The progressive streak that …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead have allowed to flourish over the past decade isn’t anything new for the band. Stylistically and logistically, the Austin art rockers have gone through a wide variety of transitions, swelling in number then contracting back to a four-piece, exploring psychedelia, prog and art-pop, while occasionally taking the time to hammer out the high-energy ruckus that defined their earlier albums. Even those earlier albums had their moments of grandeur, though, be it “Novena Without Faith” on their self-titled album, “Aged Dolls” on Madonna, or Source Tags & Codes‘ heroic closing title track. The biggest change over the years isn’t that their biggest songs have gotten bigger, it’s that there’s been even less breathing room between their poles.
In spite of its accessibility, last year’s The Tao of the Dead proved a bit too concept-driven to follow up with something even grander, and wisely, …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead scaled back a little on eighth album Lost Songs. There is no 16-minute closing medley, nor halves divided by different tunings. Even the album cover is a fairly stark black-and-white illustration of the band’s four members’ silhouettes on a street, rather than a Steven Spielberg action-adventure poster. Lost Songs is lean. It’s raw. And in a sharp turn away from the path they’ve followed for more than half a decade, Trail of Dead hone their focus exclusively on making a rock solid album of guitar-based punk songs, resulting in their strongest set in years.
While there’s no concept binding Lost Songs, per se, there is a guiding motivation behind the album that sets it apart from the group’s catalog, namely their reaction to indie rock’s inherently passive nature, and the album’s dedication to a band that certainly does give a fuck — imprisoned Russian punks Pussy Riot — is a pretty strong way to highlight that. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to further that cause with an Ian Mackaye-style rasp as Jason Reece delivers on lead single “Catatonic.” But the lede here isn’t that Trail of Dead cares — if anything they’ve proven for years they care more than anyone expects them to — it’s that they can distill that fire into a succinct and hard-hitting batch of songs.
The album’s most dramatic song is also its first, mirroring the exposition of past album openers, most closely that of Source Tags & Codes‘ “It Was There That I Saw You.” It begins with a synth-laden mist, easing into a percussive intro that explodes in short order into a muscular rock anthem that, while simple, stands as a note-perfect encapsulation of everything the band does right. They do careening post-hardcore on “Pinhole Camera,” a Hüsker Dü-style punk anthem on “Up to Infinity,” marry social criticism of blasé trends in rock to lean post-punk hooks on the title track, and, in one of their prettier moments, let off the noise machine a bit for the sunnier glories of “Awestruck.”
Essentially the whole of Lost Songs comprises a highlight reel, with only a handful of tracks not living up to the rest, but even so, it’s a collection free of bloat. And that’s essentially the point of what …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead is going for. Whether or not it’s best to characterize Lost Songs as the band’s “punk” album, it’s the one that most explicitly embraces its spirit. But romantic ideals are nothing without the songs to match, and those on Lost Songs are the band’s best in years.