Releasing a new album close to the two-decade anniversary of your magnum opus can be quite a doozy. In this very specific case, however, we’re talking about …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, a band who have made compulsive, all-encompassing grandeur their greatest schtick. Reading beforehand that XI: Bleed Here Now was not only the longest Trail of Dead album, but also recorded in fucking quadraphonic surround sound, admittedly, a little voice groaning ‘oh god’ did briefly pop into my head. As an avid fan of the triptych Madonna, SourceTags & Codes and Worlds Apart (yeah, I’m dying on the hill that Worlds Apart is an amazing LP), I was expecting a bit of a slog.
And yes, XI: Bleed Here Now – with its sheer bloated-ness – is a slog, but never a tedious slog. The band once again oversells its sonic ambitions like the haughtiest of haughty, albeit with the endearing passion of a history teacher directing a school play. To paraphrase one of the Austin band’s most famous lyrics: this record came together in relative ways. The freeze-frame of the corona pandemic allowed Trail of Dead to create within their own pace, budget and logistical parameters, fully leaning into epic nerd-outs on recreating their individualistic renderings of ‘classic rock’ production values.
Though the results are mixed, you can clearly hear a band having a shit ton of fun letting their creative whims rip with artless abandon. “No Confidence” sounds like a post-grunge necromancing of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out”, screaming at the heavens with the same defiantly shaking iron fist as Cooper did towards the school principal. There’s something hilariously tongue-in-cheek about following brief post-hardcore flare-up “Kill Everyone” with the folky Britt Daniel-featuring “Growing Divide”. The latter song pours the glass half-full in a polarized world: “Don’t let the sight of the growing divide / Make you give up on humanity”. It shows a Trail of Dead riding beyond the apocalypse, pursuing glints of hope on the horizon.
As much as we tend to – often unfairly – hold an artists’ contemporary work to the standards of their classics, let’s not forget Source Tags & Codes was a bleak fucking Bush-era album. I mean, the gloom-and-doom delivery of the line “There is nothing to be done / We have lost all control” on “Heart In The Hand Of The Matter” lays it on a little thick, right? Point being, even when Trail of Dead were operating at their critical apex, they were never afraid to come across as borderline corny. On Worlds Apart, Pitchfork accused the band of blowing their load a bit too excessively, marking one of the biggest critical about-faces of this century. It speaks of a band that’s never given into complacency, result be damned.
XI: Bleed Here Now appeals for reconciliation within this great divide instead of cynically pointing out how fucked up the world is. Considering its mammoth 75-minutes and richly adorned arrangements, there’s a palpable grace to Trail of Dead’s insistence on perpetually swinging for the fences. Even when they swing and miss, they do it with gusto. At this point in their evolution, they seem self-aware of their own indulgence and reasserting it as their fundamental strength. As forgettable as the gargantuan 11-minute prog beast “Taken by The Hand” is as a composition, your ears are still invested in following the band’s spirited playing – as if you’re in the room with them jamming the fuck out.
In the sparse moments when XI: Bleed Here Now is good, it’s pretty damn good. “Golden Sail” is a space rock romp that accelerates into death defying, cosmos-crossing turbulence. “Penny Candle” and “Field Song” are the kind of loose-limbed indie rock anthems we haven’t heard from Trail of Dead since their first two albums. These songs still feel like Trail of Dead raising the stakes, while at the same time cognisant that they might not meet them as consistently. The Beatles-inspired “Salt in Your Eyes” ends in complete sonic pandemonium, and you can picture the band driving themselves up the walls, trashing the studio space and pressing record.
This always has been one of Trail of Dead’s strengths: they inhabit the spirit of rock nostalgia without reducing it to something purist and boring, true to their punk rock roots. The giddiness in navigating the unruly process of recording a 75-minute surround sound album with an indie budget seems to override any fear of being weighed down by the outside world’s lofty expectations. Let’s face it, the premise of recording a quadraphonic record is about as outdated as a David Crosby Twitter take on ‘kids these days’, but Trail of Dead appear eager to achieve it through modern means, citing plugins such as Quark to achieve a similar result. It’s a band up for trying pretty much everything – a Trail of Dead staple – but on XI: Bleed Here Now they shed the weight of trying too hard.
On Worlds Apart, the band was still in the crosshairs of the big consensus makers. But embracing that same cosmonaut mindset as savvy cult heroes definitely adds a new wrinkle to the music. Furthermore, XI: Bleed Here Now captures Trail of Dead rediscovering and assimilating what they enjoyed about their formative records in the first place, whether it’s Pink Floyd’s symphonic mastery, Sonic Youth’s noise abstractions or the primal fury of Black Sabbath. Every song sounds like a bunch of musicians taking things in stride, enjoying the process of creating over all else. Obviously by loosening the reins a bit, the pitfalls of sometimes recycling melodic and lyrical ideas aren’t completely dodged, and by effect, some tracks end up stranded in limbo around the two-and-a-half minute mark.
The ‘filler’ tracks – for lack of better term – definitely serve as more of a connective tissue than brief intermissions from the main narrative. The opening interlude “Our Epic Attempts” spells out their convoluted band name in various languages, which feels like a somewhat dorky gesture to find common ground within all the petty discord. In an enduring career transfixed between catastrophe and transcendence, XI: Bleed Here Now savours the trail of life over the trail of dead. Knowing how to bleed, I guess, comes with all the mileage.