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And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead
The Century Of Self Daniel Ross , February 25th, 2009 08:52

Many concluded that …Trail Of Dead's last two releases were evidence of a band lost at sea. Both Worlds Apart and So Divided, similar in title and sound, were blusterous affairs, and apparently subject to occasional label interference. Singles needed to be strong, but the band seemed so desperate to expand their sound after their money-spinning third LP Source Tags & Codes that both records were messy at best. Recorded live with no overdubs, The Century Of Self is their most accessible release since Source Tags…, and certainly the best since then in terms of energy, vim and expansive thought.

‘Giants Causeway’ lumbers into life with a piano pedals and adjoining ensemble rock that would’ve sat beautifully on an early Queen album. Far from high camp, though, it’s played straight and with vigorous intent. The live playing immediately creates tension; we are privy to a performance of immense magnetism from beginning to end. Rolling into the crashing waves of ‘Far Pavilions’, the band announces itself vocally with a gusto not heard for some time. Where previously they may have relied on nuance or gesture, they now use sheer force and contrasting deftness. Pulverised vocal harmonies eventually yield to soft synths and choral backing, building and frothing until we finally revisit the initial themes. It’s simple, but extremely satisfying.

Relentlessly pushing forward is the only option when you’ve accrued this much energy, so Trail Of Dead elect to continue to rock the fuck out like it’s a debut album. From the glitz and pomp of ‘Isis Unveiled’, it’s plain to see that those more progressive works of recent years have had an irremovable effect on the band’s sound and, in particular, their guitar work. While it’s always been frenetic and a basis for melody, it’s yet to be more satisfying than the galloping main riff here. For the most part and until its manic “oh-oh-oh” climax, ‘Halcyon Days’ finally calms things down, utilising contrasts like musicians really should. Elevating noise levels and tautness ‘til near-explosion, the only way to satisfy is to either explode or deflate, and it’s a deflation that's chosen.

The aggressive, joyful vocal harmonies on ‘Fields Of Coal’ provide the mid-session entertainment, with sheer vitality buoying things along just as much as the circulating pianos and helicoptering double-drums, proof that trying to consciously write singles on the last couple of albums has done Trail Of Dead no harm. In ‘Inland Sea’ we find the centrepiece, we “prepare to face the old world”, and in doing so reach zeniths unmatched at any point in the band’s career. It’s almost romantic in scope, chameleonic in execution and finishes with an ingenious ritardando climax that’s released at exactly the right moment.

If there are any surplus numbers (and there barely are), it’s the slower, more ponderous affairs. ‘Luna Park’ isn’t perfect, outstaying its welcome despite its inviting unison piano and acoustic guitar motifs and cooed words. The following ‘Pictures Of An Only Child’ essentially performs the same idea an awful lot better, jittery and restless in its hush, but never frightened to expand and contract. Elsewhere, the child-like melodies and indie-pop guitar solos of ‘Ascending’ sparkle, but the hasty album conclusion of ‘An August Theme’ and ‘Insatiable Two’ don’t quite provide the cataclysmic ending suggested by the first act. Though the vocal harmonies on the closer are sweet and mellow, there’s not enough substance to warrant the early exit. It’s like losing a sneeze.

So the grandiose finds a mate in fury, and Trail Of Dead’s confusing (for some) previous form finally forms focus, now a clear schematic rather than a cloudy impression. The violence of early releases finally sits alongside their massive ambition and is controlled for the most part, resulting in an album of balancing acts, genius construction and well-placed fireworks. It finishes on a slight whimper, sadly, but what remains is that …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead could well have crafted the first album in a period of new focus and importance for them.