As I write this review, I’m watching an amazing episode of The X-Files on Netflix, wherein a revolting, genetically engineered creature knocks up a rube named Shaineh, experiences society’s puritanical intolerance toward mutant aberrations, then has a blast at a Cher concert with Mulder and Scully. The episode is called “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” which also happens to be the subtitle of a song on the new Trail of Dead album. Its chorus consists of Conrad Keely and his crew screaming “You! Will! Pay!” over a torrent of power chords, while the verses indulge in predictably gothic mythopoetics: there’s a Winter Queen, also a ferry to the land of the dead. Good thing our mutant friend didn’t end up at a Trail of Dead show, right? The Austin indie rockers appear constitutionally incapable of taking themselves less than 100% seriously, and Tao of the Dead further bloats their repertoire with songs calibrated to induce deeper despair than a past-prime drag queen’s Cher routine.
Admittedly, it’s easy to go after these guys for making the type of portentous pomp-rock to which their ungainly moniker unfortunately commits them, so let me be clear that Tao of the Dead is not a bad record because it contains conceptual song suites, or because virtually every song jumps between time signatures before culminating in some kind of shout-along, or even because its cover looks like something a seventh-grader would draw on his notebook during homeroom (I swear that’s Starfox jumping out from behind the cluster of frumpy medieval babes and, uh, Anakin Skywalker?). I played my fair share of Final Fantasy as a kid and I’ve shelled out for tickets to watch Canada’s equally geeky Protest the Hero shred through power-metal anthems about Genghis Khan. There’s a case to be made that the epic prog stuff serves up escapism just as well as pop, but that case is not helped in the slightest by Tao of the Dead, which remains predictable in spite of its dynamism and humorless in spite of its fantastical lyrics. The guitar solos and breakdowns come exactly where you expect them, and Keely can’t stop himself from commenting on the human condition even though his missives are on the level of “There is no light; there is no light in this darkness.”
It feels like even more of a waste since “Pure Radio Cosplay” kick-starts the album with an outrageously cool guitar rock onslaught, sounding like Cap’n Jazz covering Sonic Youth covering the Who. But the turgid “Summer of All Dead Souls” is a more accurate indicator of where the album’s headed: The next time a sharp hook jumped out of this tuneless catastrophe, I glanced at my track list and noted that I was now listening to “Pure Radio Cosplay (Reprise),” making for a grand total of 1.5 songs I had any inclination to listen to again. The album finally exhausts itself in a 16-minute exorcism of bad ideas called “Strange News from Another Planet.” But hey, the adventure doesn’t have to end there! Apparently, the limited edition version contains an additional 32-minute bonus track called “The Bubble Demon.” I can’t imagine why anyone would want to hear another half-hour of this crap, but if you’ve got brain cells to spare after Tao of the Dead‘s wonky, caterwauling sendoff, then by all means, put on your +2 Boots of Moshing and get to it!