By Will Reisman
September 21, 2016
Punk rock — with its youthful and rebellious energy — and progressive rock — with its weird time signatures and nerdy fans — seldom intersect.
Yet every now and then, these two divergent genres cross paths. One such example is Source Tags and Codes, the third album from the Austin-based group of the very long name: …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead.
Trail of Dead has been on tour, performing the album Source Tags in full, since 2014, thanks to a suggestion from the band’s new guitarist, Autry Fulbright, who grew up on the album and caught the band touring behind it when it was initially released. Now after two years, the revival tour is finally coming an end.
Released in 2002, the record, which grapples with topics like alienation and existentialism, has all the signifiers of prog rock — a grand, thematic story arc; an army of unusual instruments, from timpani to violin and cello; and sequencing that bleeds each song into the next. But it’s also violently urgent and unwieldy in the most punk rock of ways.
Source Tags is sonically and stylistically different from Trail of Dead’s earlier material — the band’s first two albums consist primarily of noisy, ear-shattering rock tunes — and that is perhaps why Source Tags has done so well. It ended up on a stack of year-end best-of charts, and even Pitchforkawarded it a perfect-10 rating.
“I feel like we knew at the time that this album was special to us,” Jason Reece, the band’s drummer, guitarist and co-founder says.
When Trail of Dead headed to Prairie Sun Recording Studio in the North Bay town of Cotati in 2001 to record the album, they had just signed to Interscope Records and were looking forward to their first recording session in a proper studio.
“We were kind of in an isolated area,” Reece recalls. “Cotati is like this biker, hippy town. So we would drink wine and just stay active with our music. It was a pretty conducive writing environment.”
At the time, there were three different songwriters in the band — Reece; guitarist and vocalist Conrad Keely; and bassist Neil Busch, who left the group in 2004. Three years before, Prairie Sun studio was used by gravelly voiced legend Tom Waits, who had left behind a veritable cornucopia of oddball instruments, from metal pipes to detuned pianos. He gave the band his blessing to use the tools and even provided them with some eerie, industrial-sounding field recordings he had taped.
The influence of Waits’ atonal, sinister mechanisms bled their way into Source Tags, which is filled with ghostly segues that connect each song to the next. The album is also an experiment in opposites. Screaming guitars and Keely’s lung-busting vocals commingle with mellifluous strings and symphonic soundscapes, giving the record both an unvarnished and baroque feel. Leaden, descending guitar riffs build the backbone of “How Near, How Far,” while Reece’s desperate wailing takes center stage in “Homage.” “Relative Ways” is a somber piano number buried within the structure of a post-punk song, and the title track is an unyielding rock coda buttressed by haunting orchestral elements.
Lyrically, there is a sense of inevitability to the album — an understanding that all things will come to an end, and that resolutions rarely come. Though its narrative is somewhat oblique, the themes of inner turmoil and self-doubt come to a head by the record’s final song, “Source Tags and Codes.” Despondent and bereft, Keely has lost all of the wonder and excitement he exuded in the album’s earlier cuts, conceding: “This city has lost a certain hold inside / It feels so worn being chained here to this life.”
In many ways, the themes of Source Tags are now playing out in real life. Trail of Dead has had a long, storied career — each one of their nine albums is innovative and refreshingly risky. In the 14 years since its release, no other recording from the band has reached quite the same heights.
“Source Tags got written in a very different time of my life,” Reece says. “It was just the four of us, and we were so unified — we were a team, a gang. We lived together for two to three years, and I don’t think that’s really ever happened since.”
The last performance is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 24, at The Chapel.
…And You Will Know Us By the Trail Of Dead plays Source Tags and Codes in its entirety at The Chapel on Saturday, Sept. 24. Tickets for the show can be found at www.thechapelsf.com.