Thank the indie rock gods a band like …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead exists. The previous decade saw the indie genre fork into two directions: the lo-fi, ’80s-worshipping pseudo-psychedelic musings of chillwavers and the twee, toe-tappy polite indie rock of your Phoenixes and Vampire Weekendses. Heavy, hook-minded guitar rock was noticeably absent.
But Trail of Dead, bless ’em, still believed in the rock side of indie rock. Co-frontmen Conrad Keely and Jason Reese believed in a world where guitars still matter— a world where amps should be turned to 11. Enter Tao of the Dead.
Trail of Dead’s seventh studio album is its classic rock album, if not necessarily in sound than certainly in spirit and in approach. This is Trail’s Relayer, its Quadrophenia—an album with big concepts and big sounds. It’s as arena-rock as the Austin, Texas, band has ever gotten, and that’s saying something for these bombast-embracing bastards of the indie world.
Tao begins with a brief instrumental track that’s bursting with the same bludgeon-you-with-crescendos style of previous Trail album openers like “Giant’s Causeway” and “Will You Smile Again For Me.” But rather than dive head first into proggy waters as they have in the past, this intro segues seemlessly into the uptempo, Rolling Stones-esque “Pure Radio Cosplay.” Hearing this song’s catchy guitar riff, you think Keely will launch into “Jumping Jack Flash” at any moment. Instead, he barks, in his trademark nasally groan, “It’s seems like 50 years have come and gone since the rise and the fall of the radio song—what went wrong?” Of the lament, he assures, in vintage Trail feel-good nihilism, “It’s dead and gone. It won’t be back in this life—but there’s no need to worry about it.” And that sums up the mood of the album’s lyrics throughout: Something is wrong, but there’s nothing wrong with that… or is there?
The next track, “Summer of All Dead Souls” hits us with another supremely catchy guitar riff, though rather than mining ’60s blues rock, this riff comes straight out of the post-grunge ’90s. And just when Trail’s slowed things down with Reece’s “Cover the Days Like a Tidal Wave,” gradually building Muse-like synth arpeggios hint that more bombast might be on the way. Sure enough, Reece howls out a big “Whoooooaaa!” and the guitar tsunami is back.
The middle portion of this album comprises a series of somber, two-minute songs that slow things down a bit, but they don’t lack for Trail of Dead’s knack for creating mythical, epic universes within songs; listening to “Spiral Jetty” you can almost picture a beaten but steadfast Greek warrior standing atop a cliff overlooking an oncoming fleet of enemy battleships in the Mediterranean.
The arena aesthetic picks up again for the closing songs, with “Weight of the Sun” and its ’90s alt-rock on ‘roids chorus (“you will paaaaaaaaaay!!!!!”) livening up the party, followed by a meaty reprise of the best riff on the album (“Pure Radio Cosplay”). The hazy, relaxed “Ebb Away” lets you catch your breath before taking off into the six-minute, synth-filled instrumental jam “The Fairlight Pendant” and the 16-minute journey of “Strange News from Another Planet.”
Tao of the Dead feels like the album that can recapture finicky fans who dug Source Tags but couldn’t get into the proggier side of Trail. But Tao is also just proggy enough to keep hold on those of us who loved Century of Self and Worlds Apart.