Album Review: ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead's 'Tao of the Dead'
As much as …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead has garnered a reputation as a neo-prog band, they’ve made one of the most modern-rockiest albums in their career in “Tao of the Dead.”
It’s an album in two sections: an 11-song concept set for A-side and five-song suite for the B-side. The theme is a gander down the valley of the shadow of death, in essence, as Conrad Keely reports what the Other Side may look like through a series of exhilations on death and primal screams that the Foos should fully consider before shining off that new album of theirs.
“Summer of All Dead Souls” – previewed here – has all the elements of a rock radio stomper, but simmers down abruptly to “Cover the Days Like a Tidal Wave” where our narrator asks “Are you lost, again?”. Apropos, as the swell ominously builds with the help of some space-age synths and the skronking urgency of what sounds like 30 guitars.
A quartet of good ideas under three minutes makes a “Dead” processional, including the militaristic “Fall of the Empire” and surprisingly sunny “The Wasteland,” pushing those vocals way, way up front.
Those “Ebb Away” rumbles from the bass and the low strings on electric will bring you back to the mid-‘90s, when Smashing Pumpkins had not yet made “Machina” and Sonic Youth was still on DGC. The band then shines things off to the strains of repeating '70s-psych patterns, a pageant of all their misfit toys giving one last howl with the help of producer Chris “Frenchie” Smith.
Keely sometimes gets tangled up in the fantastical vocabulary that’s the heart of the “Tao” concept, but it’s at the very least entertaining. It teaches and reaches, the story turning on itself like the Dead are the villains and the goodly ghosts.
You can tell the Trail of Dead doesn’t take the whole thing too seriously, by naming its theme “Pure Radio Cosplay” twice on the first set – cosplaying being role-playing, a costume, a “pure radio” wink at the very gall of a concept composition to begin with, all in the key of D.
This, all before the unfortunate incident of “Part II.”
Side Two of this drama, titled “Strange News From Another Planet,” which the band wanted consumed in a 16-minute whole. There’s some chattering samples and the return of a half-hearted “theme” -- it’s not a good idea, especially after we just got off the Side One rollercoaster. “Know Your Honor” has melody to last it at least two minutes, but the lack dynamic doesn’t carry it right into the next shoegazey movement, “Rule By Being Just.” It meanders without punch – surprising, coming from producer Chris Coady (Beach House, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) -- and takes the wholesale aesthetic of “Part I” and spins it without the same ache.