The sonic and emotional centerpiece of Trail of Dead‘s ninth LP is “Bus Line,” a six-minute epic equal parts art-rock lava and dream-pop dew. “Can’t wait for the rain to end/ Can’t wait to be home again,” sings frontman Conrad Keely, navigating the sharp corners of fuzz-stained seventh-chords while reflecting on a backpacking excursion. Midway through, the volatile 7/8 assault evaporates into the ether, as starlit vocal harmonies swoon over campfire acoustic strums. Then, just as the dust settles, the distorted thunder erupts once more.
Keely and crew sound so assured in their attack, it’s easy to forget how tumultuous their ride has been over the past decade. Following the lavish critical acclaim of their 2002 masterpiece, Source Tags & Codes, the band’s creative intentions (and lineup) were in a near-constant state of flux — best evidenced by the bloated Wagnerian-prog excess of 2005′s Worlds Apart and the introverted psychedelia of the following year’s So Divided. But the new decade has brought a rebirth: IX is Trail of Dead’s third straight album with consistent personnel (Keely, co-founder/multi-instrumentalist Jason Reece, bassist Autry Fulbright II and drummer-guitarist Jamie Miller); perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also their third straight triumph.
On the one-two punch of 2011′s Tao of the Dead and 2012′s Lost Songs, the band struck a distinct balance between progressive density and melodic thrust. On IX the quartet rides that wave while expanding their ambitions. The results mirror the expansive, almost orchestral, approach of Worlds Apart — though delivered with more zeal and focus. “The Ghost Within” finds Keely and Reece weaving their yin-yang voices over an anthemic piano; “How to Avoid Huge Ships” is an instrumental suite, cellos and keys and tom-tom flourishes layered into a massive glacier of arpeggios. The album climaxes with the schizophrenic “Sound of the Silk,” a barrage of percussion, jangling riffs and spoken word texture. With the widescreen scope of prog and the immediacy of punk, IX is Trail of Dead at the height of their powers.