Monday, 23 February 2009

The Century of Self - ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead

The Century of Self is the sixth album from …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead and it finds them in an uncertain position. Having parted from record label Interscope amidst much bad feeling (and a very public war of words between frontman Conrad Keely and label boss Jimmy Iovine) and relocated from long term base Austin, Texas for Brooklyn, currently the hippest area in New York, they find themselves releasing the album through their own imprint Richter Scale. After following up 2002’s high watermark Source Tags and Codes with the critically lambasted and ever diminishing returns of Worlds Apart and So Divided, they have ejected their long time bassist Neil Busch, fought onstage and generally fallen into all the clich├ęs of the band that has fallen on hard times. Considering the trajectory their career is currently leading there is a feeling that they have to deliver on this album.

It is important to recognise that the band are a very different proposition to the band that recorded Madonna and Source Tags and Codes. Early in their career they harnessed the corrosive dissonance of Sonic Youth and trapped it within a more traditional song structure. Since 2002 Trail of Dead have become increasingly progressive. As is now customary the album begins with an instrumental, but whereas before this would have taken the form of a simple piano motif or experimental noise collage “Giant Causeway” is an overblown spectacle, replete with portentous piano and synths. Only in the last 15 seconds, as the song rings out, does a ghostly piano motif that is so unmistakeably Keely-esque flit near the surface of the song before being sublimated by the feedback that announces “Far Pavilions”. The call and response vocals, heavy tom work and the sheer tempo and exuberance of the track begin to justify some of the claims that they are back to their best. But the mid-section’s chorus of vocals, chiming piano and lead synth line are grandiose and inappropriate, more akin to something Andrew Lloyd-Webber would have written than Thurston Moore and co. This says a lot about Trail of Dead’s progressive intentions, something they announced by covering Genesis’ “Back In New York City” (a song also tackled by Jeff Buckley) for their 2003 EP The Secrets of Elena’s Tomb. “Isis Unveiled” commences with a guitar line that is eerily reminiscent of “Catacombs” by At The Drive-In before morphing into a galloping Muse-esque stadium rock stomp. The structure is similar to “Far Pavilions”, with an extended mid section that is more successful mainly due to the post-rock styling of the guitars and the wistful delivery of Keely’s vocal. Just when you think the song has ended the main riff kicks in, far from seamlessly. Further evidence of the perverse logic that informs much of the songwriting – they have a killer song that is an obvious single candidate but some of the choices in terms of structure blight the song as a whole.

Sequencing also afflicts The Century of Self. There are five songs longer than six minutes on the album, and four of them are placed in the first five and are probably amongst the strongest present. This means that the second side of the album is awash with mid-tempo piano led songs that, while pretty enough tend to meander aimlessly. The torpor of the second side is rescued by “Ascending”, but even this feels like a parody of their earlier work. That is not to say that all of the second side is a failure; “Luna Park”, nominal drummer Jason Reece’s sole songwriting contribution, is an affecting and atmospheric song while “Inland Sea” carries on their tradition of Eastern mysticism with the song focusing on transcendental meditation.

The songs are multi-layered, but Trail of Dead’s songwriting has changed so they are now unapologetically anthemic. The minor key arpeggios and deft interplay between guitars is gone, with the piano becoming a much more integral part of their sound. There have been claims that this album heralds a return to their roots, chiefly prompted by Keely and Reece playing as a duo last year, The Century of Self has more in common with World’s Apart in terms of lyrical theme, song structure, titles and artwork. But the problem with the newer works is excess – they have always had a penchant for bombast but the last three albums in their oeuvre have drowned in overdubs and over-orchestration. Unable to rein in their more excessive elements they have lost the quiet/loud dynamic that they previously used to such success. This isn’t helped on The Century of Self by the sonic compression that envelops the album, layering the album in an indistinct fug.

Comparing an artist’s new release to a previous one will always be a self-defeating exercise. The album’s title intimates the triumph of the ‘self’, that the pursuit of happiness and satisfaction are mankind’s ultimate goal. Free from major label pressure regarding their output, both aural and visual, Trail of Dead are obviously making the music that they enjoy but the feeling is that increased quality control wouldn’t have gone amiss. There are some excellent moments, but the album lacks cohesion and fails to sustain these, and overall it is a missed opportunity for Trail of Dead to be re-established amongst the forefront of alternative music.

