To some extent, …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead has always been about drama. Even in their punk rock beginnings, they mixed Fugazi-esque post-hardcore abrasiveness with progressive song structures, while ending live shows in an instrument smashing frenzy. Since the release of 2002’s Source Tags & Codes, however, the Austin, Texas, group has become even more dramatic, musically and otherwise. From the heroic power balladry of 2005’s Worlds Apart, to frontman Conrad Keely’s vocal asshole-tearing of former label Interscope, nothing the band has done in the past five years has been without its theatricality. Yet this shift has also seen the band deliver their most polarizing album to date in So Divided, which tread ground somewhere between ELP and Elton John, while offering a Guided by Voices cover in the process.
That Trail of Dead has been so eager to grow and expand, while maintaining a strong adherence to pop songwriting sensibilities, is laudable, even when their lofty ambitions sometimes produce frustrating material. Emancipated from Interscope and reinvigorated nearly three years after the release of their last album, Trail of Dead have returned with more energy and ambition, ready to rock once again. In fact, the primary frustration with So Divided wasn’t necessarily so much that the band had gone `prog.’ They always were to some degree. Rather, what made it less immediately satisfying was its near absence of furious rock numbers. This is not the case with The Century of Self, the band’s sixth full-length. While it doesn’t reach Source Tags & Codes levels of burliness, necessarily, it has more raw, visceral power than we’ve heard from the band since that very album.
First track “Giants Causeway” is a bit of a tease, a three-minute intro heavy on moogs and theatrics, yet “Far Pavilions” kicks off the album right immediately after, with surging guitar riffs and raw power. “Isis Unveiled” takes that song’s opening surge and kicks it up a notch, exploding into an operatic post-punk rocker that sounds something like The Smiths on steroids/acid/speed/any other drug cliché you got, before slowing down to a dirge-like plod during the song’s latter half. Meanwhile, the similarly epic “Halcyon Days” ascends with a shuffling, marching beat and ominous, heavily pounded piano beneath darkly ringing guitar riffs. And also like “Isis Unveiled,” “Halcyon Days” switches up completely in its second half, dropping its stoic march for a dynamic swing in tempos and volume.
While Trail of Dead’s harder rocking side has re-emerged on The Century of Self, the band still revels in the delicate when they see fit, as on the elegant piano of “Bells of Creation” (which actually still manages to kick into a loud, climactic chorus), or the duo of brief ballads in “Insatiable One” and “Insatiable Two.” “Fields of Coal” is upbeat and powerful, but more of a pop song than a careening rocker, while “Inland Sea,” stately and majestic, is one of the finest songs they’ve written in years.
The second half of The Century of Self does begin to taper off toward softer turns at balladry, but by and large, this album finds …And You Will Know Us by The Trail of Dead playing big, destructive rock songs again, which is all anyone could have asked. Conrad Keely’s ballpoint pen drawing on the cover, however, is just icing on the cake.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.