And you will think the Austin-based band And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead might be working a gimmick or two. First, they've got that long, seemingly tongue-in-cheek name, which, besides being the best use of ellipses ever by a rock band, hints at a comic-book braggadocio most often attributed to rap groups like the Wu-Tang Clan. It's an audacious name, suggesting puns like "killer live shows" and "death metal" and implying lots of loud, loud noise.
It might also be a reference to the dismembered corpses of instruments they leave behind: The band is renowned for ritualistically trashing the stage during live shows, dismantling drum sets, gutting guitars, bashing basses, and killing keyboards. Such violence has many precedents in rock history, from the Who to Jimi Hendrix to Nirvana, among too many others, and it might appear a bit contrived on the surface, like a novice poet writing his name in lowercase letters à la e.e. cummings.
But Trail Of Dead -- namely, Kevin Allen, Neil Busch, Conrad Keely, and Jason Reece -- doesn't play the name or the destruction as affectations; in fact, the band treats them so earnestly and seriously that they almost become pretensions. The name is taken from a prayer to the Mayan corn god, Apuk. And the band members insist it's not "talkin' 'bout my generation" angst or counterculture rebellion that drives them to splinter guitars and trash stages but the intensity of the music they create.
The band's approach to that music can be generously described as ambitious and cathedral or disregarded as ostentatious and noisy. With a predilection for Dungeons & Dragons imagery -- monsters on album covers, winged women on their Web site -- and a peculiar strain of bleak existentialism, these guys seem more like dorm-room outcasts than feted art-punks. On past albums, songs carrying Led Zeppelinesque titles such as "Prince With a Thousand Enemies" and "Gargoyle Waiting" confront big issues like religion and identity. They famously named their second album Madonna, more for the Catholic symbol of divine purity than for the American symbol of artistic vampirism.
Source Tags & Codes, the band's third album, does not dispense with the lengthy name, the destruction, or even the weighty subject matter, but it is perhaps the first time the band's music overshadows everything else and coheres into a unique, powerful statement. The members themselves form a similarly cohesive unit, switching instruments and vocal duties from track to track, creating songs that are more elemental, focused, and dynamic.
Like its predecessors, the new album is noisy, busy, loud, smart, angry, and inquisitive. Discordant interludes crowd between the songs, which meander from anthemic rockers such as "Another Morning Stoner" to punk firestarters such as "Days Of Being Wild" to the hazy indie comedown of the title track.
Fifteen or 20 years ago, this sort of music would have been labeled "college rock" and played on university radio stations with the Pixies and Sonic Youth -- two obvious influences. Source Tags & Codes conveys a strong nostalgia for the days when 120 Minutes and college stations were still viable outlets for new music by bands suspicious of videos and loath to sell out.
But today, Trail Of Dead tours with labelmates Queens Of The Stone Age and gets attention from mainstream press such as Rolling Stone and Spin. And instead of the Pixies and Sonic Youth, singles "Another Morning Stoner" and "Relative Ways" get played with the Promise Ring and the White Stripes.
I abhor the word "emo," but there are similarities between Trail Of Dead and many of the bands that commonly fall under that rubric, just as the band shares the Pixies' blistering experimentalism and Sonic Youth's ugliness/beauty contrasts. Source Tags & Codes similarly combines punk ferocity with the current minigenre's emphasis on emotional intensity.
But relative to their emo brethren, Trail Of Dead are more worldly and less naive -- they're the older brothers who've been to college and read a little Nietzsche, some Descartes, and lots of Sartre. They make art-damaged rock for philosophy majors. And they write songs about women instead of girls -- all of whom are long gone. These women didn't make a dramatic country-song exit, packing their bags and cussing their men. Rather, they long ago drifted away and are now lost in the hazy mist of memory, distant muses who still inspire the band's art. "It was there that I saw you," they sing in the lead track, "In the heat of the summer's embrace/And as time went by/I wondered what became of you."
Ultimately, such unabashed romanticism is Source Tags & Codes' singular audacity. Amid the apocalyptic rock of "Heart In the Hand Of the Matter" ("Ride the apocalypse/Coming through the city side/There is nowhere to hide") and the sharp-edged punk of "Days Of Being Wild" ("Find my pulse/Trapped in a locked box/Teeth in a grind/All-night amphetamines"), there lies a novelistic examination of lost loves and lost opportunities, an unexpectedly plaintive nostalgia that flirts with sentimentality. On "How Near How Far," they sing, "Looking back in time/Through verses set into nursery rhymes/At oil-painted eyes/Of muses left behind." Elsewhere, they describe "the stained-glass caverns of my mind." All of this would sound precious and pretentious if not for the crashing cacophony around the words and the sense of gravity and true loss in the music.
Ultimately, Source Tags & Codes is about all the things surrendered to time: lovers and loved ones, youthful rebellion, hope in God and redemption. The yearning for these things can never be fulfilled, and Trail Of Dead sensitively evokes a deep, fundamental sadness that is no gimmick but immense and complex and marks Source Tags & Codes more deeply than any mere gesture.
with The Witnesses
Young Avenue Deli
Tuesday, September 24th