Had I been a teenager in 1997 and this album had fallen into my hands, it would have been a god. Providing an earnest contrast to the Lollapalooza’d commercialization of Alt Rock, this album would have fully realized my post-Siamese Dream dreams. However, barring time portals and anti-aging potions, I must judge this album in its true context: As a man in his early 20’s listening to music in increasingly truncated sessions with increasingly obtuse genres. The landscape of post 90’s modern rock is one of death and rebirth, then death again, and now something in between. Which, I guess, is a good place to start with Tao of the Dead; somewhere in between godly musical transcendence, and overwrought pomp and circumstance.
The late 90’s anachronism of Tao of the Dead feels very much like Built to Spill, Dismemberment Plan, or any other guitar based, underground rock album of that time period. The rolling tracks melt into each other, providing no real sense of when a song begins and when a song ends. There are extended sections where the instruments create walls of sounds that border on hardcore ambience, only to have the vocals emerge from the mess and pull it back down to earth. The vocals themselves sound like Trail of Dead spent the past 15 years listening to Sunny Day Real Estate, without ever allowing the cringe inducing emo detritus of the past 15 years to seep into their subconscious. That’s a feat rarely accomplished in our over-saturated, under-sentimental modern musical canon.
As far as individual songs go it’s hard to isolate standout tracks, largely because the band worked so hard to make the albums flow without track breaks. Each song drips into another, which drips into another and so on. The obvious place to start is the lead single “Weight of the Sun” which sneakily begins as a sunny brit pop tune in ¾ only to explode into a cacophonous chorus about 30 seconds in. “Pure Radio Cosplay” also stands well on its own, with rolling verses that sound oddly similar to The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin Jack Flash”, and a head banging chorus plucked straight from the ever referenced late 90’s modern rock scene.
However, these anachronisms should come as no surprise; the band’s 2002 release Source Tags and Codes was heralded as the culmination of late 90’s underground guitar rock. With walls of guitars barely able to mask the aching heart at the center of the album, Source Tags and Codes was purely and truly Emotional Rock. Trail of Dead spent the next 10 years trying to figure out how to follow the critical love of Source Tags. Tao of the Dead feels like an acceptance of the inevitable; Trail of Dead perfected their sound on a wave of late 90’s earnest intensity and guitar loving vulnerability, and there they shall stay for better or worse.