Release Date: Feb 17, 2009
Record label: Richter Scale/Justice
On the surface, The Century of Self is more than a little similar to ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead's previous two albums, Worlds Apart and So Divided: The songs' sounds and scopes are of epic proportions, and just as high concept as the band's previous work, if not more so -- the album takes its name from an acclaimed BBC documentary, and war and religion are just some of the heady topics it tackles. However, The Century of Self sounds liberated where Worlds Apart and So Divided often seemed labored. This is no coincidence.
Chocolate GeniusThe latest twist in the trail is more cleanly blazedThe obvious story of Trail of Dead’s latest is their departure from the major label world after a string of (at least commercial) diminishing returns across its last two albums. For those that dug in and listened carefully to Worlds Apart and So Divided, though, it was clear that the band had refused to let the resounding acclaim that greeted 2002’s Source Tags & CodesEffectively stripped of some of their more overt debts to Sonic Youth and vaguely gesturing at a prog tradition few would have initially placed them in, the band has come out the other side of the Interscope years perhaps a bit looser in their ambition but with a bit more focus. Although this year’s model offers its share of measured drama, even the unfolding epics like “Halcyon Days” feel more organic, particularly juxtaposed against taut, effective rockers like “Ascending.
Looking back at the creatively robust but commercially feeble six years Trail of Dead spent at Interscope, it’d be easy to claim the Austin oddball geniuses were misunderstood; in reality, they were simply misplaced. Sadly, a new home hasn’t reignited their spark; Century of Self, as the title suggests, is indulgent and inward, lacking the dynamism and melodiousness of their 2005 masterpiece, Worlds Apart. There’s early promise of a Dead revival in rocker ”Far Pavillions” and the epic prog of ”Bells of Creation,” but the album’s meandering second half loses us as it loses itself.
Turned loose from the Interscope fold following the release of 2007’s commercially lukewarm So Divided, …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead is a band now well-versed in the role of casualty. Their most recent outing, The Century of Self, sees the Austin three-piece seeking solace in familiar territory with an album of pummeling grandiosity and cascading dynamics. Aside from a handful of glorious moments, though, tepid songwriting and a number of recyclables from the already battered hardcore playbook mar the effort, registering a “should have been” in place of a genuine comeback.
It's difficult to know what to say about this, the sixth pouring forth of ideas from the best fuckin' band in Texas, and how to say it accurately and fairly. The first listen to The Century of Self brings nothing but acute disappointment. We are, let's recall, listening to the band who wrote the 'fuck you, world' that was Madonna, the almost universally lauded Source Tags & Codes and the heinously derided and actually completely magnificent Worlds Apart.
It’s always roughest past the peak. For Austin alterna-prog heroes …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, 2002’s Source Tags & Codes was their peak, subsequent attempts at repeat acclaim failing to transpire. With Interscope out of the picture, Trail Of Dead’s sixth album, The Century Of Self, finds the band in “roots” mode, retracing old steps so as to cover new territory.
Trail of Dead's post-major label debut, The Century of Self, may be the Austin institution's most conceptually complete work to date, a post-prog cathedral of mythical mini-epics, though it's by no means the band's masterpiece. Whereas 2005's Worlds Apart and the following year's So Divided fractured beneath the weight of TOD's disillusioned angst and grandiose ambitions, this sixth LP marks a welcome return to the destructive urgency of the group's 2002 triumph, Source Tags and Codes. Cornerstone "Far Pavilions" finds strength somewhere in between, balancing not only mood with movement but also multi-instrumentalist Jason Reece's brute force with singer/guitarist Conrad Keely's moody blues, the pendulous push and pull between the band founders adding further momentum to the metallic march.
Say what you will about …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, but the band has been nothing if not true to themselves. Their erratic path is well-documented by now: Bouncing from label to label in the late ’90s, the Austin group made a reputation for itself on incendiary live shows and dynamic full-lengths. Then came the major label detour to Interscope and the albatross of 2002’s Source Tags and Codes, followed by two successive albums of opulent prog-rock that alienated long-time fans and their label.