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...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead - The Century of Self

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Artist: ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead

Album: The Century of Self

Label: Justice

Review date: Feb. 19, 2009

Say what you will about …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, but the band has been nothing if not true to themselves. Their erratic path is well-documented by now: Bouncing from label to label in the late ’90s, the Austin group made a reputation for itself on incendiary live shows and dynamic full-lengths. Then came the major label detour to Interscope and the albatross of 2002’s Source Tags and Codes, followed by two successive albums of opulent prog-rock that alienated long-time fans and their label. In the wake of a bitter, drawn-out divorce with Interscope, …Trail of Dead returned to their home studio that Jimmy Iovine helped build and began work on their sixth album. A run of shows in New York featuring the original two-piece line-up of Conrad Keely and Jason Reece suggested that The Century of Self would be a return to their roots, an appeal to fans who could barely remember why they bought Madonna in the first place.

The good news is that this is, in fact, a throwback to their earlier work. The bad news is that it’s not throwback enough: We’ve returned to the days of 2005’s Worlds Apart. There are the track titles like “Isis Unveiled” and “Pictures of an Only Child,” the endless overdubbing, some kind of loosely defined concept with demons and battles and gods and who knows what else. The haphazard album cover depicting “the history of human conflict” and double drumming on “The Rest Will Follow” suddenly doesn’t seem like four years and two albums ago.

OK, so nobody asked for this, and virtually every listener familiar with the band will have the same bemused reaction, but let’s be fair here: …Trail of Dead have never made their ambitions a secret. Even when they were destroying stages and making a name for themselves on Farmclub, there were piano interludes and less embarrassing concepts and juvenile “fuck yous” repeated ad infinitum on “A Perfect Teenhood.” If it’s unfair to expect another Source Tags and Codes, it seems equally unfair to hold against them the very foundation upon which they’ve built their legacy. Free of the supposed suffocation that came with Interscope, The Century of Self is the sound of a band that’s still confused as to where to go after their inarguable pinnacle. But it’s a backward step in the right direction.

There are a surprising number of highlights worth returning to. Beyond the obligatory intro of “Giants Causeway,” a string of songs bolsters a formidable first-half. “Far Pavilions,” “Isis Unveiled,” “Halcyon Days,” and “Bells of Creation” all feel like potential singles. There is a palpable energy in these songs that, even when clouded (as usual) by needless studio trickery, cannot be disguised. It’s a genuine thrill to hear the galloping speed of “Isis Unveiled” and the dynamism of the piano-driven “Bells of Creation.” It’s a rock album by a rock band trying to rock again.

The most serious problem with their last two albums was their length. What’s ironic about this album is that the four longest songs come in the first five tracks, yet it’s the rest of the album that drags. Content to exploit the piano on a song like “Inland Sea” or build up “Pictures of an Only Child” to no real climax, the middle stretch is packed with midtempo rockers that aren’t markedly different from the opening third of the album, except that they all run together on repeated listens. The excitement dies as the number of ideas eclipses the number of songs. In short, it gets boring.

But Keely, Reece and their numerous cohorts have saved their most clever, self-aware stroke for last. The chorus of “Insatiable Two” spells it out: “I’m the monster and I exist / On this summit, I am lost.” This says it all about how …Trail of Dead sound after 15 years and six albums: They forged a bombastic behemoth out of four-chord fury in the mid-’90s. Now what? The next couplet in that chorus: “On these slopes I’ve seen the world / as she was meant to be seen.” Though …Trail of Dead have always resisted their fans’ incessant pining for the good old days of ’02, maybe now is a good time to start. Maybe The Century of Self is the first step toward a new …Trail of Dead: the one that gives in to a past they’ve tried to avoid for so long.

By Patrick Masterson

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