…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead
The Century of Self
3 out of 5 stars
Cymbals crash hysterically, guitars shriek as if strummed by a violent mental patient with rhythm, snares snap like crushed limbs, ragged vocals bellow in and just barely hold it all together — such is the nature of Texas’s …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead.
Formed over a decade ago, Trail of Dead has harnessed this anarchy to deliver album after album of unmatched ferocity. Balancing the mania with a softer side replete with piano balladry and mid-tempo romps, the band has enjoyed a comfortable degree of success, perhaps culminating with 2002’s highly celebrated (bordering on worshiped) Source Tags & Codes.
With their subsequent albums, Trail of Dead hasn’t come close to matching the greatness displayed on Source Tags. Worlds Apart and So Divided were both dogged by unrealized ambition, and it seemed the band was barreling down a slippery slope to mediocrity. The Century of Self is still no Source Tags, but it’s the group’s strongest effort since and proves they are still a relevant force in the realm of rock music.
Never minimalists, the band is true to form here, delivering an album that abounds with drama and energy. Each song is written on a grand scale, resulting in 13 mini-epics ranging from hyper-aggressive to lilting. Even the 50-second instrumental “An August Theme” invokes images of a “Lord of the Rings”-type battle sequence.
After the triumphant intro “Giants Causeway,” feedback explodes into the punk-inspired chaos of “Far Pavilions.” With this and the next track, “Isis Unveiled,” Trail of Dead gets back to the raw intensity that’s been missing from their work since Source Tags. Lead singer Conrad Keely’s voice howls and strains while drums are banged unmercifully — the band is at its unrestrained best. The crushing, chanting breakdown in “Isis,” a highlight of the record, gradually dissolves into a small hiss and then suddenly bursts again into a hailstorm of noise.
“Halcyon Days” stirs up some more racket, but its lack of momentum makes it too tedious to make much of an impact. The band eventually brings things down a notch, if only briefly, with “Bells of Creation.” The song twists and turns over a repeating piano chord as guitar stabs shower the steady backbeat with distortion, making it one of the more memorable tracks.
The second half of the record sees the band expanding its artistic scope, but sags in terms of energy and quality (except for “Fields of Coal,” which sounds like a sea shanty written by the Sex Pistols). “Ascending” and “Insatiable (One)” are overwrought and lack the inspiration with which the rest of the album buzzes. “Pictures of an Only Child” relies on a climactic chorus that’s just a bit too flat and halfhearted to get off the ground. The sense that the band is simply going through the motions plagues the album.
The Century of Self is filled with Trail of Dead’s characteristic chapped-ass energy and baroque sensationalism. It’s the best thing they’ve done in several years. But with the bar having been set exceptionally high with Source Tags, the new album is simply too unfocused and scattershot to deliver the band from the gigantic shadow of its previous glory. They remain in the shade for now.