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of The Century of Self by ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead on the site, please click on the article title.

Chaccaron Maccaron - El Chombo

This is genuinely one of the best things I have ever seen. And the song is great.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead

I'm currently writing a review of Trail of Dead's new record, which is a hit and miss affair, and it got me thinking. Between 1999-2003 they were on top of their game, releasing two albums and one EP of premium quality. Since then they have faltered, although Worlds Apart from 2005 is an underappreciated record, it just happened to be not as good as Source Tags and Codes, while So Divided from 2006 is a flawed and ostentatious record.

So I have decided to compile an annotated mixtape of sorts.

01 - Invocation (Source Tags and Codes, Interscope 2002)

As this is Trail of Dead, we have to start with an instrumental and this haunting piano motif is the best.

02 - Richter Scale Madness (...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, Trance Syndicate 1998)

Still a live favourite, its blend crashing drums, angular guitars and high octane vocals make this an essential cut from their debut.

03 - Mistakes & Regrets (Madonna, Merge 1999)

For many this was their introduction to the band. I still remember seeing the video on M2 (the precursor to MTV2, before it went all commercial maaan) and being intrigued by their mixture of Eastern mythology and the psychedelic visuals. Musically they had come a long way from their debut, with a rich and organic sound that was heavily textured. The interplay between the guitars, the strident bass and trademark tribal drumming are perfect and Conrad Keely's vocals, at once hushed and then a yelp of anguish, have rarely been bettered. And the lyrics are great too.

04 - Another Morning Stoner (Madonna, Merge 1999)

The video, above, was shot while they were in London which is only one of the plethora of reasons which make this song amazing. Again trademark heavy tom work, and the minor key guitar lines which wend their way around you, entwining you in the song before reaching the heights with its soaring string finale.

05 - Relative Ways (Source Tags and Codes, Interscope 2002)

If you could distil Trail of Dead into one song it would be this or "Mistakes and Regrets". The tension it creates is incredibly powerful.

06 - It Was There That I Saw You (Source Tags and Codes, Interscope 2002)

Seguing from opener "Invocation", this song provides Source Tags and Codes with its initial headlong rush, frenetic and exciting.

07 - Will You Smile Again? (Worlds Apart, Interscope 2005)

The best song on the album by a stretch. It's epic without inflating itself, unlike the rest of the album, its pummeling 5/4 riff and percussion cover up the strangely flat vocal performance.

08 - Intelligence (The Secret of Elena's Tomb, Interscope 2003)

Not strictly a Trail of Dead song, as it was co-written by Tyler Jacobsen of Jason Reece's other band A Roman Scandal, it takes their emotional post-hardcore and melds it perfectly with glitchy, beat heavy electronica. A great song and a really unexpected pleasure.

09 - Totally Natural (Madonna, Merge 1999)


10 - Blight Takes All (Madonna, Merge 1999)

I love the slowly descending piano motif, beautifully offset against the melodic guitar lines. It also has a brilliant opening line..."Just another Poland pose, with this new haircut, oh what, am I to do?"

11 - Caterwaul (Worlds Apart, Interscope 2005)

Probably the most straight up riffing on this playlist.

12 - Mark David Chapman (Madonna, Merge 1999)

If it weren't for "Mistakes and Regrets" this would be the key song on Madonna, its eloquent mix of harmonics and Sonic Youth style guitars builds into a pounding crescendo.

13 - Crowning of a Heart (The Secret of Elena's Tomb, Interscope 2003)

The standout track on this EP, its soft-focus, languid verses slowly drawing you in before the mid-section's simple guitar motif that wrenches all emotion from you.

14 - How Near How Far (Source Tags and Codes, Interscope 2002)

Just a beautiful song.

15 - Source Tags and Codes (Source Tags and Codes, Interscope 2002)

This song is the summation of everything the band were striving for at this point, but is like a boozy barroom version of the song. Check out the way "Relative Ways" segues into "After The Laughter" and then this track. Great sequencing.

