Saturday, 24 February 2007

… And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Oxford Zodiac, 19 February 2007

As the title of their new record suggests, the Trail of Dead are a ‘divided’ band. On record, they’ve departed from their early template of Sonic Youth squall and gothic bluster, in favour of a critically-derided commercial sound, indebted more to Oasis and the Beatles. On Worlds Apart, this didn’t seem to pay commercial dividends, only alienating their existing fanbase. Time will tell whether So Divided, a slightly more successful reconciliation of anthemic punk and more conventional indie song-writing, will do better, or whether the Trail Of Dead’s main income will continue to be soundtracking video games and moments of emotive rage on The Shield.

In a recent Pitchfork interview, Conrad Keely expressed bitterness and frustration at losing money on records and on the road. Considering retiring to a studio to focus on writing for soundtracks, he nonetheless retained an urge to perform. The release of tension involved in performing, then, in palpable tonight. Anchored by their mainstream aspirations and tricksy arrangements on record, live they are a different band completely – the Trail Of Dead of old, still one of the loudest bands on the planet. They announce as much with their opening salvo of ‘It Was There That I Saw You’ and ‘Separate Ways’ from ‘Source Tags and Codes’. The volume pulses, and Jason Reece’s old-school blast-beats propel a wall of guitars forward. Conrad’s stabbing guitar and howled vocals bring to mind the full-frontal hardcore assault of Les Savy Fav, backed by the heart-punching dynamics of Willhaven. In the words of Shakin’ Stevens, “lovely stuff”.

A couple of newer tracks make it onto the setlist, but older tracks get more response, and the set is paced accordingly: ‘Totally Natural’ is an ear-bursting finisher. In some bands this reliance on old material would be an obvious criticism: anybody who came to the Trail Of Dead on the last two albums (anyone?) would be a little baffled and perhaps disappointed. But this misses the point: the Trail Of Dead could have been playing entirely from ‘So Divided’, or a set of Justin Timberlake covers, for all the volume gave away. Reacting against the supposed division of their careers into good early albums and poorly-received new work, they’ve become two bands – the crazy hardcore punk cyclone typified by Jason Reece, making an arse of himself as usual, falling over and inciting the crowd to do some gak, and the pretentious studio indie of Conrad Keely. It will be interesting to see how long the Trail Of Dead can live this double life, but for now, they’re welcome to my money in at least one of their guises.

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