X : The Godless Void And Other Stories by ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of DeadRelease date: January 17, 2020
Label: Inside Out Music
It is hard to believe that Texan rockers …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead have been on the go for 25 years. I first encountered the fiery foursome when they were touring their second album, the superbly named Madonna. Everything about this band felt right, the name conjured pure menace, they had the balls to call their album after one of the world’s biggest pop stars (probably not the reason but I wasn’t to know that) and they looked like they might actually do you harm. With stories of wild abandon doing the rounds I filtered uneasily into a tiny upstairs bar in Belfast that was rammed to the hilt, only the band’s heads were visible. By the end of that show, Jason Reece had impaled his hand on the hi-hat and when I plucked up the courage to speak to him, swigging from a bottle of Jack Daniels, he was totally affable and even offered me some. I’d bump into the band again some years later and they were so friendly, seemingly at odds with the band’s media profile.
Having relocated back to Austin from Cambodia, after a hiatus to discover new worlds and release a solo album, Conrad Keely set about creating the band’s tenth album X: The Godless Void and Other Stories with fellow band members Jason Reece (drums/guitar/vocals), Autry Fulbright II (bass/vocals) and Jamie Miller (drums/guitar). One of the themes of the album is Keely’s “sadness of moving away from a place that I loved”. Of the creative process Keely also states that “I feel like I’m writing pop music…it’s just not Top 20 pop. It’s the pop music I wish was on the radio, the pop music I would’ve grown up with”. As shown on his solo record, Conrad Keely has a great ear for a melody, when coupled with Reece’s punk attitude, the combination can be lethal.
Produced by Keely alongside engineer Charles Godfrey (Of Montreal, Yeah Yeah Yeahs), X: The Godless Void and Other Stories is a thrilling ride from start to finish, an album of outstanding quality, as you might expect. Having said that, in my opinion the band had started to wander too much into realms of over indulgence for some of their recent output. The short sharp shocks of early recordings venturing into expansive tracks with multiple sub-songs and the focus had certainly shifted. Determined to rekindle that early explosive punk pop flame, the band have reverted back to the alternating of instruments and Reece says that “Coming back to the band, there was a new vigour to it. It all feels exciting still”.
Aptly naming the first track ‘The Opening Crescendo’, the band strike up proceedings with mystical chants and tinkling percussion that segues into menacing tension as guitars, piano and swelling keys build a panoramic soundscape. This is a trick …Trail of Dead have used before but I never grow tired of it as they do it with such conviction. The track effortlessly bleeds into ‘All Who Wander’, a rip snorting song with full on punk rock fury coated with a sublime pop sheen. Musically this band are on top of their game with wonderfully orchestrated arrangements that fuse scorching guitars with rolling pianos and goodness knows what else, the mix is so dense. Keely’s voice is powerful and commanding as ever and you wonder how they manage to be so energised after 25 years of kicking out these jams.
The greatness continues with ‘Something Like This’, a dreamy verse floats along on heavenly vocals before pouncing on a staggeringly good chorus that pops and kicks like a cat on a hot tin roof. You get swept along on the sea of flowing guitars into the eye of a storm that weirdly feels so good even though it’s ultimately likely to destroy you. When the storm dissipates, a haunting violin provides a calming end to this glorious song as you gasp for air. This is as good as anything of their milestone album Source Tags & Codes.
Reece takes over vocals on ‘Into the Godless Void’, his manic frenzied hollering comparable to Ian MacKaye’s off kilter rage and it’s this alternating in …Trail of Dead, between the two main protagonists, which keeps the fire burning. The song hurtles along at breakneck speed with Reece spewing bilious lines about heading into the madness, a perfect soundtrack to these crazy times. The band know exactly how to combine superb dynamics with moments of clarity amidst the fury, you barely have time to catch breath.
Keely showed on his solo album of 2016 that he is an absolute master of melody and ‘Don’t Look Down’ is a pristine example with mesmerising overlapping hooks. When he sings “I have another set of eyes, I use to describe, the part of me that’s died. I have another set of lies, I use to describe, the part that’s still alive”, it’s gut wrenching. ‘Gone’ drops the atmosphere downwards with a desolate electronic undertow. The guitars skitter about before the drums pound out a jungle stomp. Keely veered into this territory on his solo album, but this time he has the reliable backing of his band mates to embellish the sound, which of course, they ably do, Reece adding some rage to push the sound levels into the red.
I don’t really want to make the reference, but on ‘Children of the Sky’ Keely sounds like an agitated Noel Gallagher. Dammit, when the band kick in, they also channel some Oasis with a shuffling beat and clean swirling guitars. That’s what I hear anyway and it’s not long before the tenderness is blown to bits, as the song explodes into a volcanic mix of fiery guitars and powerful drums that provide a release of epic proportions.
The album is loaded with all of the big pop songs at the front end, which means the second part becomes more experimental and progressive. This has been a tendency for …Trail of Dead with their latter output, with sequenced songs and conceptual themes. It’s intriguing and unique but not the easiest to stay with. ‘Who Haunts the Haunter’ is the first time on the album I find my attention wander as the song struggles to compete with the succinct delivery of the first half of the record. ‘Eyes of the Overworld’ is an instrumental prog-rock interlude that only allows my attention to stray further away.
Thankfully ‘Gravity’ pulls my focus back with a memorable melody and a psychedelic groove that Keely gets to pour liquid melodies over. The bridge hyper shifts to a higher place where a choir of voices provide a wondrous soaring melody before the track ebbs away with delicate piano. ‘Blade of Wind’ utilises some looping keys to form the backdrop for a song that rises and falls with consummate ease. Once again the instrumentation is so dense you can’t pick out exactly what is creating this humongous throb that Keely swoops over, with some exquisite soaring vocals.
The insistent kaleidoscopic groove of album closer ‘Through the Sunlit Door’ charges along allowing Keely to tease out a chant like vocal and the song encapsulates perfectly the imagery of the album’s cover. There are no other bands on the planet who can provide such a wonderful combination of cover art, sumptuous packaging and sublime music as …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. The careful consideration to both visual and aural excellence really sets Keely and co. apart as incredible artists, who excel when it comes to attention to detail.
This record isn’t breaking any new ground for …Trail of Dead but after 25 years of delivering such immaculately conceived records, they don’t need to be tinkering too much with a winning formula. As I have previously mentioned, there had been a tendency to veer too much into prog-rock indulgence with some of the latter day albums, their need to experiment possibly driven by maturity. With X: The Godless Void and Other Stories, the band have rediscovered their youthful exuberance and pop sensibilities to produce one of their finest albums.