Closed systems tend toward disorder, if the second law of thermodynamics is to be believed. The Austin-based ... And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead has certainly given no reason to doubt its veracity.
Over the course of its 12-year career, the black-clad Trail of Dead has remained steadfast in its insularity. The results have been predictably diverse -- both in sound and spectacle. If this means that Trail of Dead sacrifices consistency for challenge, it's a trade-off that multi-instrumentalist and group co-founder Jason Reece is more than willing to make. "Maybe in the back of our minds we've thought 'our old fans might hate this [new material],' but what are you supposed to do -- worry about that while you're making music? That becomes some kind of self-censorship," he says of his band's varied output. "If we want to write something on one day that's reminiscent of Can and the next day write something that sounds like My Bloody Valentine, well then that's what we're going to do."
The band's last three albums stand as alternately compelling and frustrating testaments to the Trail of Dead's desultory approach. Source Tags & Codes, released in 2002, was a monumental paean to Sonic Youth-styled discord, molten feedback with a nihilistic undercurrent. Tunes such as "Another Morning Stoner" and "How Near, How Far" cast the band as masters of simmering tension, just as capable of building up as tearing down. In keeping with its title, the follow-up, Worlds Apart, broke considerably from the bleak vision of its predecessor, masking the band's pessimism with decidedly grand sonic gestures. One might be tempted to call it bold, but too often Worlds Apart felt like an experiment -- as if the band wasn't quite ready to sign on for the stadium tour. The most recent release, So Divided, strips back the transparent ambitions of Worlds Apart for smaller-scale victories. It is arguably the band's most relaxed record, more indifferent to the audience than purposely confounding. "It isn't as brash or abrasive," Reece admits. "But lyrically, it's pretty dark. I personally feel it's just as filled with unrest [as our previous] records. It's just expressed in a different way."
The band may have grown less overtly confrontational on record, but on stage Trail of Dead still rarely makes concessions to nuance. Most artists are grateful for anyone willing to shell out money to see them perform. Trail of Dead, on the other hand, demands reaction for the price of admission.
Before the release of Source Tags & Codes, I witnessed one particularly defiant performance in Chicago. The band played its songs with a reckless disregard for starts, middles or ends, turning the set into one continuous dull throb. Not surprisingly, the unruly display drew a chorus of jeers and boos from onlookers, to which Trail of Dead responded with a series of shouted expletives. Apparently, such occurrences are hardly a thing of the past. Reece claims that "8 Day Hell," a song off So Divided, was inspired by similar experiences while opening for Audioslave. "It was like Groundhog Day," Reece says of the tour. "We'd get up there each day and get the same reaction. They hated us. The funny part is that the whole idea behind opening for Audioslave was that we would get more fans. I don't know if it really worked out that way."
Trail of Dead has also incurred (some might say courted) the wrath of a certain online publication known as Pitchforkmedia.com. Source Tags & Codes earned the rare perfect score of 10.0 on the site upon its release in 2002. However, the abrupt stylistic shift on Worlds Apart saddled the record with a none-too-complimentary 4.0. The same site that had hailed its previous album as "everything rock music aspires to be" dismissed its follow-up as nothing more than "the sound of confusion." "After that review, we wondered if someone in our band fucked one of their girlfriends," Reece says. "It was venomous in a weird way because one minute they were embracing us and the next they were tearing us apart." Still, Reece isn't making any apologies to critics -- or fans for that matter -- who have been irked by the band's post-Source Tags & Codes output.
"We've struck a nerve and I think that says something, too."