In the press release for Lost Songs, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead were thoughtful enough to provide an explanation of the album’s lyrics. It’s a helpful tool when reviewing a band whose music is known just as much for its blood-fisted aggression as it is for its prog-leaning obtusity, both of which are on full display here. First track “Open Doors” deals with human trafficking in Cambodia. “A Place To Rest” is about Game Of Thrones.
But without the behind-the-scenes commentary, it might seem like both songs are about human trafficking in Cambodia or Game Of Thrones. The similar treatment of at-odds subject matter isn’t a gimmick, or some wise-ass move from bandleaders Conrad Keely and Jason Reece. It’s about taking their art seriously. Over nearly 15 years and eight albums, the duo has imbued everything they’ve written about, from censorship, to Brian Wilson, to Keely’s own steampunk comic book saga (revisited here in “Opera Obscura and “Heart Of Wires”) with savage musicianship and heart-pounding stakes.
Ever since the release of their most theatrical (and polarizing) works to date — 2005’s underrated Worlds Apart and 2006’s aptly titled So Divided — the band has sharpened its teeth with each successive disc, placing renewed emphasis on the ceaseless guitars, galloping drums, and shortened song lengths (excepting Part II of Tao Of The Dead), all skills showcased in their earlier material. They strip themselves down even further on Lost Songs. Over-lush orchestration is absent and synthesizers are minimal, save for a brief, spacey dilation that opens and closes the record. The ragged intensity results in an urgency not heard since their universally accepted masterpiece, 2002’s Source Tags & Codes. It’s an aesthetic that serves Trail of Dead’s mission of breaking listeners out of that fog that clouds all of our visions with age: apathy.
“The music was partly inspired by the apathy to real world events that has plagued the independent music scene now for over a decade,” the 40-year-old Keely noted in the press release. And while the vaguely apocalyptic lyrics of “Up To Infinity” might not enlighten a fan about the Syrian Civil War as intended, or get a high-schooler up in arms about the incarceration of Russian musical rebels Pussy Riot (to whom it’s dedicated), its hellbent squelch and tidal wave crescendo are sure to get them energized about something. “Catatonia” might not spur any college student to look closer at their “over-privileged, dispassionate generation,” as the band puts it, but Reece’s raw-throated vocals may inspire some healthy thrashing around the dorm room. It’s presumptuous and unfair for Trail Of Dead to shed today’s collective youth in such a selfish light, yet it’s also a viewpoint that keeps things ignited and interesting.
Fantasy epics and agism aside, Lost Songs’ strongest moment is also its most personal. Closer “Time And Again” examines the slippery dynamics of being in a band with both acceptance and melancholia, and, like “Relative Ways” before it, sports a pop jangle that automatically sets it apart from the maelstrom of the group’s other songs. “I had this crazy feeling that I had lost you again/ looked about to find out where you are,” Keely sings at his gentlest to a former band-mate. “Turned around and caught your frown standing on the street/ dressed the color of your guitar.” He goes on to mourn soured relationships and friends who have succumbed to their vices, but also celebrates the fact that they knew each other in the first place. It’s an earworm that runs deep with emotional resonance, and is likely to burrow even into the consciousness of anyone repelled by Lost Songs’ graphic novel mythology or sometimes overzealous politics. Turn on. Tune in. But for god’s sake, just don’t drop out.
Essential Tracks: “Up To Infinity,” “Catatonic,” “Time And Again”