by Casey Dolan
Conrad Keely sits behind a desk sketching. His alert brown eyes dart up, absorbing what bandmates Jason Reece and Kevin Allen are saying regarding the upcoming album for …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. The academic Keely provides a deep foil for Reece, who displays a voluptuous, convivial athleticism. Reece is talkative despite the rigors of a rough and ready one-off gig the previous night. The laughs come easy. Less so for the taciturn Allen, whose bloodshot eyes indicate a slower recovery.
The Austin band is in recovery mode in toto. Once one of the most praised groups of the post-rock era, an unhappy deal with Interscope resulted in three albums in which the band’s curious mix of melodic beauty and wild anarchic blare was reduced to a programmatic repertoire tailored for radio (although the first of the three –2002’s “Source, Tags and Codes” — is, in all fairness, its most widely praised album earning a 10 out of 10 rating from Pitchfork).
The band left Interscope in 2007 and formed their own Richter Scale Records, partnering with Justice Records (the home of Willie Nelson and Kris Krisofferson) and distributed by Fontana/Universal outside of Europe. Following a teaser EP released October 21, “Festival Thyme,” that gives clear indications of what is to come, the band will release the most ambitious album of its career on February 17, 2009 and possibly put together its most ambitious tour. To complicate the current demands, frontman Keely moved to New York last year leaving the remainder in Austin.
No sign of any schism between the three principals was seen the night before. In a one-off performance intended to recapture their noisy early days in Austin, …Trail of Dead appeared as a bassless trio at the Echo. The audience, who had expected a much fuller ensemble, initially seemed confused. Old familiars — “Gargoyle Waiting,” “Another Morning Stoner” — received muted response, but by the night’s end they were ecstatically pumping fists in the air through the two encores.
The trio stressed the raw, punk side of their more multi-faceted expanded ensemble. This was the profile that earned their initial reputation in Austin nearly 14 years ago, but it masked their consummate abilities in other directions.
At the beating heart of …Trail of Dead there has always been a duality: between atavism and religiosity, a restless pushing and pulling between the Dionysian abandon of a falling Marshall stack amid screams to the pagan gods of rock ‘n’ roll toilets everywhere versus the Apollonian calm of a transfigurative mysticism, some of which harrowingly depicts a final judgment worthy of any Michael Wigglesworth stanza or Yeatsian epiphany. None better illustrates this than a verse and chorus from “Bells of Creation”:
I was standing in the midst of the great company
Listening to their voices in ecstacy
And I watched as all creation was sang into being
It kept changing
And all at once I caught a pulse and felt a rhythm
And I thought of the Song of the Ages
But then the balance tipped and opened up a schism
And it felt like raging.
Given the size of the Echo and their still enormous sound even as a three-piece, the set often sounded like a cement mixer pounding pebbles. The sound man tried to compensate for the harsh high-end by boosting Reece’s kick drum (and it worked to some extent as a bass simulator), but, sadly, so much of the band’s melodic invention was lost in the engine’s roar.
As a preview of the album, the gig failed and was, indeed, irrelevant. Only one song from both the EP and album, “Bells of Creation,” was performed and the overall sound bore no resemblance to the greater part of an album which could very well signal a turning point in the band’s career.
The still-untitled album is an enormously expressive work that acts as a summation of everything that came before and points toward a future of greater musical complexity. There is a majesty, a maturity and gravitas that suggests “masterwork.” All of Keely and Freece’s melodic gifts are on display and the interweaving guitar parts, layered vocals, rich and diverse keyboard sounds employing real string samples combine to form an overwhelming whole. Changes in meter from 4/4 to 6/8 (and 9/8 in one tune), a signature mark of the band, are never token nods to prog inclinations, but seamlessly integrated into complete song statements.
No single is immediately obvious, although “Bells of Creation” seems a likely candidate.
Old fans will appreciate the blood and thunder of the opening three tracks. The spirit of a pop Sonic Youth is there — with screams, feedback, noise and simple Mogwai-like immensity. But as the album begins in violent birth, so it transforms by the fourth track and, lo, enter beauty, consideration and wisdom. That might win them new fans — fans who appreciate the composer’s compass of a (dare I speak the name?) Radiohead — but it could equally continue to alienate those who dismissed them several albums ago.
Not so surprisingly, given Keely’s heritage, Irish motifs spring up at various points: the opening instrumental track title (see below), the sing-song chorus on “Fields of Coal” and a quasi-ceilidh band effect of string sounds on “Isis Unveiled.” Bells, feedback loops and startling close harmony vocals contribute to the rich palette of sounds.
