Like Ping-Pong or parenting, all people have their own approach to success. For Trail of Dead's guitarist, songwriter and occasional drummer Conrad Keely, his almost drove him from the music industry. After 2005's Worlds Apart landed with a thud, Keely reportedly contemplated giving up on music for good. His frustration was understandable. Even shortly after its release, critics had tapped the band's previous album, 2002's Source Tags and Codes, as a certain candidate for best-of-the-decade lists. But Trail of Dead made an abrupt about-face from that album's edgy, abrasive prog-punky sass to address rock history and all its permutations, using Worlds Apart to dip into glam rock, soul, power ballads and cheery pop. In hindsight, the backlash seems almost preordained.
Trail of Dead persevered, mining its sense of rejection into lyrical emoting and growing dependence on its record collection. Need look no further than So Divided's opener to find a band with a chip on its shoulder. "Intro: A Song of Fire and Wind" fades in a gentle, lilting guitar melody lullaby as the sound of a (principally female) crowd becomes increasingly louder, the band taking the stage to its swooning teenaged audience. The band launches into "Stand in Silence," seemingly acknowledging the hard-rawk segment of its fan base that has fled while sarcastically implying that the only way to recover from a lead balloon like Worlds Apart is the Green Day route. "I had a band, I had a song, where has my vision gone?" Keely reflects. "I asked a question and the world returned with silence."
Listeners looking for coherence will find little to hold their attention, because the band careens over relentless stylistic divergences. Trail of Dead leaves a trail of influences in its charred wake, yet rarely shows its hand, a measure both of respect for its predecessors and indecision about how closely to stick to its own previous success. Compositionally, the band seems relieved to have the pressures of the follow-up behind it and to be able to do its own thing under the radar. "Wasted State of Mind" turns a frenetic Polynesian drum groove, vaudevillian piano and crashing sound effects into a melodic major-key chorus and culminates with a twitchy accordion reinterpretation of the main theme. Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer helps out on "Life," which trots George Harrison's White Album-era Beatles songs past a funhouse mirror, and "Eight-Day Hell" echoes the Polyphonic Spree with a hangover. The album concludes with "Sunken Dreams," a charging anthem that summons U2 without the plumage.
Ultimately, So Divided provides stirring individual moments but fails to satisfy as a complete package, weighted down with vague burdens of indebtedness. Despite the impressive stylistic voices and rich production, there's ultimately something hollow around the project. Whether it's the sense of major-label obligation or a depleted reservoir of innovation, the album fails to elevate above its influences as a whole.
Label: http://www.interscope.com/Audio: http://myspace.com/trailofdead