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And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead frontman Conrad Keely is so misunderstood. The chorus he leads on “Wasted State of Mind,” from his Austin prog-punk band’s new one, So Divided,exemplifies his anguish: “Caught in a stasis, feels like I’ve wasted all this time/With people and places who’ve never related or desired.”
Chances are, these lyrics—which nearly ruin an electrifying combo of punchy piano and percussion à la street kids rat-a-tat-tatting on plastic buckets—are a reaction to the dead-on-arrival reception of their previous effort, 2005’s Worlds Apart. That album was a total 180 from a band previously exalted for thunderstorms of rock and onstage instrument annihilation; when listeners didn’t get its mishmash of uppers and downers and glass-house experiments, well, Keely’s walls came tumblin’, crumblin’ down.
Think of So Divided as the rubber match between Trail of Dead and their major label, Interscope, and a make-or-break moment for the band. That’s because Worlds Apart‘s predecessor, 2002’s Source Tags & Codes, was a smash. Meanwhile, Keely and guitarist Kevin Allen have moved to New York (where the former is, for sure, gearing up to show off his paintings), and founding drummer Jason Reece, whose turns at the mic have been all but eighty-sixed this go-round, is now managing his own Beauty Bar franchise.
So, So Divided. As with most things Trail of Dead, it’s bloated where it thinks it’s profound. There’s the intro track of cacophonous cocktail chatter; the white-noise segue that escaped the cutting-room floor because its title, “In the Realms of the Unreal,” cops Henry Darger; and the painfully forced symphonic interlude that gags “Stand in Silence.” There’s even a campy cover of Guided by Voices’ “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory.”
But that’s not enough to eclipse the brilliant “Naked Sun,” a clenched fist ready to punch. Or the title track, where patience pays off with the riveting syncopation of two drummers. And one mustn’t forget the oddities: a cheery psych-pop sing-along called “Eight Day Hell,” or “Sunken Dreams,” a new wave concoction evocative of Death Cult (the Cult’s original name). Overall, So Divided‘s a triumph for Keely, a guy who wants so badly for us to anoint him a genius. Even if he isn’t.
Trail of Dead play Irving Plaza November 11 and 12, with Blood Brothers, irvingplaza.com.