Trail of Dead brought the noise to New York City's Bowery Ballroom Tuesday, the second of a two night stand to celebrate the release of the band's third album and major label debut, the excellent Source Tags and Codes. Much ado is made of the band's penchant for set-closing destruction, and while it provided a convenient counterpart to their moniker, to draw too much attention is a disservice to the music itself, a rich stew of sound that live, like on the band's three albums, shines like light through a prism.
The group achieved a certain anonymous socialism within their dynamic: four guys dressed in black, with no small amount of instrument-hopping among them, particularly between Jason Reece and Conrad Keely, who traded vocal/guitar and drumming duties. But again, the presentation, while integral, was merely an addition to the band's allure. Trail of Dead's song structure was striking, and at times even felt timeless, rare for a band that plays with such a charged energy. And while Trail of Dead draws so many comparisons to the likes of Sonic Youth, the Velvet Underground, My Bloody Valentine and others, they exuded the essence of myriad bands (also including fellow Texan predecessors the 13th Floor Elevators) without showing the seams.
Their songs (like the shape and tempo-shifting "Relative Ways" to name but one) are arranged like a Pollack canvas: acoustic sketches establish a black and white foundation, faint shadows of which peek through the final product. A slashing guitar riff couldn't disguise the fact that "Baudelaire" has a monstrous melodic hook at its core. The end result of their constructions consisted of waves of layered guitar and energetic instrumental breaks that convey a feeling of musical interaction rather than anything as shapeless as a jam; the breaks also benefited from the quartet's impeccable timing for their explosions of sound.
And as this evening proved, Trail of Dead's secret is better revealed live than on record: the band's bottom end is as powerful and propulsive as any other in music today. Whether Reece or Keely played drums, an ocean of rhythm buoyed the guitar washes that drove the song and complemented the style of each singer. Reece's machine-gun rolls on "How Near How Far" gave some extra edge to some of Conrad's more melodic moments, while Reece's Rollins-like vocal rants on tunes like "Days of Being Wild" were tempered just enough. Which isn't to say that the pair are Lennon/McCartney rock/pop counterparts. Their songs are different to a degree, rather than at the base of their structure. And by placing the two principal singers and songwriters behind the kit for half of the band's set, Trail of Dead again defied a rock and roll principle about the disposable nature of the drummer.
While the group dynamic is central to Trail of Dead's appeal, the rocker-in-the-round format does make the band something of a promotional square peg. That bassist Neil Busch also chips in on vocal duty can, on the surface, give the band a feeling of being all captains with no sailors. But such a dilemma only matters to those needing to file the band in a traditional manner of loud band with an angry charismatic frontman. Trail of Dead resist such categorization, particularly on stage, and their format makes for a singular post-modern concert dynamic, a post-punk Voltron, that just might be the most exciting unit working today.
(March 13, 2002)