Stage Fright

...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead makes impeccable recordings in the studio -- and a mess of the bars and clubs where it performs.

There is something both chilling and beautiful about chaos and destruction, like watching a 21-story building implode. In a live setting, the Austin, TX-based foursome, ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, live by this notion: The band takes the established order and structure and pulverizes it into a rubble of exhaustion and sweat, broken bottles and instruments.

"A drum set will last us about a tour," says vocalist/drummer/guitarist Conrad Keely of the relatively abbreviated lifespan of Trail of Dead equipment. "They just seem to get broken all the time. Accidents do happen."

Broken drums are usually not the only casualty left in the wake of Trail of Dead performances, spectacles that have earned the band a reputation as both an outstanding and volatile live act throughout the six years of its life. As the lore goes, the band has been personally escorted off stages (some of which Trail of Dead has left partially destroyed) and out of towns by police. The players have been known to throw Flying V guitars across congested rooms -- narrowly missing the night's patrons, an act that usually renders the guitars useless and the crowd both fearful and intrigued. It is not uncommon to see one of the bandmembers dive headfirst into a crowd, if only to steal a drink from an unsuspecting audience member. Sometimes the players hurl beer bottles at each other on stage; if the audience is not paying attention, occasionally they'll hurl them into the crowd.

As might be expected, sometimes things can get a little out of hand. Like the time guitarist Kevin Allen sustained a gaping wound on his leg after a particularly rowdy show in San Antonio.

"I didn't know if the crowd liked us or hated us, but they started throwing bottles, and things began to get a little crazy," says Allen. "So I jumped over the drum set and ended up in the emergency room because I had a high-hat stand in the back of my calf."

The sensible person might ask: What's the point of this madness? According to Keely -- who leads the band to a "Zen-like collective consciousness, beginning with a group prayer to both Jesus and Satan" as part of a pre-show ritual -- it lies somewhere between a slightly warped performance ethic and a supernatural phenomenon. Despite the aggressiveness that audiences have come to expect from the foursome, its live performances are not riddled with anger or the machismo of steroid rock; to say they extract some primordial energy and presence when on stage may not be too far off.

"When we perform, we try to break down the barriers between us as musicians -- who are there to perform -- and the audience, who think they're there to see a show," Keely says. "Enthusiasm is contagious, because when you allow yourself to shed your inhibitions, you can break down the wall between the audience and the performer. We know sometimes we may sound completely awful live, but the experience is visceral for us and the audience."

"Some weird things happen on stage," Keely adds. "I've had an out-of-body experience that reminds me of voodoo trances when a body goes into a convulsive state. You get these spasms that make you feel like you're no longer at the helm of your own body or spirit. This is the most addictive thing about playing live -- when you get off stage, it's like you're coming off a really strong drug."

Musically, Trail of Dead (composed of Keely, co-guitarist/drummer/vocalist Jason Reece, bassist/sampler Neil Busch and Allen) relies on a formula that is more sexual than chemical, but no less intoxicating. Reminiscent of noise artists like Glenn Branca, Bardo Pond and Sister-era Sonic Youth, the band woos a listener with soothing melodies and pop hooks, then unleashes a blitzkrieg of anguished guitars and climactic, self-propelled drums. The cover art of Madonna, the band's latest full-length recording, offers an indication of Trail of Dead's aesthetic; the band uses an image of Kali -- a multifaceted Hindu goddess viewed in some sects as a destroyer, a threat to order, an instigator of chaos -- as a figurative, if not spiritual, symbol of their music and live performance. Throughout its thirteen songs, Madonna demonstrates Trail of Dead's tendency to build in order to destroy, to imbue its music with structure only to smash it violently just as the foundation is starting to settle.

"Claire de Lune," a track from Madonna, typifies this style. Beginning with a strong melodic intro, the sound quickly moves into the kind of catchy riffs that make even the meek nod their heads in time. By the time the song reaches its chorus, with Keely singing in an exasperated tone, the arrangement has been elevated to a sophisticated but teasing sound that weaves in and out, like a boxer who dances rhythmically but never quite takes a hit. The crescendo passes like a wave, or a crying fit, and all that remains is the sound of subtle feedback -- white noise that's frighteningly similar to the sound of electronic crickets. "Totally Natural" begins with a soothing and sanitary melody, then moves to a tribal-like chant that builds higher and higher, only to be destroyed by a monsoon force of guitars.

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