If …And You Will Know Us by The Trail of Dead’s latest album, Worlds Apart is being called “ambitious,” it wouldn’t be the first time such a loaded adjective has been applied to the Austin-based rockers. Since the beginnings they’ve preferred heftier arrangements and more grandiose structures to basic three-chord punk. Madonna was like a more melodic Sonic Youth skipping over Confusion is Sex and jumping straight into Sister. And Source Tags and Codes was a legitimate punk rock opera, bigger and bolder than anything their contemporaries could have ever attempted, save for maybe Unwound’s gravely underrated Leaves Turn Inside You. So, to call Worlds Apart “ambitious” would sound a bit redundant.
When you listen to Worlds Apart, however, it seems, curiously, even bigger and more epic than anything they’ve done before. “Not possible,” you say? Ah, but it is. Rather than inflate the production values or stretch out the song lengths of the style they were previously known for, the notorious instrument-wrecking crew took a step in an entirely different direction, embracing elements of prog, glam rock and, less surprisingly, pop, as their preceding EP, The Secret of Elena’s Tomb, hinted at. Elena‘s “Crowning of a Heart” suggested a kinder, gentler Trail of Dead (that doesn’t sound right), but on Worlds Apart, the band hasn’t softened any. What they have done is create a radio-ready rock album that’s just as dangerous and enormous as their previous records. It just happens to be extremely catchy.
The intensity and volume hasn’t waned on Worlds Apart — it’s still a mind-blowing maelstrom of sound. But the songs seem to be held together with a tighter songwriting and the slightest penchant for “classic rock” tendencies. “Summer 91,” “All White” and “The Best” all could have been plucked from Aladdin Sane, with their piano-led melodies and lustrous, near-glam arrangements. More modern comparisons like Failure’s Fantastic Planet and Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream come to mind as well, as Worlds Apart shares both albums’ gi-normous guitar-rock sound and spaced-out transitions. In a word (or three), it’s their punk rock opera.
As usual, however, Trail of Dead are at their most impressive when they’re rocking out. The title track, also the first single, opens with Conrad Keely’s blunt “fuck you, man!” as the opening riff gives way to a Pogues-y waltz. Keely aims his barbs at MTV and upper class America in this song, culminating in a chorus of “How they laugh as we shovel the ashes/Of the Twin Towers.” Elsewhere, “Caterwaul” displays a straightforward rock anthem complete with a group-chanted chorus. “Will You Smile Again,” which pays lyrical homage to Brian Wilson, is, quite possibly, the most dynamic song on the disc, transitioning from typical TOD-style opening riffage to ambient dream pop to thudding glam rock stomp. With a trumpet. And the previously mentioned “The Best” is an operetta with a similarly deceptive intro and an irresistibly Weill-ian melody.
Though Worlds Apart isn’t, as the name would imply, a complete rebirth for the band, it shows the band trying their hand at a new approach. It seemed unlikely that Trail of Dead could have improved upon the thunderous sound of Source Tags and Codes, but most of us just weren’t thinking as big as they were. Their brand of art has no limits.
Failure – Fantastic Planet
Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream
Unwound – Leaves Turn Inside You
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.