Rock critics overuse the word “pretentious” with the same vigor and over-enthusiasm NorCal teenagers have for “hella.” Basically, any band attempting to rise above AC/DC levels of lyrical acumen and sonic complexity gets slapped with the pejorative — a critical sword that, with overuse, has been worn down to the bluntness of a Wiffle bat.
Even so, from the name on down, Austin’s … And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead freely makes itself a ridiculously easy target.
Observe AYWKUBTTOD’s new CD, Worlds Apart. Its twenty-page booklet is a breathtaking gallery of epic medieval war-style paintings, art collages, and formal portraits (Shakespeare and Bach get the nod), with the lyrics scrawled in painstakingly frilly calligraphy. The record begins with “Ode to Isis,” an operatic intro wherein a full-blown chorus chants the names of various Egyptian gods. The following track, “Will You Smile Again,” is a three-part suite — by turns corrosive and contemplative — paying homage to Brian Wilson, though it abruptly ends with co-frontman Conrad Keely shouting “Hey, fuck you, man!” at a pack of giggling kids. From then on, Apart is a sonic orgy of choirs, orchestras, bleating birds, two-drummer assaults, spoken interludes, and a Carnegie-worthy violin solo entitled “To Russia My Homeland.”
Furthermore, early press copies of the disc were bundled with a Keely-penned 2,500-word rant entitled “Death of the Enlightened Amateur: A Brief Summary of Key Developments in Western Music,” which bears a more cumbersome title than one of his earlier manifestos, “Abstract Art Is Shit.”
Ostensibly, this is a rock band.
“Pretentious?” asks Trail of Dead co-frontman Jason Reece. “All my favorite bands have always been accused of being pretentious. It’s kind of hilarious. Some people probably think we’re just drinking wine and eating cheese and talking about Nietzsche or whatever. If you were to hang out with us, you’d gather really quickly that we’re not exactly completely serious all the time.”
In fact, if you saw them live, you’d gather really quickly they were Mountain Dew-addled, self-destructive sociopaths. TOD shows are notoriously brutal affairs, usually ending with the band literally trashing its gear onstage — at a Great American Music Hall show late last year, the bassist tossed his instrument into the second-story balcony behind the stage, while Reece pulled the hi-hat from his completely upended drum kit, carried it out to the cusp of the venue entrance, and stomped on it as the crowd looked on in horrified delight. (When Jason stalked off afterward, a fan grabbed the remains and ran out of the building.)
Seven years into the band’s existence, the gear-trashing thing is a full-blown personal cliché the band has taken pains to play off and pare down — “When it’s a good night, we tend to get a little more destructive,” Reece allows — but TOD clearly relishes visceral, cinematic violence, be it physical or intellectual. After a pair of celebrated indie releases, the band signed to Interscope and exploded in 2002 with Source Tags and Codes, a more straightforward symphony of destruction and desperation that produced some of the most stirring rock anthems our young century has produced: “How Near How Far” and “Days of Being Wild” make you want to buy your own musical instruments just so you can trash them publicly.
Worlds Apart — which Reece, evidently a Fleetwood Mac fan, has gleefully described as “our Tusk, but with less cocaine” — bears traces of that intensity, but its high-concept flourishes and lyrical accusations raise the stakes considerably, possibly at the expense of the impact. For those who already found TOD a bit pompous and pious, the title track was way too much: Look at those cunts on MTV/With their cars and cribs and rings and shit/Is that what being a celebrity means? Keely blares over a tuneful alt-rock waltz that, presumably, was designed to help the band score radio and MTV play. (A clunky reference to 9/11 doesn’t help matters.) Are these guys playing the old Rage Against the Machine “We’ll Destroy the Machine from the Inside” card, or are they merely jealous of those cars and cribs and rings and shit? The record’s liner notes — with its lengthy cast of cellists, composers, conductors, and sopranos — suggest a band fairly comfortable with the trappings of major-label cash.
“We’re not goin’, ‘Okay, let’s get our money’s worth,'” Reece says of the Interscope experience. “We’re just using our imagination, and if we have the means to do so, why not? I’m not gonna lie to you: Being on Interscope has definitely opened a lot of doors for us to explore new worlds musically. We actually wanted to hook up with Flava Flav and Kate Bush on this record. We tried. We wanted Kate Bush to sing a song. I don’t think she was really into the idea, which is sad. Oh well.”
Even without Mr. Flav and Ms. Bush’s approval, Worlds Apart occasionally rises above the complexity and controversy TOD is constantly creating for itself — Reece’s tune “Caterwaul” is a relatively straightforward bashfest that will undoubtedly inspire more live bass-tossing and cymbal-smashing, and Keely’s “The Rest Will Follow” is a more elegant moment of chin-stroking philosophy — We are all of us so capable of the greatest acts of hate and the worst acts of love. It doesn’t stack up to Source Tags, and won’t set the world (or MTV’s offices) on fire, but it’s the sound of a band full of ideas, full of itself, and occasionally full of shit. And that, friends, ain’t the worst thing in the world.
And quit taking everything this band does so goddamned seriously. “Even the name, our band name, is just more of a joke,” Reece admits. “When we first started using it, it made us laugh ’cause it would horrify older people.”