…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead: buyer’s guide

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Credit: (C) Joe Rayment. Licence: cc-by-2.5-ca

…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead celebrated the 20th anniversary of their third album in Manchester last week; Getintothis’ Matthew Eland delves into the rest of their back catalogue.

Since their formation in Texas in the early nineties, it’s been quite a ride for …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead.

They were the instrument-smashing next-Nirvana, emerging at the turn of the millennium when intelligent guitar bands with post-hardcore and post-rock leanings such as At The Drive-In and Mogwai were briefly in vogue.

Then came the infamous Pitchfork 10/10; and, following that, an extraordinary major-label nosedive, a notorious tour with Audioslave, and a return to the underground after years of being proclaimed the next big thing.

In truth, they never stood a chance. Too weird, too nerdy, occasionally snide and frequently prone to collapse. Nevertheless, they have a back catalogue as intriguing and varied as the ebb and flow of their career: a tribute to turbulence, to the wash and wake of a band committed to sailing around – and sometimes straight through – a multitude of setbacks.

Perhaps that’s why they’ve carried on after the spotlight has moved along, when other acts might have called it a day. Or maybe it was the advice of a tarot card reader, who advised around the time of So Divided that they stick together, as their music would one day take over the world.

This prediction hasn’t quite come true; but then again, maybe they were just a fan.

9. Tao of the Dead (2011)

We’ve got to start somewhere. Tao of the Dead is actually Conrad Keely’s favourite; it’s the one where they had the most fun and the one that was the quickest to make, where they stripped back down to a four piece and cast off the shackles of years of excess.

For all that, it’s also their most baroque, proggy effort – it can be listened to as two parts or as 16 different movements. As such, it’s disappointing that there aren’t more standout moments.

A couple of tracks come close: Fall of the Empire starts off like The XX and leads into M83 theatrics; Spiral Jetty, with its popping synth line and Mars Volta-esque solo, also impresses. It’s a shame then that it’s their The Who-derivative Pure Radio Cosplay that serves as the main refrain. Having a callback to seventies classic rock doesn’t quite seem in keeping with all the genre-bending on offer elsewhere.

8. Lost Songs (2012)

After the grandiosity of some of their mid-noughties albums, Lost Songs was intended as a callback to their rabble-rouser days. The problem was that, in typical ToD fashion, they failed before they even began by giving the album a title that made it sound like a compilation.

That isn’t to say that the record is bad, but it’s a worrying development for a band with such progressive leanings to lean so heavily on nostalgia, an accusation not disproved by the recent anniversary tours for Source Tags & Codes and Madonna.

That said, the opening salvo of Open Doors, Pinhole Cameras and Up To Infinity is as relentless as ToD get, barely pausing for breath as the DC punk riffs come thick and fast.

There’s also more outward-looking lyrical variation on this one, with subjects such as photography, student debt, the Battle of Teutoburg forest, bumping into ex-band members (of which they had several by this point) and, erm, Game of Thrones being addressed. Up To Infinity is about the Syrian civil war, Conrad being ahead of most in predicting how bad it would get.

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7. The Century of Self (2009)

It’s about time we mentioned Conrad Keely’s artwork. This one is illustrated with the singer’s intricate biro drawings. It shows a young boy in a cabinet of curiosities – an oriental Kunstkammer, perhaps – looking nervously at a skull and an hourglass as an inquisitive stuffed owl peers over his shoulder. Their visual style is part of the band’s appeal, a small but not insignificant reason for their longevity.

Named after the Adam Curtis documentary, The Century of Self had a gestation that was tumultuous even for ToD’s standards. The producer held the master tapes hostage, and the band struggled with the step down from major to independent.

That said, there’s no sound of this in the music. They love a good intro, and The Giants Causeway is one of their bombastic best. Isis Unveiled – a fire-and-brimstone epic about a jealous god and a heretical early Christian sect called the Marcionites – unravels from a crusading fast-paced number into ever more broken and spiteful guitar stabs.

Bells of Creation is like the start of a great nautical voyage; you can almost hear flags thwapping between the piano strikes. Fields of Coal steers that ship close to musical theatre, but Conrad’s declaration that “if they break you, don’t let them run away/With your soul” and his dreams of being an alien is a welcome antidote to the despondency of the previous two records. Insatiable (Two) features an unlikely Yeasayer cameo.

This one also feels like something of an ending. Long-term member Kevin Allen left not long after to deal with “some serious substance-related problems”.

6. IX (2014)

The band’s most recent album is also their most soulful. Composed while they were obsessed with The War on Drugs, IX was initially intended to consist entirely of instrumental tracks until the producer suggested some vocal melodies.

After that, the lyrics “just materialised”, according to Conrad. They mainly concern his ex and his son, and perhaps it’s this weighty subject matter (as well as the relative lack of riffs) that accounts of the maturity of the band at this point.

The corrugated skulk of A Million Random Digits and the tortured anthemics of The Lie Without a Liar add a few more strings to the band’s bow, but the layering and building intensity of How to Avoid Huge Ships is the highlight; a callback to the scope of Worlds Apart, and a powerful counterpoint to their Tao of the Dead prog.

5. …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead (1998)

Back in 2008, Trail of Dead had no baggage, none of the expectations or outside interference that they’d spend their career wrestling with. They were just four knobheads with a silly name and no greater motive than to make as dynamic and exciting an album as possible.

Their self-titled debut is a prefect distillation of that spirit. There’s not an ounce of fat. The youthful energy of their live show is perfectly captured, and there are plenty of subtler moments hinting at future directions. It’s hard to think of a subsequent time when they sounded as unified – as much of a gang – than here.

