Maturity sucks. Why do rock bands feel the need to mature? It's a disease that almost every musician that maintains any semblance of longevity suffers. That need to show the world how multifaceted your talents are is irresistible. The pressure to do something different drives the ego to dangerous lengths. There were signs, of course, that…And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead might take this road eventually. The dense minutiae of its cerebral cum gothic artwork, the experimental interludes between songs, the showy, overblown titles…the map pretty much led right up to Worlds Apart, if you read it carefully.
Almost three years have passed since the band released its colossal third album, Source Tags & Codes. That album perfected a galloping wall of sound comprised of equal parts reckless punk rock abandon and gut-punching sincerity. The follow-up EP, The Secret of Elena's Tomb, didn't do much to further the agenda, however, as it relied more on retreaded ideas than it did envelope pushing ones. On Worlds Apart Trail of Dead sounds utterly reinvigorated yet dangerously reinvented. The soundscape has moved from familiar post-punk architecture to a more traditional British bar rock sound. That is not to say the band has dulled its edges completely (though it’s pretty close); it's simply become slightly more tuneful, while losing its intensity altogether.
Conrad Keely has always been the band's focal point, yet he is obviously not a great singer. He's an excellent songwriter and an amazing screamer, but his singing voice is impish when it's given too much space. Plus, he's damaged his voice badly from years of throaty screams, and you can hear the vibrations on his nodes when he tries to sustain certain notes. The cracks in his voice actually become endearing after a while, but the singing bogs down most of the songs, which, ironically for this band, tend to need more adrenaline. Unfortunately, the screams have been tapered to the point of practical non-existence (that's what happens when punk bands "evolve"). Keely sings most of this record, for better or worse (worse). His pitch is iffy and inconsistent, and his ideas and melodies only make up for some of the technical deficiencies.
Worlds Apart will undoubtedly shock longtime fans with its throttled back guitars and smoothed-over dynamics. It's a difficult record to grow into, especially when your expectations are completely thrown off track by the subdued atmospherics. This is not the Trail of Dead that destroys its equipment and every club it plays. This is the Trail of Dead that feels the need to prove itself musically, so instead of noisy feedback and cryptic chants interlocking the songs, we have haughty, orchestral interludes, choirs of back-up soul singers (a very bad sign), and full-blown progressive-rock arrangements. Keely's obviously always been mystified by the pretentious inanity of 70's prog-rock, so the latter should be of no surprise, but in the context of an entire album it wears thinly.
And consistent with all the unchecked pretension, Keely has adopted some inexplicable form of a fake British accent with which he sings about very un-prog, un-goth, and un-punk topics like celebrities and MTV. The first single, Worlds Apart, sounds like a rough-hewn British bar band. A do what now? The hook is there, but sloppy Oasis is not what the doctor ordered. And when did Trail of Dead get so happy? I'm not one to put creative limitations on a band, but there are contexts that work with an aesthetic and clearly ones that don't. The band is called …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, for fuck's sake. The Cure answered its suicidal, overcoat-donning saps with ludicrous pop singles when it got boxed into a corner creatively, and it worked. But as far as I can tell, Trail of dead isn't going for extreme irony or any image busting. This is supposed to be growth.
The opening riff of "Will You Smile Again" packs a dynamic punch in line with Trail of Dead's pivotal urgency, but the song derails into a loopy, incomprehensible ballad, wherein Keely waxes nonsensical for way too long before the rock kicks back in. "Summer of '91" is nostalgic balladry best left for b-sides. "The Rest Will Follow" is the album's finest offering. It's an anthem to be sure, replete with punchy, shout-along backing vocals and memorable riffs galore. "Caterwaul" is drummer Jason Reece's first contribution to the record, and it pales compared to his typically arresting songwriting. Even his growling voice sounds limp. It's watered down Trail of Dead.
"Let It Dive" is as sentimental as the band gets. Keely's songwriting skills are inarguably consistent, though, as this song's hummable chorus will attest. The recessive guitars that used to explode now simply fade away. The altered dynamic leaves something to be desired. The album's second attempt at an anthem falls flat on its face. "The Best" is cloying and annoying and repetitive beyond all need. As Keely shouts "the best" over and over, it almost sounds like a bad Mountain Dew commercial.
I love this band, so it pains me to report that Worlds Apart isn't going to blow your mind. Admittedly, I'm still trying to warm up to it, but even after countless spins, I still don't like the taste in my mouth. I understand the band's need to open itself up creatively; I just wish it had retained its momentum and extremism along the way.