Tao of the Dead
Richter Scale/Superball Music
To say that listening to …And They Will Know Us By The Trail Of The Dead is a substantial investment is an understatement. The band has made a career of ambitious undertakings; their first big breakthrough coming with 2002’s Source Tags & Codes – an album revered by many as the band’s crown jewel. Since then though, critics haven’t held back when criticizing the quartet’s struggle living up to past achievements – many accusing the band of losing themselves under the growing layers of instrumentation of would-be epics.
Several albums later though and the band seems to be fighting back with their latest two-part full length, Tao Of The Dead. Whereas tracks once averaged over five minutes apiece – in large part due to meandering intros and drawn out conclusions – they now compliment each other, weaving a rich, complimentary sonic tapestry. An easy comparison would be to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, and how the entire album plays out as a single work – each song representative of an individual chapter. The result overcomes the detriment of lofty aspirations, bestowing Tao Of The Dead a remarkable ease of listening.
Success through impeccable pacing helps the album stand tall above the competition. Opener “Introduction: Let’s Experiment” takes an entirely instrumental approach, starting small and snowballing into a gusty tornado of swirling synth and a Minus The Bear-esque tonal flow. At just the right moment the track segues into the scraggly guitar driven slow rocker “Pure Radio Cosplay,” which thanks to the static driven chorus overcomes its own tight little exit tangent, eventually picking up with the percussive rollout of lead single “Summer Of All Dead Souls.” Blown out vocals and classic rock choruses undulate over the three-minute track, escalating to and unraveling in a keen display of psych-rock.
The band rounds out their creation with a handful of spoken word treks. For instance, “Cover The Days Like A Tidal Wave” serves the album well, crafting a mind-bending array of cryptic noise that constructs a bleak apocalyptic force. Dark moments call upon the appropriately saddened mystic that builds up – or should I say tears down – “Fall Of An Empire.”
While the bulk of the album plays through a filmy haze, at about the half way mark “Spiral Jetty” marks a vocal departure. Aided by his suddenly crisp, upbeat backing band, vocalist Conrad Keely now speaks with a once foreign clarity. It’s a wonderful mid-album high that is just one example of how the band remains fresh even in its final stretch. For that matter, the return of “Pure Radio Cosplay” in its “Reprise” form confirms each song’s potential for repeat visits.
Just as the disc seems to wrap up with the wistful gust of “Ebb Away,” “The Fairlight Pendant” emerges with hectic disorder and ephemeral concentration. While it might seem a fitting conclusion, listeners are treated to the succinctly ambitious fifteen-minute spiritual “Tao Of The Dead Part Two: Strange News From Another Planet.” This selection offers a second wind where other albums wear thin, and could very-well warrant a review in itself. Think of it as Tao Of The Dead-lite, or a continuous repackaging of only Tao’s most immediate successes. The band knows that by this point they’re asking a favour of their audience, so they skip transitional filler and pack all five pieces with only the best cuts.
Lyrically, not having a background with Trail Of The Dead, I’ve had a challenging time deciphering some of the themes and meanings. Even the accompanying fold out booklet picks up like a serial in a graphic novel series, and comes filled with all sorts of connotations and history far above my head. From what I’ve been able to piece together, the album furthers the band’s mythos and lore without going overboard. Most importantly, nothing feels too overwhelming for a relative newcomer like myself, but I imagine that those with a history will decode many of the more obvious meanings I’ve overlooked.
Overall, Tao Of The Dead achieves a wonderful balance between complexity and approachability. After a flip-flop of past releases, Trail Of The Dead are back, and in a big (but never overpowering) way. Consider this a spiritual reawakening.