Destruction as Beauty
... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead
When Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire at the Monterey Pop festival in 1967, he set in motion one of the most indelible and emotive sequences in rock history. In the feedback-drenched wake of a blistering "Wild Thing," Hendrix straddles his guitar and begins thwacking away at the whammy bar like Onan reincarnated. A can of Ronsonol¨ lighter fluid appears. Hendrix sprays it all over the face of the instrument and kisses the strings before lighting a match and setting the guitar ablaze. You actually hear the guitar's earsplitting death squeals as the flames begin to consume it. Two audience members briefly captured in the night by D.A. Pennebaker's camera appear both horrified and mesmerized by the display. But the ecstatic smile on Hendrix's face as the flames rise toward his conjuring hands tells you everything you need to know about the difference between destruction as beauty and destruction as malevolence. Although they'll never have to upstage the Who like Hendrix did at Monterey, ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead knows their way around the art of breaking apart. The Austin quartet's propensity for destroying instruments amid a swirling panorama of noise and sweat has garnered them favorable feedback in crannies throughout the international underground music circuit. But unlike thickheaded doofs who just want to fuck shit up in the name of cool, Trail of Dead girds their mayhem with a fervent desire to break through the superficial barriers separating audiences from performers in order to bring about that elusive but pristine moment of collective, frenzied transcendence.
"Not to be overly philosophical, but I think you can get to the point where you're not thinking," says guitarist/drummer Jason Reece. "You're not trying to be one thing or the other. You're just playing and whatever happens just happens spontaneously. There's no preconceived notion or motive. You're not even directing it."
Trail of Dead's new album, Madonna, sacrifices just enough of that onstage spontaneity to bring the artistic merits of the music itself to the forefront. The end product of this slight refinement is one of the most engaging and fully realized rock albums to come out of Austin this year. Madonna's vaguely cinematic structure captures a wide range of emotions, from poignant woe ("Clair de Lune") to frothing anger ("A Perfect Teenhood"). A nonstop wall of guitars pocked by rifle snare shots rises and falls with the changing moods. At only one point on Madonna, between "Flood of Red" and "Children of the Hydra's Teeth," is there no sound at all. The rest of the album never stops humming, unless you count the space between the last song and the obligatory secret track.
"Rather than release something that is 13 tracks of this band's music, one song and the next song and the next, we've always tried to have an album that is conceived as one piece," says Conrad Keely, who also switches between guitar and drums. "It's one piece of music. And I don't even think this record reaches the apex of what we might do in the future as far as taking that theme further."
Reece and Keely started Trail of Dead shortly after arriving here from Hawaii via Olympia, Wash., in 1995. Only 10 or 12 people showed up at their first gig, but one of those people was Paul Vodas of Glorium, four local avant-punkers who never got the credit they deserved for their music or their benevolence. Once Glorium helped get Trail of Dead off the ground with opening slots in Austin and elsewhere, their explosive shows began to draw notice. After playing as a duo for almost a year, Keely and Reece added Kevin Allen (yet another guitarist/drummer) to the lineup after meeting him at a soccer game. Former Andromeda Strain bassist Neil Busch came on board shortly thereafter.
By 1997, Trail of Dead had signed with Butthole Surfers drummer King Coffey's Trance Syndicate label. Their eponymous debut album hit the streets in early 1998 to mostly good reviews. Being associated with Trance automatically gave Trail of Dead a degree of weird Texas band cachet that came in handy on the road.
"It definitely helps to be on a label that has a group of bands people are interested in," says Busch. "We would tour for Trance and we would see 'Trance Syndicate' bigger than our name a lot of times. People would pick up our Trance record because they liked other Trance records."
Trail of Dead planned an ambitious fall tour to promote the album, but the tour fell apart in New Orleans just days after it started when the band's van was stolen with all their equipment inside. "They ripped off everything we owned," laments Reece, "everything we bought since we were teenagers."
Shortly after the tour was scotched by this disastrous (yet not uncommon) fate, Trance Syndicate ceased operations, adding even more salt to the wound. Perhaps the biggest question mark surrounding the Austin-based label's demise last year pertained to the continued viability of newer Trance acts like Trail of Dead who were just beginning to hit the road and build a name for themselves. You couldn't help but wonder how the band would emerge from such a brutal one-two punch.
With no label or equipment, Trail of Dead really had no choice but to turn their muse toward the recording studio. While their debut was recorded in a week and mixed in a couple of days, the band had six or seven months to work on Madonna in small increments. In some backhanded sense, this lemons-to-lemonade scenario may have been just what the band needed to enhance their studio prowess and turn the sophomore slump theory upside down.
"A lot of the time and energy that we spent on this record is a result of the fact that we weren't touring," says Keely. "If that stuff hadn't been stolen, we probably would've been touring for the better part of this year."