Producer Chris Coady (TV On the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Grizzly Bear) was a boon addition to the project, bringing a wealth of technological savvy the band hadn’t employed before, but his involvement was necessitated by a severing of ties.
Reece explains, “We started recording in the March of this year. There were a lot of breakups in time…we lost a producer (long-time associate Mike McCarthy). We kind of “switched producers.” It was kind of mutual….”
“It was a moving along,” interrupts Keely. “I think he felt that in the direction we were going, he probably didn’t feel like he knew how he could contribute, trying to do this new ambition…. It was a long relationship that came to its conclusion. I think, with especially what we were trying to do, that we [wanted to] embrace recent technology, like take what’s going on right now. To me, the changes in technology always have to be at the heart of the creative expression. Mike McCarthy’s a traditionalist; he’s not really moving with the times. The choice of Chris Coady had a lot to do with his ability to grasp…obviously, a common vocabulary.
“Chris had his own opinions about how to make soft synths sound rich. So I was constantly giving him files in Logic [Apple’s studio application]. It would just be raw data that you’d pass through a million processors and that’s where he lost me because I don’t know anything about gear in that sense. I’m learning, but it’s a pretty arcane art to me.”
“A lot of cables,” adds Reece.
“…Patch this together,” says Allen.
And, finally, Keely says, “It was a very small studio.”
“But it’s still basically analog,” Allen says. “It only has 24 tracks.”
“The basic stuff is analog, you know, what we did live,” says Reece. “Live to 2-inch tape: drums, guitars, bass, flying around in a room…. Some songs have two drummers.”
Keely laughs. “One song has three (‘Halcyon Days’).”
The band received some unexpected assistance during recording.
“We had people come in and guest on it,” says Reece. “Yeasayer…and Brenda Radney. She’s on Justin Timberlake’s label. That was like a weird accident…. [Producer] Chris Coady has this one area [of the studio] and John Hill [the producer/writer of Santogold]…has this other area. All the people who were going through his place walked through this corridor, so they would have to hear us working. This girl was like, ‘Hey, what you guys up to?'”
Keely elaborates, “That was the fun thing about working in New York. You had this small community of other people in bands to call upon, pop in. Chris was friends with Yeasayer and brought them in. We had friends, Dragons of Zynth, and just local bands who…just came in and sang.”
But nothing was simple in the development of this album. Even the final process had to be redone. Jason Reece explains, “We actually mastered this record before, then we just didn’t like the way it sounded, so we had to revamp, rethink everything out.”
Keely continues to sketch. Perhaps at his fundamental core, Conrad Keely is a visual artist. His artwork for the album is close to finish. He’s working on a elephant processional scene, “Classical. Slightly Graeco-Roman. The elephant is the symbol of our label and the procession is supposed to illustrate the idea of moving forward.”
The touring group will be six in number, but, if Keely has his way, will also include traveling art exhibits, spoken word interludes and other forms of multi-media.
Album song titles and current sequence (Regarding the sequence, Keely says “The final version [was figured out on the plane from New York two days earlier]. The first three songs will never change. That was part of the original sequence.”):
- Giant’s Causeway (renamed, but still Irish-themed, from “The Betrayal of Roger Casement and the Irish Brigade” on the EP and a different mix)
- Far Pavilions
- Isis Unveiled (The first three songs work as an almost continuous intro to the whole album. Each song neatly dovetailing into the next)
- Halcyon Days (Allen says, “This is where the album really changes, in that breakdown in the middle…. [The album up to that point is like] the last scene in ‘2001.”)
- Bells of Creation (available as a stream on the band’s myspace page and on the EP in a different mix; also available as a one-week only download at RCRDLBL.com)
- Fields of Coal (with a Dylanesque vocal and quasi-sea shanty chorus)
- Inland Sea (available in edited form on the EP and a production highlight)
- Luna Park
- Pictures of an Only Child (one of Keely’s earliest songs, mainly autobiographical and with surprising changes in key)
- Insatiable I (a stripped down piano waltz)
- Ascending (has a double, not doubled, vocal with one singing half-time. A section of the song is in 9/8)
- August Theme
- Insatiable II (The fuller reprise of track 10, and ends with a mighty repeated chorus: “I’m the monster, I exist/On this summit, I am lost/On its slopes I’ve seen/The world as she was meant to be seen.” This Shelleyan ode (both Mary and Percy) to the primeval was inspired by Gigantopithecus, the historical King Kong that lived in southeast Asia almost a million years ago and, in the song, our source ancestor).
Photo by Rachael Warner