16 - The Summer of '91 (Worlds Apart, Interscope 2005)

I sometimes think that Worlds Apart has been unfairly treated, and this simple piano ballad is a great mixtape closer.

Check out the playlist at:

They are on tour to support their new record in April. These are the dates (taken from the official website)

04.14 -- Portsmouth, England -- Wedge Rooms
04.15 -- Nottingham, England -- Rescue Rooms
04.16 -- Manchester, England -- Academy 3
04.17 -- Glasgow, Scotland -- Oran Mor
04.19 -- Newcastle, England -- Academy
04.20 -- Birmingham, England -- Academy
04.22 -- Bristol, England -- Thekla
04.23 -- London, England -- Electric Ballroom

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Drum's Not Dead - Liars

February 20th marks the third anniversary of the release of Drum's Not Dead by Liars. Slowly but surely it is becoming an increasingly watershed release, with more and more acts adapting their use of structure and synthetic texture. In 2001 this wouldn't have seemed plausible, as a group of four Brooklyn hipsters (including one Antipodian stowaway) release their critically acclaimed, little promoted debut record They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top that pushes them to the fore of the post-punk revival along with peers such as TV on the Radio, The Rapture, Liquid Liquid, Yeah Yeah Yeahs etcetera. Deciding that this sound, this scene was not for them they disband, only for frontman Angus Andrew and guitarist Aaron Hemphill to reunite the band with friend Julian Gross on drums. Their first release as a trio was Atheists, Reconsider, a split EP with Oneida which found them experimenting with sound collage and musique concrete. They then moved to the wilderness of the woods in upstate New York to record their second album They Were Wrong, So We Drowned. In late 2004 they move again, this time to Berlin to begin work on their third album.

Drum's Not Dead is a beautiful, austere record that is full of life, hope and sensitivity. At its heart lies beauty and fragility. In the layered guitars, ambient drones and falsetto vocals, amongst the atonal and percussive scree Liars have created an abundant sensory world. Their previous work had eschewed the notion of beauty, They Were Wrong, So We Drowned in particular concentrates on the brutality and visceral nature of generic fairy tales. The end result is a poetic and allusive album that is at once pictorial and fragmentary, elegiac and jagged. It’s ethereal majesty transcends the manifest world, yet the tribalistic drumming which dominates the record is a device that means they remain rooted in the uncertainties of this flaccid decade.

Drum's Not Dead opener "Be Quiet Mt. Heart Attack!" commences with an arabesque and fractured wave of sampled guitar, which is fluid yet taut, suspending the melody. Angus Andrew's flyaway vocal sits between the layers of sound, seraphic and entranced. The melody is unmoving, yet when it ascends a key you feel swept up and completely enveloped in the sound. At the timbre's breaking point the melody is disrupted as it segues into the group yells that open track two "Let's Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack". Employing an electrified drum kit to create a primal, hedonistic, industrial rush the song is reminiscent of This Heat's mechanised freakouts but also recalls a raft of earlier experimental works - from The Beatles "Tomorrow Never Knows" to the motorik of Can, Faust and Neu! through to the caustic dynamics of Aphex Twin. The last gasp of the vocals and the clattering of drumsticks harks the beginning of third track "A Visit From Drum", showcasing the two kit setup they were utilising. Slower and more atmospheric, it's hypnotic rhythm and gently cadenced vocals lull the listener, slowly dragging you into its cerebral heartland.

If the opening triumvirate is the clarion call for the album, perfectly setting the tone, then the remainder of the album provides flashes of clarity, as if they are somehow trying to catalogue ephemera, or the drift of memory. The treatment of sound - scratched strings, broken glass, random piano stabs interspersed with militaristic drumming - is a key and constant component of the sound architecture throughout the album. The woozy and unhinged delayed guitar that starts "Drum Gets a Glimpse" is slowly consumed by washes of percussion, found sound and reveals how dense the arrangement of the songs is.

Drum's Not Dead is wonderfully sequenced, building up tension before letting it spill out at the seams, culminating in the somnabulant and eerie "The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack" which is a simple and moving ballad, structured around a simple guitar motif, lending weight to the simple sentiments of the lyrics. The only song that feels like an intrusion into the carefully composed edifice is the appropriatley titled "It Fit When I Was a Kid" which initially sounds like a renegade from They Were Wrong with its insistent tribal beat, before morphing into something much darker and atmospheric as Eno-style synths take over.

