There Is Nothing Left To Prove
With 2012’s visceral and galloping Lost Songs, alt/prog/noise rock stalwarts …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead finally seemed to get the monkey off their back. Said monkey had been firmly attached to them ever since they were roundly, and decidedly unfairly, lambasted for 2005’s Worlds Apart (Pitchfork declared the album contained: “hamfisted ‘subversive’ lyrics, pointless pastiche, and outrageous self-parody.”) While the album somewhat missed it’s intended mark after the near perfect trio of albums (their self titled debut, Madonna, and Source Tags & Codes) that preceded it, it definitely did not deserve the scorn and ire heaped upon it by the fickle denizens of the music press.
Unfortunately, the monkey really got it’s grip on the band for their truly woeful follow up to Worlds Apart, 2006’s under-cooked So Divided. Here the band seemed utterly lost and devoid of any semblance of confidence after the unexpected and brutal backlash Worlds Apart received. A layoff, a return to an indie label, and a serious attempt of legacy rescuing beckoned. First came 2009’s Century of Self, a back to basics, return to form record, then 2011’s Tao of the Dead, an instrumentally stripped down yet proggy epic that ended with a sixteen minute suite called “Tao of the Dead Part II: Strange News From Another Planet”, and the aforementioned Lost Songs, which cemented the bands legacy salvage as an unmitigated success with a succession of post hardcore/art rock gems. Redemption, finally.
The question now is: what next?
The middle of the road apparently. And, surprisingly, cruising along the road leisurely instead of blasting down it in a Cadillac Eldorado, swatting imaginary bats with fly swatters, while high on mescaline, is a good fit for the Texans. Take first single “The Ghost Within”. It is unmistakably Trail of Dead in that it builds like a wave, but instead of exploding upon the shore, it laps the beach before reaching a gentle, relatively restrained climax before calming with ease. Moreover, “The Dragonfly Queen” is a near pop song. Its gorgeous strings and acoustic guitar entwine around a subdued vocal melody and culminate in a singalong rather than shout-along. While Trail of Dead have never been opposed to including more restrained moments on their previous records, IX is dominated by them rather than peppered with them.
In places the Texans even seem, dare I say it, happy and euphoric. Album closer “Sound of the Silk” is simply joyous. Full of major chords, it is also one of only two occasions on the record that Trail of Dead explore their penchant for exploration through a Middle Eastern tinged string breakdown replete with tabla-esque drums and what I presume is intended to sound like a market scene. Similarly, “Lost In The Grand Scheme” twists and winds through alleys of electronic/sci fi flourishes and pounding drums until it explodes into a celebratory denouement.
Where Trail of Dead have spent a solid part of their career in the ditch, and careening all over the road, IX plants its feet squarely in the middle of all they have done, unashamedly, and with a brash confidence. IX is concise, direct, and consistent in a way their previous material did not even pretend to be. Gone are the sixteen minute epics, and the high minded concepts (or at least they are presented in a more palatable manner). This is simply IX.