Evan Weiss is a prolific Chicago-based musician, songwriter and producer known for his work performing and recording as Into It. Over It., and well as the bands Their/They’re/There (featuring American Football and Owen’s Mike Kinsella) and punk act Pet Symmetry. You can follow Into It. Over It. on Twitter here.
I admit I haven’t kept up with …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead since their 2002 breakout Source Tags & Codes. At the time, the band was carving its own path, fusing elements of post-rock, punk and classic rock. But the mixed-genre euphoria that Trail of Dead gave me was laid to rest with the EP that followed, The Secret of Elena’s Tomb (2003); the songs seemed undeveloped and rushed, perhaps less inspired, and certainly missing the ferocity that I’d fallen in love with. I put the band to rest.
In the years that followed, I missed out on eight different members, five LPs, four EPs and several labels, not to mention various phases of music critics’ praise and abuse. Then, last year, I saw the band in Lansing, Michigan, while I was on tour. After ten years away, my palate was clean and I was able to enjoy the band again.
So I jumped at the opportunity to write about IX for the Talkhouse.
The record opens with “The Doomsday Book” and immediately I’m drawn back into what made this band so important to me 12 years ago. It’s a return to form, although a little more deliberate than the Trail of Dead I remember. This is the sound of a band that’s confident and comfortable. Huge and heavy breaths of guitar wash through my headphones. It’s a perfectly sculpted, thick tone. Like what a sonic description of “tone” would be if you were to look it up in an audio dictionary. “The Doomsday Book” follows a simple formula, but it’s what works for them, featuring an instantly memorable, repeating verse separated by small interludes. Nothing crazy, but I feel like I’m rediscovering a favorite work of art in a museum.
“Jaded Apostles” and “A Million Random Digits,” with pounding drums and anthemic vocals over delay-rich guitar, expand the groundwork laid by “The Doomsday Book.” There are fleeting moments of complex guitar interplay that have been carefully placed in the mix here, and it’s these subtle details that make the ears perk up on multiple listens and allow the songs to burrow into your mind over time. Being guilty of this trick myself, I often get the feeling that Trail of Dead get a huge kick out of making the listener “work for it” and hunt for understated (but beautifully executed), riffy little Easter eggs placed carefully throughout the aural landscape. It’s on the third listen that I really begin to get a feel for the touches of auxiliary percussion, as well as a myriad of underlying synth parts buried in the mix. They are mostly mixed somewhere between 0 and 75 degrees left, so adjust your balance toward your channel-left speaker on the home stereo and enjoy!
The album is initially aggressive and guarded — until the fourth song, “The Lie Without a Liar,” where cleaner guitars and wispy vocals throw things wide open, and then the band hits you with one of the strongest choruses on the record. I’d maybe hate it for feeling too “radio-friendly” if it weren’t so fucking triumphant. Trail of Dead founders Conrad Keely and Jason Reece’s songwriting talents really (and I mean really) begin to shine at this point. The next two tracks, “The Ghost Within” and “The Dragonfly Queen,” are perfectly crafted rock songs. The formulas are simple (verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus) and both songs sit right around the three-minute mark. The end results, however, are exceptionally rewarding. Trail of Dead didn’t use this format in their early work, but it looks like they’ve learned that sometimes the predictable execution works best.
“How to Avoid Huge Ships” is the first of two interludes, a four-minute, stress-ridden crescendo, featuring cello reminiscent of something you might find on a Godspeed You! Black Emperor record. I would love to see this in a live setting. The pressure the band is able to achieve through slowly building drums and layered guitars turns the penultimate minute of the song into a massive, crushing experience, resolved by an outro that sounds almost like it could have come from Tears for Fears’ Songs from the Big Chair. At first, I wasn’t so sure about this track, especially as such a fan of the band’s previously much more aggressive post-rock material, but after further listens it has become one of my favorites.
Though “Like Summer Tempests Came His Tears” is separated by a track marker and is technically the second cello-laced interlude on the record, it is really just an intro to “Sound of the Silk,” the album’s closer. In the final moments of IX, the band takes an approach I like to call “the celebration riff” — a joyous and melodic bookend to a roller coaster of a record. The song is, for all intents and purposes, a pop-rock song until it takes a sharp turn into a combination of field recordings, Middle-Eastern music and spoken-word — like some weird cross between the Books and Slint — before the band punches you in the gut in the final minute with a return to full-on melodic guitar-assault.
And then it’s over. I’m speechless.
I’m wondering how were they able to recreate those feelings I had so long ago. I’m also wondering why I haven’t listened to this band’s records in 11 years. IX didn’t immediately grab me the way the band did years ago, but I don’t think that’s their goal — I would like to assume that, by now, they have to be making music only for themselves. Having gone through years of trials and tribulations, Trail of Dead (or just Keely and Reece) have come out the other side and settled in just to be themselves. Maybe that’s why it’s a great record.