This is why record stores still matter. In February, I was busy spending money at Music Millennium in Portland, Oregon when I caught a major guitar squall coming over the shop’s stereo. It was hard to tell if it was individual songs of splashy orchestral jangle, played by a band in rapid succession, or one crazy-quilt piece of heavy-prog rock.
It was, as the clerk at the counter informed me, both: “Strange News From Another Planet,” the five-part 16-minute endgame on the new album, Tao of the Dead (Richter Scale) by Texas racket squad . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. The bummer: I couldn’t buy it yet. The store had an advance copy. But the preview made me want one, bad.
Out now, Tao of the Dead comes with two suites – the eleven-track title piece is the front chunk of the record – and they are both noise-dream teamings of Sonic Youth circa 1990’s Goo and the serpentine excitement and treble-guitar spires of Yes‘ 1972 album, Close to the Edge. “Strange News . . . ” begins with a wide screen of howling-amp harmonics and cavalry-charge percussion. At one point, in a section subtitled “The Ship Impossible,” the guitars start climbing over each other in a clanging-irons fugue.
There is also an exciting discipline to the furor. “Pure Radio Cosplay,” the opening salvo of the “Tao” suite, is an on-your-feet-or-outta-the-way gallop, like Blue Öyster Cult loaded on Sixties-Texas acid; “Summer of All Dead Souls” is its own mauling mosaic of flash-flood drum rolls, stuttering-riff clamor and howling-harmony vocals. Trail of Dead’s founding leaders, singer-drummer-guitarists Jason Reece and Conrad Keely, made Tao of the Dead with a slimmer quartet version of the group. By reining in the sprawling violence of the band I first saw in Texas in the mid-Nineties, they have upped the quality and tension of the mayhem.
And this is one record that you shouldn’t buy as a download. Keely, who wrote the lyrics, has created an accompanying graphic novel. The opening panels, even compressed for the CD booklet, are a genuine eye banquet.