Every time I hear the word “epic” used to describe a piece of music — be it an album, a song, or even a guitar solo — a part of my soul reflexively shudders. It wasn’t always this way. For proof, let’s travel back to February of 2002 and the release of Source Tags & Codes, the major label debut of an Austin-based band called …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. Here was an album that did not shirk lyrical meta-narratives and wide-angled shots of its protagonist, that did not shy away from oceanic guitar riffs and haunting string accompaniment. Here was an album, in short, that defined the term “epic” for a new generation of rock fans, present company included. At the core of that definition was a visceral sense of immediacy — a sense that, for whatever reason, this is the music that has to be played now — that was easy enough to reconcile with the ethos of punk. That is how critics got away with inventing the absurd label “prog-punk” to describe Trail of Dead. The band deserves credit, at least, for uniting two genres so diametrically opposed to one another.
“Epic” went south for me somewhere around 2005’s Worlds Apart, the disappointing follow-up to Source Tags. The band did everything they could to expand the scope of their music even further, but fell spectacularly short because, well, their hearts just weren’t in it. They certainly weren’t alone in this regard; the early to mid-2000s saw the invention of the punk rock opera, so plenty of other bands were busy dreaming beyond their musical means. All the while, those of us who simply wanted a damn rock record grew increasingly disenchanted with this newfound fetish for grand statements. “Epic” had become a working term for overblown bullshit.
Thankfully, this story has a happy ending for Trail of Dead, who spent the latter 2000s rediscovering themselves and released the savage Lost Songs in 2012, an honest-to-God rock record without pretense. The shortened song lengths, the distorted guitars, and the flat-out aggression made for a visceral, compelling album, though it lacked some of the magic that made Source Tags so — gulp — epic.
IX, the band’s appropriately titled ninth studio album, has recaptured some of that magic without straying far from what made Lost Songs such an enthralling listen. Consider it a compromise of sorts; the prog heads get their strings and synthesizers and seven-minute songs, while the punks get their simpler itches scratched. It’s an album that has Trail of Dead sounding confident and comfortable in their own skin, and it represents the logical step forward from Lost Songs.
Longtime bandmates Conrad Keely, Jason Reece, and their relatively lean quartet take that step with some initial trepidation. IX’s opening track, “The Doomsday Book”, is a driving rock tune that doesn’t elicit much of a reaction beyond tepid curiosity. Things pick up with “Lie Without a Liar”, which relies on Jamie Miller’s impressive percussion to power the dark melody of the verse. When the song launches into its short, soaring chorus for the first time, it feels as if the band is bursting out of its shell, ready to own the hybrid rock sound they’ve arrived at after 20 years of hits and misses.
The album enters its second half with a surprise in the form of “The Dragonfly Queen”, an affecting song in which Keely plays the role of storyteller more effectively than he has in recent memory. “We were singing and drinking and wanted to let go,” he wistfully recalls, and sure enough, it sounds as if the band has truly shed the baggage of expectations.
“The Dragonfly Queen” marks the point when IX launches into its more ambitious section, as if Keely and co. have finally put their demons to rest and are ready to have some fun again. The instrumental “How to Avoid Huge Ships” is a huge ship in its own right, but it essentially serves as the introduction to “Bus Lines”, the album’s spiritual centerpiece and unquestionably its best song. The sprawling six-minute track never feels self-indulgent as it plots an elegant course between shoegaze and early Sonic Youth. Keely’s voice, peeking out from behind the curtain of distortion at first, becomes more and more assertive as the song picks up steam.
“Lost in the Grand Scheme” follows up that peak with another that’s even (ahem) grander in scheme, but it fails to register quite the same impact. The song meanders a bit more than it should, and it’s easy to forget where you are at points. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Trail of Dead have always been a band that works best when they’re demanding the listener’s attention, as they do on “Bus Lines” and the triumphant closer, “Sound of the Silk”, which backs up its spoken-word bridge with a pummeling guitar riff.
The press release for IX begins with a quote from the band: “This album is about loss and we’ve all experienced it … If you can’t relate, then you aren’t human and you deserve to die.” I laughed when I read it, and I’m sure it’s at least half-joking, but those really do feel like the stakes here. IX is a life-or-death proposition that has something to say and says it well. It may not be an outright classic like Source Tags & Codes, but it finds the band at their most measured yet. And, it feels important — not epic, but important.
Essential Tracks: “Lie Without a Liar”, “The Dragonfly Queen”, and “Bus Lines”