No one can claim that Conrad Kelley and Jason Reece didn’t put a lot of thought into Tao Of The Dead. The seventh full-length from the art-rock duo …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead contains a planned multi-media release, a documentary, and the most half-baked album art ever conceived (including doll people and a man/fox hybrid). Structurally, there are even different versions of the record. You can hear the album broken up as different tracks or you can hear it as a composition of two movements, “Tao Of The Dead” and “Strange News From Another Planet.”
This kind of heady (over-) thinking may bring to mind The Decemberists or Pink Floyd or some of the prog-rock from the late ’70s. But what Tao Of The Dead comes down to, and should be judged by, is if any of it is actually worth listening to. Unfortunately, the answer, like the album’s concept, is not simple, either.
Tao Of The Dead begins with its strongest work. After a hushed announcement of “let’s experiment,” the group begins a whirlwind of sound textures that explodes into “Pure Radio Cosplay.” The track should arouse a “fuck yeah!” from any pure rock fan, beginning with a steady drum build, a Stones-ish guitar rhythm and vocals that invoke images of leg kicks and fist pumps. There is an energy to the track that you can imagine Keely and Reece have been searching for over the past decade, about the time since they scored a perfect 10.0 rating from Pitchfork for Source Tags & Codes. The second best song on Tao Of The Dead? is “Pure Radio Cosplay (Reprise).” Yeah, it’s that good.
Because of this strong start, the lack of song-breaks does work to the band’s advantage, as the track contains enough momentum to sustain nearly half of the uneven record. The single “Summer Of All Dead Souls” also rocks in the strictest sense of the term, though without the immediacy of its predecessor. But repeated listens reveal tragic flaws in the album, most notably the unoriginal and ineffective spoken word moments in “Cover The Days Like A Tidal Wave” and the epic (not epic like Lord Of The Rings, epic like the film version of Dune) “Strange News From Another Planet.” Spoken-word hard rock in not a genre that should be toyed with, as it is about as hard to take seriously as Adam Sandler. Sure, there are exceptions (Funny People, Punch-Drunk Love) but for the most part, it is there for laughs and not much else.
Some parts get even worse. “Fall Of The Empire” is directionless stoner-rock. “Ebb Away” uses light-vocals-into-distortion-rock so poorly it makes you wish they had tried spoken-word again. And all of these add up, once again, to affirm one of the major criticisms people have of …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead: they just seem to be talented guys with bad taste. Sure “Weight Of The Sun” kind of rules, but A.F.I. has songs that rule too, and there just isn’t that much difference anymore between Trail Of Dead and a bunch of grown-men wearing eyeliner. Sure, there may have been a time where creating mythologies and invoking the black arts and even sci-fi lyrics might have been cool (…ok, these were never that cool), but in 2011, it sounds reaching, like the band is lost and looking desperately for an audience and a voice. I hope they start looking somewhere else.