"What a beautiful death, to die in the exercise of your passion," remarks Philippe Petit in the excellent 2008 documentary Man on Wire. It's a literal statement as well as philosophical - high-wire artist Petit could literally die if he falls off his balancing wire between the World Trade Centers, but it's also a testament to how committed he is to his craft. ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead frontman Conrad Keely would probably be the first to agree, so caught up in his own band's mythology and defiant independence that to compromise his own artistic values would probably kill him (most likely accompanied by a full symphony and a choir of wailing female voices). No, Keely has been more than content to steer his own ship, from 2001's noise-rock master thesis Source Tags & Codes through convoluted orchestral messes like 2006's So Divided, losing much of their fanbase and most of the considerable critical cachet ST&C afforded them in the process. He's been content to exercise his own passion, and it's indeed resulted in a sort of commercial death for the band . . . but wow if Keely isn't plunging full speed ahead anyways. Tao of the Dead is a fearless two-part affair, one split into eleven chapters in the key of D and the second a 16-minute epic in five movements and in the key of F and both resolutely proggy in the vein of your favorite Rush or Yes record, if Rush or Yes had had an upbringing in full-throated punk and feedback-drenched indie rock.
Keely has stated in interviews that it's this kind of record that he grew up listening to and wanted to emulate, and maybe that's why Tao of the Dead ends up being the most focused Trail of Dead effort in years rather than a space-rock sham. Sure, there's the instrumental opening track, as routine in the Trail of Dead universe as Keely's fantastical album artwork. There are tracks with names like "Weight of the Sun (Or, the Post-Modern Prometheus)" or "Cover the Days Like a Tidal Wave" and pointless changes in time signature. There's Keely taking himself way too seriously, whether it's ranting about ferries of the dead or the utter darkness that will consume us all. But whoa how the songs go! "Pure Radio Cosplay" is one of the best tracks Trail of Dead have put to record in recent memory, and not only do the guitars punch and the melodies soar, all with X-factor Jason Reece's inimitable drumming anchoring things, but it sets a template for the rest of Tao of the Dead to follow. This is important when considering that prior Trail of Dead efforts were just as likely to indulge in New Pornographers-esque indie pop as they were to sludge forward in forests of multi-tracked guitars. There's a fluidity to this record, one that knows when to slide back into haunting atmospherics ("Cover the Days like a Tidal Wave") and rise back up to another anthemic track like "Weight of the Sun."
It's a crucial ebb and flow, and one that Trail of Dead long ago proved they had mastered. The best part about Source Tags & Codes was how it all seemed like one cohesive statement, an album's album. Tao of the Dead has that same sense of togetherness, and in as prog-rockish an album as this one, that's an accomplishment indeed. Few bands could go from Who-influenced space jams to pounding punk assaults as effortlessly as they do here, yet remain nimble enough to throw a ballad like "Ebb Away" in the mix and still make it sound like the missing link to instrumental closer "The Fairlight Pendant." The key is in those transitions, the moment where the feedback that closes "The Spiral Jetty" eases into "Weight of the Sun" or where the intro's guitars whine down only to explode forth again on "Pure Radio Cosplay." They're insignificant in the greater scheme of things, but it's these carefully crafted shifts that give Tao of the Dead that continuous 52-minute feeling that Keely was aiming for.
Nowhere is it more evident how far the band has come then in that last 16-minute track, an exercise that could have been a shining example of where noodling goes wrong but instead comes off so driven, so focused that it's impossible to begrudge the band their five movements with names like "Rule By Being Just" and "The Ship Impossible." There's typically frenetic guitar work, spoken-word samples and vaguely krautrock interludes that seem like they should clash but instead come together as an organic whole. It's Keely's best realization of his version of the classical suite that his ambitious mind could put down, and it's a fitting summation to a record that always seems like it should be flying off the rails but never comes close. Things could always be improved - the production is too same-y, too rock radio, and Keely will never be lauded as a master of lyrical restraint. But for the first time in a while, Trail of Dead have an identity that suits them: loud and blatantly brash, modesty not even an afterthought, but with that style, that sound at their forefront. Keely and company may well die before they see another record with the success of Source Tags & Codes, but Tao of the Dead proves their passion should never be questioned.