge that there was some pressure from the major label to put out unit-moving hits, even if it was unspoken.
"Their mentality is, 'What is going to be a hit?'" he says. "I don't think we ever thought on that level. We were more concerned with making full albums, something you would listen to on a road trip."
Reece says that mentality stems from the band's love of classic albums such as Fugazi's Repeater and Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation—albums one listens to from start to finish rather than as a hit single or two plus filler. And in trying to create such a disc, the band has succeeded. The lyrics on The Century of Self, named for a similarly titled BBC documentary series, reflect on the result of a narcissistic age of consumerism, Reece says. The goal was to create a cinematic tone, to transport the listener to a daydream or semi-conscious state. Reece compares it to one of cinema's greatest head-trips, Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain.
"You know, they show these different places, these crazy worlds they live in, and the characters get together and go on this quest," Reece says. "They find out—" [spoiler alert!] "—the truth is absurd. For us, it would be similar."
So what would be the comparable moment on Century, that moment when the camera pulls back and reveals what this is really all about?
"It's the last song, 'Insatiable Two,'" Reece says with a laugh. "It's funny, because the lyrics are about this endangered monkey living on a mountain and just looking on as the world destroys itself. Kind of a weird, optimistic—yet un-optimistic—song."