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Volume and violence
The intellectual punk of . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead

It’s only January, but the 2005 award for Most Grandiose Opening of a Rock Album may already be in the bag when Worlds Apart (Interscope), the fourth CD by Austin’s . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, hits stores this Tuesday. The disc begins with an "Overture" driven by pounding 5/4 drums, distant strings, and the ominous intonations of a vocal choir. Before long, the strings and the choir are replaced by insistent, overdriven guitars that sound awfully loud no matter how low you turn your stereo. The beat reaches a point of such intensity that combustion seems inevitable; then it stops. Over a lonesome muted trumpet, guitarist/drummer/vocalist Conrad Keely sings the first reedy lines of "Smile Again": "Close the door and drift away/Into a sea of uncertainty." The volume slowly builds again, eventually climaxing with that original fevered 5/4 beat. More than eight minutes after it began, the music ends and a gang of kids cheers. "Fuck you, man!" Keely yells, sounding supremely pissed off. The kids all laugh in response.

This eight-minute span encapsulates what’s special about Trail of Dead. Not only do they make music of pulsating, almost unrelenting force and drama, but they also have an amusing side. Worlds Apart is full of songs that recall the sheer sonic bulk of bands like My Bloody Valentine and U2, with lyrics that indict modern society while hinting that hope can still be found amid the wreckage. ("Look ahead, dry your eyes/It can be done" are the final words of the piano-led anthem "Summer of ’91.") But it also finds space for lighter moments, like the fruity violin that flutters through a kitsch-drenched instrumental waltz called "Russia My Homeland."

In another era, Trail of Dead might have been labeled art rock. These days, they’re more likely to be called punk intellectuals — not such a big difference. What is different, and surprising, is that this artistically uncompromising outfit is toiling for one of the world’s largest entertainment conglomerates. Worlds Apart is the second installment in a four-album deal with Interscope, the same folks who bring you Eminem and U2. How can this be? Word is that Trail of Dead are a favorite of Interscope head honcho Jimmy Iovine. If that’s true, maybe there’s hope for major labels after all.

Before signing with Interscope, Trail of Dead hardly seemed destined for mainstream recognition. Not that they weren’t interesting enough — if anything, they were too interesting. In the late ’90s, word began to circulate through the rock underground about their live shows. Keely and co-founder Jason Reece would regularly switch instruments on stage, going back and forth between drums and guitar. But no matter who was playing what, the volume remained punishingly high and the mood violent — Trail of Dead were notorious for trashing venues, destroying their equipment, and wounding one another.

The violence has leveled off in more recent years, but the passion hasn’t diminished; the band are just finding new ways to express it. On their Web site, www.trailofdead.com, Keely has posted several mock-academic essays about high and low culture. "Death of the Enlightened Amateur: A Brief Summary of Key Developments in Western Music" was included with the press’s advance copies of Worlds Apart. From its conclusion: "the demise of our need to work for music, to have a certain affinity to it, whether it be seeing it performed for us by apt musicians or listening to a family member reading it out of a songbook . . . makes us the consummate insatiable consumer. . . . Our musical ears are overstuffed with variations without ever paying attention to theme, obsessed with consumption without any focus on merit. And we will continue to break off chunks of the pure form and dilute it with any whim available simply because it is available, for there is no longer any actual activity associated with our ability to appreciate."

As usual, Keely here has both his tongue in his cheek and his heart on his sleeve. He’s telling us that he and his band mates want to bring back the "focus on merit" and the "need to work for music." They are working, and working hard, for music with real merit; they want us to recognize this, but most important, they want us to work hard for music too. That kind of work may feel uncomfortable at first, Keely acknowledges, but its emotional rewards can be immense. And the reward for the band would be that one day you will know Trail of Dead by the trail of grateful listeners.

Issue Date: January 21 - 27, 2005
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