Tao Of The Dead is the best thing the group …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead have recorded in nearly 10 years. For a band that I had just about completely written off, it is an amazing achievement. Although this is only February, I have a very strong feeling this album will be high on many Top 10 lists at the end of 2011. By going back to their roots (or their Tao, if you will), Trail Of Dead have made the strongest statement of their entire career.
In 2002, the Austin, Texas group released their major label debut Source Tags & Codes on Interscope Records. For many of us fans, it was not only album of the year, but one of the finest records of the decade. Worlds Apart (2005) and So Divided (2006) followed, with an expanded lineup. I must admit that this version of the group was not really for me, or for Interscope either as it turned out. They were dropped from the label, and The Century Of Self (2009) was released independently.
When word started leaking out that the band had scaled back to a four-piece and were working on songs for some sort of “epic,” I was intrigued. On the one hand, getting back to basics was exactly what I was hoping they would do. On the other, I had some definite concerns about this “epic” business.
Main songwriter and vocalist Conrad Keely conceived of Tao as a tribute to classic prog albums of the ’70s. In the vinyl days, you got two separate suites when you bought albums such as Close To The Edge by Yes, or Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd. Such was his idea for Tao. The first 11 cuts segue together seamlessly, and constitute “Part I.” “Tao Of The Dead Part II: Strange News From Another Planet” is a 16:32 track made up of five “movements.” These segments refer back to each other throughout the piece.
One of the things Trail Of Dead have always specialized in is the art of the slowly-building song. The introduction can go on seemingly forever, while the tension is gradually increased. Then comes the incredible guitar-fueled release.
Nowhere is this better displayed than on the first track, “Introduction: Let’s Experiment.” When the break finally comes, it is shocking. They reproduce the glorious saxophone moment when Clarence Clemons takes Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” into a truly magical realm. That has always been one of my favorite musical touches in The Boss’s nearly 40-year career. Trail Of Dead pretty much “had me at hello” with this brilliant bit.
There are many, many other honorable mentions on Tao Of The Dead. The way the first 11 tracks flow together is one. Obviously, great care was taken in making this a unified work. A nod to The Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash,” as the main riff of “Pure Radio Cosplay,” works nicely. In fact, during the “Pure Radio Cosplay (Reprise),” which comes towards the end, “Introduction,” melds with “Cosplay.” The effect is that of Bruce and The Stones together in the studio.
The four cuts that make up the middle section of “Part I,” titled “Fall Of The Empire,” “The Wasteland,” “The Spiral Jetty,” and “Weight Of The Sun,” really make the case for Neely’s vision. Each of these relatively short songs have a similar acoustic/electric guitar makeup, and just fit together perfectly. Cut number 11, “The Fairlight Pendant,” closes out the suite in a gloriously manic, instrumental manner.
Then we come to the much more experimental “Strange News From Another Planet.” It works as something of a summation of the previous tunes. There is certainly nothing “otherworldly” about this lengthy track. Trail Of Dead’s greatest talent lay in their ability to mix powerful guitar riffs with catchy-as-hell hooks. On “Strange News,” this ability is prominently displayed.
The progressive rock cover art resembles that of Roger Dean, and was done by the multi-talented Conrad Keely. Tao Of The Dead is a fabulous album, and there is already a spot reserved for it in my Top 10 of 2011.