Another sign that Trail of Dead's luck was changing came when they signed with Merge Records, the Carrboro, N.C.-based label run by Superchunk bassist Laura Ballance and guitarist/vocalist Mac McCaughan, just as Madonna neared completion. This hook-up was instigated by formerly Austin-based soundman/engineer Jason Ward, who was doing tour sound for Superchunk. Ward played some of Trail of Dead's rough mixes for the band and piqued their interest. Merge's roster currently includes a range of acclaimed acts such as the Magnetic Fields, Lambchop, and the Rock*A*Teens. Although Trail of Dead's music revels in the glory of distortion more than most Merge acts, the label is one of the few American indies not married by intention or reputation to a certain sound.
In taking you from pin-drop subtleties to sledgehammer grand slams, Madonna touches on a myriad of reference points. You don't necessarily hear hip-hop within Trail of Dead's guitar-powered sorties, but you can find it in the aural storyboard for Madonna. After all, the idea that an album's narrative and atmospheric qualities might override the sum of its songs saw its most poignant renaissance with the 1988 release of Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising. These artists, along with earlier concept-oriented rock acts such as Pink Floyd, play a crucial role in how Trail of Dead organizes their music.
"The initial concept we talked about for the album was a day in the life, starting in the morning and going through the afternoon and evening," says Busch. "The segues were going to reflect that progression. I think we had a more defined concept of what it was going to be when we started out, and the album kind of deteriorated into its present state."
While a few other modern rock bands, most notably Radiohead, have again flirted with the dubious calling of concept albums, the very idea is still anathema to many rock fans who haven't stopped reacting to the often-ponderous prog-rock that glutted the market in the Seventies. Although their blissful blasts of hyperkinetic energy scream punk rock, Trail of Dead does harbor at least a few of the same grand textual ambitions as Rick Wakeman and the like. Keely, for one, has a soft spot for early, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. He even has an essay on the band's website (http://www.trailofdead.com) that half-seriously/half-jokingly advances the notion of Yes' Relayer being a great, yet criminally unrecognized, punk-rock album. So do Trail of Dead really see themselves as modern-day art rockers?
"Well, we like to think it's more than just music," says Keely. "But art rock has bad connotations. I like art rock, though. We've definitely been tagged as art rock before and it's never bothered me. I'd rather be called that than garage rock or emo-core."
Perhaps a more appropriate companion work would be High Time, the third and final album by the MC5. Though Madonna lacks High Time's undulating, blues-based prurience, it does rail defiantly against the twin scepters of apocalypse and corruption, using abstract-yet-structured guitar work and a highly developed lyrical bent. Looking into the not-too-distant future, both albums share a similar sense of disenchantment. "Sigh Your Children," Madonna's closing track, offers a particularly deft indictment of modern-day society from a future generation that would just as soon tear it all down: "When all your Gods/Turn to stone/Throw them all/Out the door."
"One of the themes of the record that just came up out of nowhere with songs like 'Aged Dolls,' 'Mark David Chapman,' and 'Sigh Your Children' was having idols and then having the symbolism and sacredness removed from them somehow," Keely relates. "Sacredness is not something that is really predominant in turn-of-the-millennium American society. When I say sacredness, I'm not just talking about religion. Of course religion is just as predominant as it's ever been. I'm really thinking more of spirituality."
This theme carries over to Keely's wide-eyed oil painting of Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, that graces Madonna's cover. "The painting of Kali was used was because she represented earth after being abused by mankind," Keely says. "That's the whole story behind the legend of Kali. She destroys all the demons that have taken over the world, but after she's created, she's unable to be contained and she starts to actually destroy the world as well."
Trail of Dead also explores America's tabloid-style fascination with horrific evildoings. Keely uses Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers as a springboard to build the sardonic punk-noir of "A Perfect Teenhood." This teen murder-for-kicks fantasy, written before the recent spate of school shootings, romanticizes the unspeakable in a provocative manner along the lines of Sonic Youth's "Death Valley 69."
"They're doing it more for a kind of exciting joyride of what life could be," Keely says of the song's fantasy killers. "It's not about getting back at someone or hating a person."
While that notion might be unsettling to some (Hi, Mom!), Trail of Dead's aggro tendencies are ultimately balanced out by more empathetic overtures that keep them miles away from lockstep nihilism.
"We have angry songs, but then we also have some softer, mellower parts, too," contends Reece. "Everyone has a full range of emotions, and I think these songs reflect a full range of emotions, from angry to beautiful to happy to depressed."
It all comes back around to the band's inclination to use whatever it takes to break through the boundaries between themselves and the audience. Dancing one's way back and forth across the thin line that separates chaos from order is risky, but nothing good comes without risk, artistically or otherwise. Trail of Dead gleefully embraces that risk and wrestles it to the floor, much to the delight of paying customers.
"We do what we do with enthusiasm," says Keely. "If a three-year-old kid is running around the house enthusiastically and he happens to knock over a plant, you can misinterpret that as aggression, but it's not aggression. We're out there having fun."