Prince with a Thousand Enemies comes close to At the Drive-In, while Ounce of Prevention is Hot Snakes bank-robbery getaway music. Novena Without Faith, meanwhile, owes more to early shoegaze, with its whispered Jason Reese lead vocal and 8.24 minute runtime.

Gargoyle Waiting, another Reece effort, switches effortlessly between high-octane noise and laid-back swagger, and ends with floating, ambient harmonics, while Half of What is a cousin of one of the crossover hits from Source Tags & Codes.

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4. Madonna (1999)

This is the one that kicked things off for the band, the one that got them into Europe and the UK. It was recorded whenever they could sneak time in with the producer, usually in the middle of the night.

Some of the tracks have an aspect of that piratical ferver, especially Mistakes and Regrets; perhaps the quintessential ToD tune, with its with intricate My Bloody Valentine guitar-picking contending with messy punk.

A Perfect Teenhood is another accelerated rush of blood, with a full aerial assault ending as Conrad’s rather profane vocal chant slowly flanges out and back to a backdrop of…well, we’re not entirely sure what, the sheening crystal splintering of the fortress of solitude, maybe.

They save the best to last with Sigh Your Children, another foreshadowing of the radio-friendly anthemics to come.

3. So Divided (2006)

It was slated on release. It appeared in shops with little to no fanfare. It has, by far, the worst artwork not only of a ToD album but of any other band you care to name.

And yet, So Divided is, on the sly, one of their best. Conrad has agreed, saying that each song “is like a different band from somewhere else”…which maybe isn’t the most stellar recommendation, but despite the lyrical gloom you can hear the enjoyment of a band being given free reign to do whatever they want on the company dollar.

Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory is an exquisite, piano-led Guided by Voices cover. Naked Sun is a bluesy solar stomp. The title track is like an Oasis tune being sabotaged by Meatloaf on his motorbike.

It’s on this record that the band channelled their frustrations by indulging their most eclectic influences. See Conrad singing “caught in a stasis, feel like I’ve wasted all this time” to a background of agitated Tahitian percussion (supplied by Pat Mastelotto of King Crimson) and twisting piano scales.

This track was written after a disastrous tour with Audioslave where they got booed every night, an event that also inspired Eight Day Hell, a cod-Beach Boys rip with all the requisite barbershop harmonies, and lyrics about about playing each night “to a house full of neds who are wanting us dead”.

2. Source Tags & Codes (2002)

It seems odd to think it now, but Interscope really did give this lot $150K to record an album. The band note on their website that this would have bought you a decent-sized house in Austin at the time.

They also note that this album represents the sound of a band trying to decide who the primary songwriters were. Indeed, bassist Neil Busch makes some rare appearances, taking lead vocal duties on Baudelaire (featuring a slight Elvis inflection) and Monsoon. Days of Being Wild, with its triumphant breakdown, is the best Jason Reece contribution, and the whispering spoken-word sections he’s prone to deploy are kept to a minimum.

Conrad’s contributions are equally strong, with the wistful cello and urgent paradiddles of How Near How Far and the Sonic Youth-stylings of Another Morning Stoner being particular highlights.

Relative Ways is the sound of a band trying to pull itself together as things are getting out of control, and the title track is an elegiac ode to crazy schemes and adventure. In some ways this was the band’s career high, although one gets the impression that the group would vigorously deny this.

Either way, Busch would leave the band not long after this album, and some might argue that the resolution of this conflict was to the band’s detriment. Then again, it did lead to the creation of our top choice…

1. Worlds Apart (2005)

Overly ambitious, grandiose, occasionally brilliant, and occasionally completely crackers: Worlds Apart is, as the band themselves say, their “best and worst” album.

It starts powerfully with Ode to Isis, a dramatic instrumental starting with muted staccato and ending with violently bereft screaming, one of several references to the Egyptian god in the band’s back catalogue. It’s kind of appropriate to the band’s luck that the fullness of time would give the name of their talisman a slightly different connotation.

Will You Smile Again is the band’s best tune. There. I’ve said it. It builds and builds with orchestral fury, burning up until there’s only a plaintive saxophone left. And then: a hammering heartbeat, picking itself up and getting back to work.

It’s supposed to be about Brian Wilson, picking up his pen and remembering “all the bad dreams not far from reality”, but it’s also very appropriate to the struggles of the band playing it.

That this is followed by Worlds Apart is one of the craziest acts of self-sabotage ToD have ever committed. The sheer anger and vitriol is something to behold: “Blood and death, we will pay back the debt, For this candy store of ours.”

It sounds like the guitars and the drums are from two completely unrelated tunes. And yet, you have to admire the sheer chutzpah of including it; a merciless attack on privilege, MTV cribs, and evangelical Christians fundraising on TV; a ruthless evaluation of the state of America as seen through the prism of 9/11.

One wonders if there’s an updated version to be heard. The current US administration has caused big problems for Conrad Keely, not least when uncertainty over his immigration status led to the cancellation of a 2017 tour.

The Summer of ’91 is a return to safer ground, and an opportunity for the classically trained Conrad Keely to play a piano-led tune. It’s all about the dangers of nostalgia, of looking back (like we’re, ahem, doing here) instead of forward. Caterwaul and The Rest Will Follow are returns to the radio hits of Source Tags & Codes.

All White is the tale of Conrad going to the opera, getting bladdered, and ending the evening talking to uncle Hugh on the big white telephone.

It seems a fitting metaphor for the album as a whole, and perhaps even for the band’s career: going out in your finest, with dreams of excellence and hopes of perfection, and not quite getting there.

But the old saying is true: it’s the journey that matters, not the destination.

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