…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead The Century of Self

[Richter Scale/Justice; 2009]

Styles:  rock
Others: Sonic Youth, Unwound, Mission of Burma

In 2002, critics and fans were calling Trail of Dead's Source Tags & Codes the future of rock ‘n’ roll. Three years later, front man Conrad Keely seemed to evoke that critical clamor on "Worlds Apart," singing “Random lost souls have asked me what’s the future of rock ‘n’ roll”. He promptly shrugged it off, however, with “I said I don’t know/ Does it matter?” What's significant to note is that Trail of Dead were most certainly not the "future," but more like revisionists cribbing from all of the major ’90s-era punk and hardcore groups and rolling them up into a singular and cohesive whole. I’m not knocking them for that at all; the aforementioned Source Tags was fantastic and so was its predecessor, Madonna. But, like many others before them, Trail of Dead wasn’t content to keep playing the game on the same level as it had been.

When Worlds Apart was released, it divided critics and fans alike, Pitchfork rated the album a “4.0,” while Magnet magazine hailed it as “Album of the Year.” To me, it seemed like Worlds Apart was a decent but flawed album, mostly marred by the blowhard pomp of a band that already sounded bigger than life, inflating itself to the point of self-parody. To make matters worse, Worlds Apart seemed focused on taking the piss out of a popular culture that to date the band had not really been involved with or affected by. While Source Tags had been a critical success by any standard, it certainly didn’t spawn a string of hit singles or exactly turn the band into rock stars.

The band’s history is important at this stage in its career because it seems like Trail of Dead is making a conscious turn back toward the textures of Source Tags on Century of Self -- their sixth album and first since leaving Interscope -- while doing it through the lens of their current incarnation. It is hard coming to this album with fresh ears; I’m still trying to scrub my ears of the band’s last full-length, the mess that was So Divided. The opening stretch of Century of Self goes a long way toward making things right though. “Giants Causeway,” “Far Pavilion,” and “Isis Unveiled” all bear a striking resemblance to Trail of Dead circa 1998-2002.

But the latter half of the album reveals a band still trying on different clothes, even those of So Divided on the horrible and unnecessary interlude “An August Theme.” Trail of Dead’s prog leanings are definitely still intact as evidenced on the two part “Insatiable (One)” and “Insatiable (Two),” a pair of piano songs bookending the album’s last and worst fourth. Elsewhere, “Luna Park” picks up elements of Ryan Adams’ balladeering. It would have been a far better album if these fatty elements had been trimmed, but Trail of Dead are certainly not renowned for their self-editing.

For the most part, Trail of Dead veer back and forth between styles mined on Worlds Apart and Source Tags, making The Century of Self the strongest of their recent efforts. But it's still an inconsistent one.

1. Giants Causeway
2. Far Pavilions
3. Isis Unveiled
4. Halcyon Days
5. Bells of Creation
6. Fields of Coal
7. Inland Sea
8. Luna Park
9. Pictures of an Only Child
10. Insatiable One
11. Ascending
12. An August Theme
13. Insatiable Two

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