Music: Trail of Dead

Apr 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Ken Micallef

AUSTIN ROCKERS BRING ON THE NOISE

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From left: Kevin Allen, Aaron Ford, Conrady Keely, Clay Morris, Jason Reece and Jay Phillips

From left: Kevin Allen, Aaron Ford, Conrady Keely, Clay Morris, Jason Reece and Jay Phillips
Photos: Roger Kisby

As if their name — …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead — isn't enough, this Austin, Texas-based sextet's seventh album was built on a trail of oddities and absurdities bizarre enough to fill a painting by 16th-century horror master Hieronymus Bosch. The Century of Self (Richter Scale/Justice) was (a) wrestled away from the group's original producer, (b) tracked at four different studios, (c) recorded to tape/Nuendo/Logic/Pro Tools/tape, (d) partially inspired by a misery-inducing tour with a Cartoon Network band and (e) spooked by a ghost that inhabited the final studio's underground passageway.

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“The themes of the record involve prophecy, higher spirituality, childhood and how the world has been changed by consumerism,” multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Conrad Keely says. “The future fascinates me.”

Keely and fellow multi-instrumentalist Jason Reece migrated from Washington state to Austin in 1994, surrounded themselves with similarly minded art rockers and took on their impossibly long moniker. Albums such as Source Tags & Codes (2002) and prog-rock opera Worlds Apart (2005) cemented their cred with their fan base while alienating record labels. (Interscope dropped them in '06.) The Trail of Dead sound is built on pure kitchen-sink tactics — Keely and Reece piling on melodies and instruments in seemingly scattershot fashion. But when you least expect it, a gorgeous melody will claw its way to the top, and it all makes sudden sense.

Initial tracking for The Century of Self began with producer Mike McCarthy in Austin, but after a disagreement, the band transferred files to a Venus VS3 hard drive and relocated across town to Bubble Recording and engineer Chris “Frenchie” Smith (Jet, Meat Puppets). Overdubbing on the original drum, scratch guitar and vocal tracks at Bubble, the band soon changed gears again and enlisted New York producer/engineer Chris Coady (TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Grizzly Bear) to work with them on fresh tracks at Mission Sound Recording (Brooklyn, N.Y.) on their Neve 8026/ Pro Tools HD3 Accel/Mac Intel dual-quad 2.8GHz system. Finally, TOD pursued further recording and mixdown at Coady's DNA Studio in New York's East Village.

“Tracking to another engineer's rough mix is one of the most cruel and savage ways to do any kind of labor on a record,” Smith explains. “But it didn't piss the band off; it was punk rock! It varied song by song, but there would always be a drum track and at least a pretty raging bass track. The previous engineer — God bless him — didn't feature the rougher elements that much so we were able to fill in the blanks, and that shaped the future of how we worked.”

Recording to Bubble's MCI JH-16 24-track 2-inch machine via a Neotek Elan II 32-channel console into Steinberg Nuendo, Smith functioned as both engineer and cheerleader.

“The two are quite different,” Conrad explains, regarding the record's two engineer/producers. “Frenchie is hyperactive and he's a great coach. Chris likes to think things through; he is more methodical and intellectual. And he is also really into noisy experimentation. If you give him a basic track, he wants to do something very abstract with it.”

After tracking at Mission Recording with Coady, Smith transferred the files — still on the now problematic Venus hard drive — to his DNA Studio (32-channel SSL E 6000 Series console with G modules/Apple Mac G5/Pro Tools HD/Logic 8), which features some truly brilliant pieces such as a vintage WWII-era Federal Television Corporation AM-864-U tube compressor, Audio Design Recording Compex Limiter F760X-RS (the drum sound of Led Zeppelin's “When the Levee Breaks”) and an E.A.R. 660 limiting amplifier. These are Coady's go-to compressors for drums and vocals. Coady also loves the Phil Spector wall of reverb approach, which he vigorously applied to The Century of Self's epic tracks.






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