Nearly a decade has passed since …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead released what ended up being — almost unanimously considered — their definitive statement as a band, Source Tags and Codes. That album, an artful refinement of their more anarchic early work, was followed by three more albums of further, ill-advised refinement, taking the Austin prog-punk band far beyond the point of benefit or improvement. Nine years since Source Tags and Codes, Trail of Dead barely resembled what they used to be.
Having long since left their early achievements behind, Trail of Dead finally appear willing to look back fondly on Tao of the Dead in an attempt to reclaim the scrappy, scabrous noise on which they first made their name. Not that the album succeeds as a return to form — the production is too compressed, too modern rock — but at least it finds Trail of Dead playing to their strengths, abandoning the unfortunate stylistic excursions that marred their past three albums and once again making music of their theatrical, grisly moniker.
Trail of Dead seem, at last, self-aware, consciously embracing the messy, jagged structures of their early work. But messiness isn’t the only nod to their early achievements; Tao of the Dead is teeming with lyrical references to spirits, afterlives, rebirth. “Dead souls will pull you down,” Conrad Keely sings on “Summer of All Dead Souls,” making it hard to not think of Neil Busch — who left the band after Source Tags and Codes — or the spectres of too-high expectation that have haunted the band for the past decade.
Absent any lifeless Guided By Voices covers, Elephant 6 impressions, or Trans-Siberian Orchestral interludes, Tao of the Dead adheres to a single, bombastic aesthetic, and ends up all the stronger for its relatively narrow musical range. Following the expected instrumental intro, Tao of the Dead goes loud and stays loud, maintaining its energy level throughout the rest of the record. “Pure Radio Cosplay” and “Summer of All Dead Souls,” two of the album’s more spacious tracks, lead directly into Tao’s fleet, fleeting midsection. Here, in the middle of the album, Trail of Dead sequence some of their best material, keeping those songs short enough that you wish they went longer, but also short enough that you nearly fail to notice how carefully they connect with one another. “The Wasteland” becomes “Spiral Jetty” becomes “Weight of the Sun,” each an interlocking part of a greater, greatly satisfying whole. On these shorter songs, Trail of Dead play around with different sounds, such as the Technicolor Godiego keys on “The Wasteland,” without venturing too far outside their comfort zone.
By the time Tao of the Dead culminates in a five-piece suite, thoughts of pretense and overblown excess are further from mind than expected. Each movement in “Strange News From Another Planet”clicks together, falling into place in such a way that the 16-minute-long song feels like an organic extension of the earlier majority of the album. And perhaps that’s what is most satisfying and surprising about Tao of the Dead: it’s the work of a band remembering how to be both ambitious and effortless, how to try without appearing to be trying, without self-consciously drawing attention to itself. Making no egregious concessions to potential new fans, nor to the musical trends of the past decade, Trail of Dead finally sound like a band emerging from a purgatorial state, out from underneath the shadows of their former selves.