By: Eric Greenwood
"And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead is the most exciting band making records today. Feel free to disagree, but listen to this record first. Source Tags & Codes is this Austin quartet"s major label debut, and, in a shocking and rare twist, it shuns the idea that corporate dollars invariably taint the creative process. There"s no way Interscope is going to recoup expenses on an album like this. Is it possible that Interscope saw beyond the dollar sign and just wanted to put out an amazing record? Probably not, but regardless of the commercial justifications on the business side, Source Tags & Codes just happens to embody everything that countless punk bands have been trying to say for a decade, and that"s all that matters.
The band tipped its hand with its last full length on Merge, Madonna, revealing that it had the potential to create an album this raucously, dynamically, and melodically perfect- that it was just a matter of time. Well, the time is now and Source Tags & Codes will silence any and all detractors. "And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead has long been known for its unbelievably intense live shows (somewhere between The Who and Nirvana), but the recorded evidence never quite lived up. Only the people who had seen the band knew what was really going on. Don"t get me wrong- the first two records are damn good, but true, unrivaled greatness on record has eluded the band until now.
"It Was There That I Saw You" is an astonishing, epic opener. When the mountainous guitars kick in your jaw will hit the floor. The tension created by such an overwhelming surge of noise crackles with excitement. Conrad Keely"s recessive vocal line tries to ride the wave of noise but is no match for the power of the pounding and incessant drums. The result is a poignant mixture of noise and melody. A truly emotional, glass-shattering punk song. "Another Morning Stoner" is a bad title, but it"s a menacing and razor-sharp rocker. Keely"s voice cracks and splinters when he punches it with some of that harmonic dissonance that Kurt Cobain practically invented. The guitars ebb and flow in short, sharp bursts while the drums keep the aggression at bay. Strings sneak in to add to the drama but you have to listen closely.
It"s ironic that a song named after a French sentimentalist ("Baudelaire") would be such a flaunting example of cocky machismo, but bassist Neil Busch"s tough-Guy (Picciotto) slur can"t help but sound naturally affected. It"s a catchy rock song- almost straightforward with its machinated, repetitive riffs and hook-infested chorus. The band takes advantage of the bigger budget to allow horns to underscore the riffs but such window dressing never sounds wasteful or over-indulgent when the music blows your hair back like this. "Homage" blazes with a full-throttle racket. Jason Reece"s gruff voice shatters under the weight of his own intensity and he sounds truly maniacal. Three simple chords haven"t sounded this furious in years. When Reece shrieks "do you believe what I have seen?" it"s hard to imagine anyone saying no.
By the time "How Near, How Far" unravels it"s clear that Source Tags & Codes is well on its way to "album of the year" status. That"s almost an aside compared to how good this song is. The melancholic riff that opens shifts into a Sonic Youth-style arpeggio. (All the critics that have dismissed the band"s previous output as too derivative of Sonic Youth are full of cock. Sure, Sonic Youth was/is an influence but never has it been an over-riding one. You won"t hear any hippie-beat-poetry bullshit on a Trail Of Dead album"). Pistol shot drums back up Keely"s impressively melodic vocals. The band just intuitively knows exactly how to bend the dynamics to suit any emotion. The recessive guitar parts are as affecting as the explosive ones, and Jason Reece is thunderous on the drums. This is arguably the highlight of the album.
When Jason Reece straps on the guitar (and Keely takes over the drum kit) the songs tend to be on the dramatic side. "Heart In The Hand Of The Matter" is no exception, but Reece has really honed his songwriting skills, even if he"s still a bit pretentious on the lyrical front. So, lines like "ride the apocalypse/coming through the city side" are forgiven when the chorus is as catchy and effective as this one: "I"m so damned I can"t win/with my heart in my hands again." "Monsoon" builds and builds and builds but then withdraws instead of lashing out, catching your senses off guard, and the surprise works. The resulting interplay meanders noisily and majestically. Strings and huge drums intersperse with chiming guitars, which spill out of the speakers like a frothy wave.
Perhaps, the band"s most impressive talent is its ability to marry angry punk with multi-dimensional rock and roll. And by "multi-dimensional" I mean the kaleidoscope of emotions that exists between beauty and chaos. "And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead has mastered the technique of keeping one foot firmly grounded in simplicity while the other wanders away unexpectedly, weaving through experimental textures and sounds that are bigger than the band"s collective talents. "Days Of Being Wild" starts off as a typically murderous guitar assault with Jason Reece growling angrily over the wash of cymbals, but it evolves into a plateau of calculated chaos. There"s almost an indescribable brilliance when a band reaches beyond its grasp and actually achieves what it’s set out to do. Few bands ever reach this point, but you can feel it when it happens and it happens here.
"Relative Ways" is another shining star on the album. It"s Conrad Keely"s love letter to rock and roll: "This electric guitar hanging to my knees/got a couple of verses I can barely breathe/it"s all right, it"s ok/it"s coming together in relative ways." The guitars chime gently in a catchy and somewhat repetitive cadence. It"s the band"s most relaxed and effortless song. Keely practically sputters when he pushes his voice, and that amateurish-sounding strain is the most authentic emotion on the album. On the other hand the title track sounds out of place upon first listen. It"s upbeat and pretty. No anger in sight. No tricky musical diversions. Just an honest, open-faced ballad. But after repeated listens it envelopes you in its swirling arpeggios and Keely"s gentle strain becomes the perfect tone for the album"s closing moments.
Source Tags & Codes is an important record on so many levels. It redefines the limitations of punk to incorporate everything from The Beatles, The Who and The Kinks to Fugazi, Sonic Youth, Unwound, My Bloody Valentine and Nirvana. It"s immediate commercial success is of no consequence because word will spread with or without MTV or alternative radio support. This is a record you have to hear to believe. If you don"t take to it immediately you will over time. "And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead takes punk to the level that so many bands have attempted yet so few have achieved and plays its music as a matter of life and death, which is the only way to do it.