...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead - So Divided Review
by Mark Hensch
2005 was a landmark year in the existence of Austin, Texas noise-punks ....And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead. For simplicity's sake referred to henceforth as simply "Trail of Dead," this challenging art-rock collective reads like the cream of the crop after last year. Playing insanely popular gigs all over the country (not to mention the huge SXSW Festival, of which they were supposedly one of the best acts) was not enough for this driven group of individuals; they released a major-label debut in Worlds Apart, and in one fell swoop wholly outdid themselves. Fusing the elements of baroque neo-classicism, art rock, noise, and classic punk that the band have always trifled with, what emerged was a sort of snotty arena rock for the well-educated and marginalized societal outcast. Their creative muse no less fleeting after months of solid touring, Trail of Dead re-entered the studio to finish off the initial Worlds Apart sessions. This second take on the same idea produced the album you are reading about right now, So Divided.
Thankfully, So Divided is not a jumbled or rushed mess that was simply stretching good ideas too far too soon. Rather, the disc definitely does not sound like some sort of Worlds Apart addendum or afterthought. In all honesty, I'd wager that this disc is very different when compared to its predesscessor. Whereas Worlds Apart tapped into a more vibrant, colorful, and artistic side of the band, So Divided seems to be much more focused on rocking out. In fact, the amount of OOOMPTH this album contains is one of the season's most pleasant surprises for me personally, as it has been a while since I listened to earlier works like Source Tags and Codes and I had forgotten that Trail of Dead do know how to let loose once-in-a-while. Basically, if you dig the more reflective tone of Worlds Apart, yet wish to have more good old fashioned rock 'n roll, this might just be the album for you.
Things start off with a very potent combination of songs. The first, "Intro: A Song of Fire and Wine" is essentially the tolling of bells and the band slowly swelling into the actual album itself. It sounds like a live set's very beginning, and even with all the people applauding in this simple prelude, one gets the feeling that the band still has an aura of humble grandeur to them.
The album proper begins with the roaring "Stand in Silence." This one would be a killer live, no doubt about it. First, thundering percussion backs up deep, grooving rock. Angular yet meaty, the band sacrifices neither strength nor art in the pursuit of their music. Next, the band leads fist-pumping chorus after fist-pumping chorus with such aplomb you can't help but sing along. Frontman Conrad Keeley's unique voice still remains, and his snotty yet elegant sneer is one of alternative rock's most distinctive voices. The song eventually worms its way back into the opening notes of "Fire and Wine" in a nice touch, all before bursting out in one last barnstorming chorus. To be blunt, I can't think of a better way to start this album.
The delightfully jumpy "Wasted State of Mind" kicks off with some frantic tribal drum rhythms while piano and guitar mesh with choppy results. The song maintains a sort of jagged intensity yet never loses its actual focus. At times whimsical, at times spacious, and at times hypnotic, "Wasted State of Mind" could easily become a cult single of sorts on college radio or something of that nature. The song's oddly poignant, accordion-drenched grand finale is one of the album's most memorable moments, and closes off yet another marvelous cut.
"Naked Sun" could be my favorite track on the entire disc, it is just that rad. A slice of tumbleweed desert rock slinks underneath Keeley's taunting vocals, all while the rhythm section keeps a toe-tapping pace. Eventually letting loose on multiple occassions, the song sheds its skin with all the repetition of a snake. First, a massive noise-freakout led by jazzy trumpets and massive guitars ensues; later, the song shifts into a howling refrain that lets the band tap into its more primal rage. As if all this wasn't enough, one shouldn't forget the stunning jaunt through what is best described as huge, soaring grandeur. All of it is cohesive and musically sound, which boggles the mind further and makes the song that much more incredible. Great stuff!
"Gold Heart Mountain Top Queen" is a cryptic yet heart-wrenching piano ballad. As clean guitars shimmer with exquisite simplicity, swell after swell of pearly orchestral noise spirals throughout the air. Short and sweet, the song for whatever reason recalls early Elton John and leaves you craving more. It is a welcome interlude and adds yet another level of multi-faceted complexity to this abnormal and challenging band.
Title track "So Divided" swells with melancholy bombast and sparkling majesty. A powerful track on all accounts, its grin-inducing crest of noise mid-song somehow vaguely recalls The Smashing Pumpkins what with its swirling textures and complicated layers. Roaring with all the subtle explosions of a raging tempest, "So Divided" is an excellent anthem for the disaffected and easily shows why it is the name of the album.
The interlocking pieces of "Life" compete with litseners for attention before coming together into a bigger picture whole. Boisterous ebbs-and-flows of sound wash over one's ears while the drums keep a funky rhythm and a piano dances in a rain of softly drifting sparks. Despite its overall beauty, the song features a sort of spiteful, sarcastic undertone that really makes the vocals stand out. A scratchy, buzzing guitar bridge leads into one last flurry of piano keys and brings the song to a stirring climax, and from here the album winds down into its last throes of connected themes.
Picking up from the end of "Life" is the bouncy "Eight Days of Hell." Short and to the point, this is a breezy rock ballad that would have fit in with the genre's earliest founding fathers. Next up to bat is "Witch's Web," a fusion of delicate string orchestra effects and clean guitar picking. As the vocals kick in off a flash of crystalline guitar, a person can be forgiven for thinking they are hearing a classic in the making. Spaced out and heart-wrenching at the time, this one will stick with you much longer than your CD player can run.
"Segue: Sunken Dreams" is a noisy, chilling interlude that really doesn't do anything besides set the stage for "Sunken Dreams." In all honesty though, it doesn't matter as "Sunken Dreams" turns out to be quite the performance. "Sunken Dreams" is easily one of the most cathartic, compelling, and stark tracks the band has ever penned. The guitars are massive in tone and the vocals echo out of some endless void, all while the band churns out a cold slice of alternative that owes as much to A Perfect Circle as it does to The Mars Volta. The music is frequently teasing and jarring; bridges of ever-increasing depth lead to nothing but meandering clean guitar passages and back again. Wailing gang vocals cascade helter-skelter and the song builds itself in such a wash of majestic emotional cleansing that when it ends without any sense of warning one will almost feel empty, as if the song has taken something from you. Wow.
I will admit that I had some doubts about this disc as Worlds Apart was very well-crafted and frankly So Divided came lapping on its heels pretty soon thereafter. Oh, how wrong I was! So Divided shows a band who in reality is anything but; never before has Trail of Dead sounded so in-sync, cohesive, and grand. At times operatic and at others simply mad, the disc fuses decades of musical belief into one shining point of light all their own. To sum it up, So Divided comes highly recommended and is without doubt the alternative rock album of the year.
1. Intro: A Song of Fire and Wine
2. Stand in Silence
3. Wasted State of Mind
4. Naked Sun
5. Gold Heart Mountain Top Queen
6. So Divided
8. Eight Days of Hell
9. Witch's Web
10. Segue: Sunken Dreams
11. Sunken Dreams
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