And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead: The Century of Self
I’ll just come out and say it: The Century of Self is ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead’s best record since Source Tags & Codes. That album, their first for Interscope Records, found the band grasping at the outsized ambitions no one thought they could achieve, and actually catching a glimpse of it. Bombastic yet earnest with gritty yet hummable melodies and hard-hitting guitars, the volatile album announced the arrival of …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. It was the sound of a band operating at the peak of their powers, toeing the line between challenging their limits and overreaching themselves.
After that is where things went downhill. Understandably, the band had no idea how to follow the grand Source Tags & Codes. (Il)logically, they decided to try and go with the “if it rocks on 10, dial it up to 100” approach on Worlds Apart and So Divided. Critics derided the overstuffed arrangements, bloated songwriting, and overwrought instrumentation, but one could more easily sum up the band’s indulgent streak with a single factoid: they had two drummers.
The Century of Self sounds more relaxed and loose, and it seems that the band have finally reached the point where they are not as concerned with trying to top themselves. This could be attributed to the fact that Trail of Dead recorded The Century of Self on their own label, Richter Scale Records. Which isn’t to say the band have traded in their brand of epic rock for acoustic guitars; they can still throw down. “Isis Unveiled” blasts out of the gate with jagged guitars and cymbal crashes before morphing into a stomping chant and back again, and “Far Pavilions” surges and crests like all good Trail of Dead songs do. But the album also finds the band more comfortable with its plaintive side, with pianos and strings that function well within the song rather than being relegated to decorative detail. “Fields of Coal” has a sing-along feel similar to “The Rest Will Follow,” but is more understated, and “Luna Park” along with “Insatiable One” and “Insatiable Two” find frontman Conrad Keely actually trying to sing, with better than expected results.
That being said, there is nothing on The Century of Self that is as bracing or moving as anything on Source Tags & Codes. I know, I know, the fact that the band has moved on from trying to top that album is probably what makes this one better than the albums in between, but making an album filled with songs that sound very similar – but just not as good - will inevitably yield comparisons. The Century of Self is not a bad album at all. It’s better than any album of the same ilk out right now, and a perfectly good introduction to the band. But it’s tough to keep Source Tags & Codes completely out of the picture, as it’s a reminder of how potent and intoxicating …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead once were. However, The Century of Self and its willingness to breathe and give the listener room is a step in the right direction, and hopefully the stepping stone to another chapter of the band’s career, which will continue to be plagued by previous accomplishments if they refuse to grow.
- Kevin Na