The career trajectory of …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead has followed a depressingly familiar arc: the band releases an acclaimed early album (2002’s Source Tags And Codes), signs to a major label (Interscope), struggles with the increased expectations and releases two underperforming albums (Worlds Apart in 2005 and the following year’s So Divided).
The band then departs the major label amid claims of shoddy treatment (front man Conrad Keely publicly criticised Interscope boss Jimmy Iovine) and now find themselves on a ’boutique’ label. Just to push the cliché meter further into the red, the new album, The Century Of Self, is being described as a “return to their roots”.
But the clichés end there. Because The Century Of Self is a good album on anyone’s terms. It’s not without its faults (we’ll come to those later), but it’s engaging, exciting and vital-sounding.
Last year’s taster EP Festival Thyme was pitched as a back-to-basics approach for the band. The use of the word ‘basics’ is relative, though, as Trail Of Dead’s music is anything but ‘basic’. Their songs rarely remain in a single musical space – they typically begin quietly, then go berserk, then break themselves down to hushed stillness, before going berserk once more. Their unsuccessful major label tenure certainly hasn’t reduced the band’s musical ambition. Instrumental interlude An August Theme – with its horrible, cheap-sounding synths – is the only time their (presumably) reduced recording budget becomes audible. This is still a big-sounding album.
Despite Keely’s (surely defensive) claim that “there was no point on the record where we were trying to write songs you’d hear on commercial radio”, The Century Of Self includes some of the band’s most immediately appealing work to date. Trail Of Dead still have a masterful grasp of dynamics, and this is exercised to best effect on Far Pavilions – where Keely’s vocals move between preppy perkiness and throat-shredding harshness – and Isis Unveiled, which showcases their breakdown/build-up dynamic to awesome effect. It’s all pretty intense stuff, but the band knows when to take a well-earned breather: for example, at the climax of Halcyon Days we’re treated to a lovely, palate-cleansing burst of calypso music.
Trail Of Dead’s music walks a fine line between the majestic and the ridiculous. The album’s most uncomfortable moments occur when the music overreaches in its search for grandiosity and ends up squarely in the latter category. This tends to happen whenever they wheel out the piano, as they do on Insatiable One. It’s only a hair’s breadth away from the kind of cod-Broadway balladry you’d expect from My Chemical Romance.
In light of their unhappy dalliance with a major label, it seems impolitic to talk about the commercial potential of this album. Nevertheless, listening to the likes of Fields of Coal – with its giant, arms-around-the-shoulders chorus – you can’t help but notice the similarities between Trail Of Dead and those acts which have sold many more records. Admittedly, that could be just about anyone, but more specifically the likes of Muse and even Arcade Fire. Could Trail Of Dead have made their breakthrough album by accident?
Of course not. Ultimately The Century Of Self won’t trouble the charts and Trail Of Dead’s status as a cult act will be assured. But there’s enough here to keep their small group of followers very happy indeed.