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Sunday, September 20, 2009

And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead: Worlds Apart


1) Ode To Isis; 2) Will You Smile Again?; 3) Worlds Apart; 4) The Summer Of '91; 5) The Rest Will Follow; 6) Caterwaul; 7) A Classic Arts Showcase; 8) Let It Dive; 9) To Russia My Homeland; 10) All White; 11) The Best; 12) The Lost City Of Refuge.

The higher they drag you, the lower they'll sink you. Critical minds, perhaps already in a state of pre-confusion from having hoisted too much incomprehensible praise — for incomprehensible reasons — on the incomprehensible chaos of Source Tags & Codes, were eagerly anticipating the follow-up, maybe believing, deep down in their souls, that it would be the follow-up that would, in the end, make things a little more comprehensible.

Unfortunately, Worlds Apart was — still is — even more confusing. It goes in so many different directions and makes so many unpredictable moves that it's impossible to even categorize it, let alone explain it. It is puzzling, and while trying to sort out the puzzle, some of the critics had the misfortune to sniff out, within its twisted corridors, the next worst thing to wife-beating and neo-Nazism: PROGRESSIVE ROCK!

I swear that in one place at least, I saw an ELP reference (!) in the review of the album, and that's just the beginning. Immediately the ratings plummeted (Pitchfork gives this a 4.0 right on the heels of Source Tags' 10.0), the insults heaped up, and yesterday's critical darlings became, for the most part, outcasts. For the most part — due to little more than the painfully hypocritical state of «mainstream alternative» rock journalism in the States.

Worlds Apart may not necessarily be "better" than Source Tags, but it is very clearly the band's Tusk after their Rumours. They are evidently in the "artistic growth" regime, still leaving plenty of space for the punkish loudness but reaching out to other approaches for help as well. Pianos, strings, classic rock melodicity, a little bit of Russian music-inspired waltzing, a Wagnerian ope­ning number (!) — yes, there's plenty of pomp and pretense, but it's not the pomp and pretense that's new here; pomp and pretense have followed the Austin guys since day one. What's new is that they decided to take a look back and bring in some fresh new influences from stale old sources, and I, for one, think this resulted in expanding their musical vision and, most important, making the record interesting to listen to.

For instance, they now have a different set of policies concerning the 'loud-and-quiet' dynamics, best illustrated on the example of 'Will You Smile Again?'. It begins in the traditional way, an all-out assault on the senses with mammoth drumming, chainsaw and jangle, but then, instead of giving way to the "sonic muck" of incomprehensible mumble against a background of sleepy guitars and pianos, it transforms into a stripped-down martial blues-rock tune that is completely different in dynamics from the opening part. Nothing brilliant about the songwriting, but quite good in the way of attention-grabbing — before it reverts to the ocean of chainsaw and jangle.

They also continue writing songs — occasionally, at least — that I understand on an emotional level. 'Let It Dive', for instance, fully justifies its epic ambitions with its loud, yet at the same time weirdly pacifying chorus of 'let it dive, let it die, let it fade out of sight'; the song gives the effect of an oddly grungy U2, and, in fact, I'd be highly interested in seeing it covered by Bono just to know if this gives it a sharper edge. 'All White', with its minor chords, dramatism, and operatic backup vocals has been compared to Ziggy-era Bowie — an apt comparison, and that's probably why I like the song so much (even Keely's whiny voice fits it great). 'The Lost City Of Refuge' finishes the album on a lovely, graceful, shadowy note with an elegant guitar arrangement that's more intricate that everything they'd done on their first two albums put together.

Lyrically, they also continue to mature; the texts are getting more coherent, and some of the songs now have implicit or even explicit subject matters — 'Will You Smile', for instance, is about self-imposed blocks on creating grand, sweeping artistic statements (something that the band obviously has no problem with — or, at least, no longer has a problem with, given their pre­occupation with the subject). The title track has caused some controversy; a very distinctly pro­nounced statement against modern day cultural decline ('look at those cunts on MTV with their cars and cribs and rings and shit'), it has been accused itself of being a fairly generic alt-rock pro­duct of its age — a point that works against the song, perhaps, which has obviously been written as merely a vehicle to get it out of their system, but certainly not against the album, which is as far removed from MTV values as could be possible today. Many of the other songs have interes­ting, intelligent lyrical insights as well — perhaps this is why Reece and Keely take the pains to generally sing in a more distinctive manner, and also turn down the loudness during many of the verses. Not that the voices have improved, but at least they're giving it a try.

One shouldn't also get the impression that this is so, so, so much different from Source Tags & Codes. Despite all the experimentation, the band's backbone and primary values stay the same. It may be the inclusion of overtly pompous bits, like 'Ode To Isis', or the Russian waltz, or the loss of the wall of sound on some of the songs, that irritated most of the critics and some of the liste­ners, but overall, I am fairly certain that if history chooses to preserve And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead in its memory as an important cultural phenomenon, there is no way Wor­lds Apart can be seen as the point where the rot set in and the shark was jumped. In fact, this is exactly the kind of album I was secretly hoping they'd get along to doing one day if they had any real talent within them, and I am certainly not dissatisfied — and I invite everyone to look at this with an open mind. Thumbs up from the brain for all the experimentation, and partially likewise from the heart that gladly connected with at least three or four songs on here (a major record for this particular band). Yes, and don't forget there's nothing substantially wrong with ELP either, regardless of the fact that nothing on Worlds Apart sounds even remotely like ELP. (The day someone in the band starts playing piano like Keith Emerson is the day that the last person on Earth who still remembers anything about Keith Emerson goes to his grave).

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