And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead’s “Source Tags & Codes” was probably the best album of 2002, but two uninspired follow-ups have since taken some of the shine off the Austin trio. Their latest release finds the band at a critical crossroads: either return to the greatness of their past or continue to list aimlessly further down the path to irrelevance. While “The Century of Self” is unlikely to make any year-end top 10 lists, fortunately it’s head and shoulders above “So Divided” and “Worlds Apart.”
“Far Pavilions” is the first indication of a return to form, with Conrad Keely and band mates trading raucous melodies and countermelodies over crashing guitars and rapid-fire drums. Heavy on both feedback and piano, the track segues into a wordless chorus worthy of a more punk-rock Arcade Fire. Following is “Isis Unveiled,” which weaves an epic, quasi-religious tract over some of the album’s best guitar work. Even at six and a half minutes, the song remains compelling and never feels labored.
For a band that built its reputation on hard rock, destructive stage shows and dramatic infighting, it’s somewhat paradoxical that Trail of Dead’s best work has always come when they scale back the sonic assault for more melodic, reflective songwriting. Such is the case on “Fields of Coal,” which might be the album’s best song. An anthem in every sense of the word, the stream of consciousness verses burst into a radiant sing-along chorus. “Don’t disturb those fields of coal / For they may turn to gold” is beautiful in its simplicity, and the message resonates well after the song has ended. “Pictures of an Only Child” is another highlight, and as personal a song as Keely has ever written. The song is like looking back through a photo album, hinting at bigger themes of identity and loss. “Bright all the eyes of the family now dead and gone,” he relates over arpeggioed guitars.
There are few disappointments, as the band mostly avoids the prog indulgences that had been weighing them down as of late. Where “So Divided” and “Worlds Apart” were detrimentally over- structured, Keely and company seem more willing to rely on their instincts here. It may be too early to say that Trail of Dead is truly back, but at the very least “Century of Self” is a major step in the right direction.