Century of Self
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2009 album from the Alternative rockers. The Century of Self is epic, and was clearly made without the gimlet eye of a major label A&R person overseeing it. From the soaring instrumental opener, 'Giants Causeway,' to the album's closer, 'Insatiable Two,' which starts off with the sounds of a demented circus and ends with an echoing sing-along about Conrad Keely's lack of monstrosity, the record is a work of tremendous scope and ambition. Fifteen years in to their career, Trail of Dead continues to innovate and grow. At a point where many other bands would be resting on their laurels and half-heartedly tossing off greatest hits comps, Trail of Dead are just getting started.
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Obligatory instrumental opener "Giant Causeway" begins the album with a burst of static before erupting into a distorted guitar solo accompanied by crashing drums and some heavy-handed piano playing. Trail of Dead is a band best listened to with the volume turned way up; when I say they play loud, I mean they are loud. The drone of feedback announces the first proper song of the collection, "Far Pavilions," a song that does away with orchestral flourishes and launches straight into an up tempo punk roar. The duo of vocalists Conrad Keely and Jason Reece has long been one of Trail of Dead's strongest points, and their interplay here is like a blast from the past.
It's almost impossible for Trail of Dead to write a three-minute song, however, and the band' compositional wankery is revealed right off the bat with "Far Pavilions"' swelling bridge and the half a minute of white noise that ends the song. This comes with the territory with them, and in songs like "Far Pavilions" or the atmospheric multi-movement epic "Halcyon Days" it highlights what makes the Dead truly special; the ability to craft dramatic, theatrical works of genuine rock `n roll without coming off as ham-fisted egomaniacs. But fairly pointless interludes like piano ballad "Insatiable One" bore rather than entertain, and while fifty-second instrumental "An August Theme" sets up the closer rather grandly, it's also totally unnecessary.
Then again, this is Trail of Dead, a band who invented a whole myth to explain their name and whose intricate album artwork could be mistaken for the Renaissance drawings of a rather disturbed individual. And when Keely desperately cries out "I have made you in my likeness / and I will make you a keeper of my garden world" or screams out "I heard the voice of God coming in the music / and I felt like Satan," it becomes just another part of the majestic musical scenery rather than meaningless lines of bull.
But it's truly the music that separates The Century of Self from Trail of Dead's more divisive musical explorations, a potent blend of fist-pumping guitars and thumping drums mixed with a dose of symphonic orchestration that doesn't overpower the band's roots. Keely has said that this is the first time the band has tracked everything live without overdubs in years, and it's a welcome respite from the often jumbled messes of sound that characterized So Divided and, to a lesser extent, Worlds Apart.
The band's trademark climax/breakdown juxtaposition has been polished to perfection here, from the threatening buildup of "Inland Sea" to the tug-of-war between galloping electric guitar and stomping chants on "Isis Unveiled." Less polished than their previous two records, it's Century's noisy grit and unmitigated passion that make songs like the understated "Luna Park" highlights; the gorgeous, simple piano melody outlining Reece's plaintive vocals and a gradual conclusion that might be the best of its kind on the album.
Keely, normally the primary singer, has never been known for his strong voice, and many a Trail of Dead song has been derailed by pushing him forward too much. "Inland Sea" is dragged down by Keely's slurred howl and on "Pictures of an Only Child" he is virtually unintelligible in the mix, two extremes that showcase the exception rather than the norm. For the most part, however, the band rides a comfortable equilibrium between the two, and on songs like the rollicking "Fields of Coal," Keely's exuberant verses are an essential ingredient.
It's no Source Tags & Codes, an indie rock masterpiece if there ever was one, and it's certainly not the cluttered hit-or-miss of their later efforts, but The Century of Self is a fine achievement for a band in a potentially dangerous phase of their career. Excellently produced and performed with a fervor that many have said has been missing from their oeuvre for too long, Trail of Dead's latest should be a satisfying refresher course in the more destructive, noisier aspects of art rock.
For people who never heard this band, I'm not sure this is the right place to start listening to them.
This album sees the band grow some more. Bands that have a distinctive sound have a real problem in that new material either looses the band's identity trying something new, or feels reatreaded. "The Century of Self" strikes the really hard to find balance of seeming familiar and completely fresh.
One of the main things that struck me instantaneously is how cohesive this one is. So Divided (while a solid listen with some great songs) was not as cohesive in ways as Worlds Apart or Source Tags and Codes.
Trail of Dead really knows how to utilize 2 drummers. This disc needs to be played loud to get the full effect. There are few bands who have the aggressive rhythms these guys pull together without the hokie "I'm dark AND moody" highly theatrical nature of most "metal" or "emo" bands, especially in the lyrics. The guys are obviously well read (how many people have to hit a dictionary to find out what Halycon means?) and it's refreshing. Lyrically they tend to take the Peter Gabriel/Syd Barrett idea of using simple words to describe complex things.
There's definitely some Steve Lillywhite era U2 in there too, especially in "Isis Unveiled". Trail of Dead feel like they've found themselves really comfortable with what makes them sound unique, and adding to it or exploring how much they can push with different sounds and orchestrations and retain their self.
This one's going to get plenty of play time from me.
The album is pretty neatly divided into halves, with the first being loud and heavy, and "Inland Sea" begins to mark the transition before "Luna Park" goes into the full-on slow and piano-centric mode. "Ascending" doesn't quite fit but does have a slower section to it. "Isis Unveiled" is probably my favorite song, with a nice driving sound most of the time and a cool chanting breakdown in the middle. "Insatiable" parts one and two seem to be just two halves of the same song, and I'm not sure why they're broken up with a few tracks in between. Together they make a decent closing track with a nice piano part, you just hear the first couple minutes before it actually gets around to ending. All in all I liked it, just not as much as I hoped.