AND YOU WILL KNOW US BY THE TRAIL OF DEAD: TAO OF THE DEAD (2011)
1) Introduction: Let's Experiment; 2) Pure Radio Cosplay; 3) Summer Of All Dead Souls; 4) Cover The Days Like A Tidal Wave; 5) Fall Of The Empire; 6) The Wasteland; 7) The Spiral Jetty; 8) Weight Of The Sun; 9) Pure Radio Cosplay (reprise); 10) Ebb Away; 11) The Fairlight Pendant; 12) Strange News From Another Planet (Know Your Honor / Rule By Being Just / The Ship Impossible / Strange Epiphany / Racing And Hunting).
Since the title of the album makes no sense whatsoever (an on-the-spot concatenation of Tao Te Ching with the Book Of The Dead, I suppose), I am going to assume that neither do the lyrics, and if I am mistaken, I couldn't care less. If I really want someone to teach me the latest trends in crossing metaphysics with mysticism, I'll go to Jon Anderson, still alive and kicking.
My duty, the way I see it, is to honestly state that Tao Of The Dead is this band's worst album in ten years. Way, way back in the former millennium And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead used to be a formative, aspiring noise-rock band whose only talent consisted of being able to paint their own unique landscape of Roar-and-Ring. Which they did — on every single track, without much afterthought. Then, somehow, they managed to make a great leap forward by cutting out melodic pathways through that landscape — pathways that sometimes even led them away from their preferred wasteland of musical rock, dust, and ash. The entire stretch from Source Tags & Codes right to The Century Of Self was strewn with these unpredictable diversions and escapades. Critics loved some of these and hated others, but here was a band eager to learn and develop — and I'd almost managed to forget all about their first two albums.
Now along comes this mess. Recorded in ten days, with a stripped-down lineup of just the four core band members, with complete emphasis on guitars. Suspicious. All of the songs are crammed in two lengthy multi-part suites — even more disturbing. And after five honest listens, I still cannot tell one song from another. I hear nothing, feel nothing, like nothing, remember nothing. The whole record is one big nothing. Loud-sounding, pompous, bulging, bursting-out nothing.
In fact, especially after reading some of the absolutely glowing reviews, I had to make sure for myself whether a part of my brain had not been misplaced in the interim between 2009 and 2011. So I took down The Century Of Self and refreshed it. 'Isis Unveiled' — still as fabulous as ever, nothing will make me forget its epic stomp. 'Halcyon Days', 'Fields Of Coal', 'Bells Of Creation' — strong, interesting creations, each with a little bit of its own face. Tao Of The Dead? Dead indeed, completely dead in comparison.
First of all, apart from the ambition (a track that runs over sixteen minutes, MY GOD!!..), there are no new developments whatsoever. Conrad Keely has not learned to sing like Robin Gibb, Jason Reece does not attempt to master the technique of Ginger Baker, the guitars roar and ring like they always do, and the alternations between loud, guitar-dominated and quiet, bass-led parts of songs are completely recognizable. How can this be loved? Only if there are plenty of hooks to compensate. If you listen to the Austin lads simply for the fact that they come from Austin, Tao Of The Dead will make you happy. If you want good songs...
...listen to this: «...'Pure Radio Cosplay', a sweaty rocker with an almost Stonesy underpinning that laments the death of rock radio...». From the Pitchfork review. You want to know more about the «Stonesy underpinning»? I will tell you more. «Underpinning» is a nice way to convey the fact that the main melody of the song is an instantly recognizable variation on 'Jumpin' Jack Flash', except that the first nine notes of the looping riff have been muddled around a bit. And, on my own part, I will have to admit that this is the only musical bit I still have in my head after the already mentioned five listens. So much for frickin' hooks.
Nothing could be lamer than this: at once a «return-to-basics/roots» approach (my stance has always been that the farther away the Austin lads are from their roots, the better) and a «fuck it all, let's be ambitious and progressive» motto: all across his recent interviews, Keely was namedropping Pink Floyd, Rush, and even Yes as the chief inspirations behind the album's concept and philosophy. Turns out that he played this well: guilt-ridden with having earlier ridiculed and disgraced progressive rock values, the «cool» musical press of today has been rapidly reversing the trend, so that in 2010 artists who fondly remember how they used to play in the sandpits with their copies of Close To The Edge may safely reap the benefits.
Except Tao Of The Dead is not this band's Close To The Edge — it is their Topographic Oceans, minus the diversity, freshness of approach, and technical perfection of that deeply flawed album that is still somehow admirable in its boldness. I can only repeat that I find nothing to admire here. In fact, I insist that the band's next album rather be a collection of Sinatra covers — or that it be not, not in my lifetime at least. Ugh. Thumbs down.
Check "Tao Of The Dead" (CD) on Amazon