The album was recorded in Planet Roc in Berlin, a studio designed by Bauhaus architect Franz Ehrlich. It is a labyrinthine structure, and much like the resulting work itself is full of lost avenues and compartments. This offered them different atmospheric nuances and sonic possibilities that they capitalised on. There is a sense of temporal and geographical dislocation at work in the early part of Liars output, as they shift around the globe finding new reference points. Much like David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop before them they tap into the creative atmosphere of Berlin.

With their second album Liars had already expounded the idea of a story or cycle album, with the thematic conceit drawing heavily on Middle European witch folklore (particularly Walpurgisnacht) and non-fictional accounts of witch trials. Considered by many to be an artistic left-turn, it is a bold and atmospheric piece of work, its paean to paganism the sound of those drunk on the sun. Symbolism and metaphor are equally employed on Liars’ third album. Drum’s Not Dead concerns itself with the universal battle between an artist’s insecurity and assertiveness. This is established by two characters - Mt. Heart Attack is pessimistic and apprehensive, while Drum is instinctive and self-assured. While Mt. Heart Attack glories in an acceptance of diffidence, a notion that could be given credence if the Large Hadron Collider proves there is no grand plan to the universe, Drum rails against this defeatism with authoritative valour. This battle is characterised on the album's touching stone "Drum Gets a Glimpse". Eventually Drum wins, a victory that symbolises the triumph of their intuitive creative processes.

In keeping with the record’s Germanic influences there is a strong Brechtian impulse on the record, particularly in the sleeve notes. Instead of a lyric sheet, the make and model of the guitars used, string gauges, tunings, effects utilised, diagrams of the modifications made to drum kits (based on Chris Cutler’s electrified kit with the kit being amplified and then run through various effects before then being routed to a mixer to create multi layered drones) are all displayed. Brecht propounded the idea of verfremdungseffeckt, the idea of distancing or alienating the audience from their emotional responses to the action before them - that art should not serve as an escape hatch but as a mirror. By deploying this technique in the sleeve notes (as well as assisting any wannabe sound manipulators) they draw attention to the fact that all recorded music is an illusion, the end result of physical constructs.

The album is not perfunctory – too many albums are made today that tick boxes, that promote no emotive or critical response. It is also a question of access; there is a saturation of music with so many bands to choose from. If somebody recommends a band you can check their My Space and have access to their whole discography on Spotify almost instantaneously. It has changed our listening habits, so that if the music is not immediate it is discounted. The album has been dismembered, disassociated - why buy a whole album when you can listen to teasers and download the ones you really like? A lot of this is down to hype and positioning on the part of the labels and mechanisms of promotion associated with the music industry.
Drum’s Not Dead forces you to re-engage with the art of the album. It is not a collection of songs but a seamless whole that ebbs, flows and gloriously crystallises emotion. Drum's Not Dead may be read as a study of interior space and how to politicise and enervate the personal, but more than that it means that audience cannot be complacent, showing that modern music can be artful and still exude a boundless unbridled ecstasy. Therein lays the album’s strength and Liars’ victory.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Long Hot Summer - The Style Council

Though it may snow outside, in my heart it will always be summer in the 1980s.

I love the Jules et Jim and Brideshead Revisited treatment, with strong undercurrents of homoeroticism. Although Mick Talbot doesn't look too impressed with it. I really like this video; you can almost feel Paul Weller throwing off his Angry Young Man image. Throughout his career he has continually recast himself, producing facsimiles and mirages so that it's hard to pin down the real Weller. His latest solo effort 22 Dreams was a creditable release, and an imaginative attempt to create a lasting work, easily the best thing he's released since Stanley Road. The problem is for every good tune on the album it is accompanied by a lumpen and unimaginative brother, a trait that has dogged his solo career.

Even though The Style Council are the sort of music that Patrick Bateman would listen to I really enjoy them. Their aesthetic was very modernist and I feel a critical reappraisal is due. Soon-ish.