And you will know us by the trail of tags and source codes of Dead at 20

This isn’t the first time we here at PopMatters have discussed… And you’ll know us by the trail of the dead. Tags and source codes. Jon Garrett first reviewed the album in 2002. He focused a lot on how surprisingly good the record was in light of a terrible, drunken live performance he had witnessed a few years before. He also spoke a bit about major label Interscope Records’ mind-boggling decision to sign such a non-commercial band.

Jeff Dunn celebrated the album’s 10th anniversary by comparing the band to other great rock bands of the time. He also covered the intensity level of the tracks and the bizarre instrumental interludes between the proper songs. This piece included a reflection on the band’s creative struggles after Tags and source codes as well as.

Today, 20 years apart, the legacy of that record has grown as a legacy closely tied to music journalism on the Internet itself. 2002 was a time of transition for rock music. The garage rock revival of The Strokes and The White Stripes borders on leftover grunge and nu-metal like Puddle of Mudd, Godsmack and Staind. Pop-punk bands like blink-182 and Sum 41 still had juice, while Foo Fighters were more popular than ever. Looking back on various lists of the most popular rock songs of the year, there is an obvious discrepancy. Some of these lists include Jack Johnson’s Pop Acoustic Guitar and even Eminem’s Rap Singles. However, almost nowhere on these charts will you find indie rock bands.

Modern rock radio stations that remained from the 1990s had gradually reduced their playlists, focusing on acts not particularly adventurous or fresh. With the term “alternative” becoming obsolete, the moniker “indie” began to be applied to certain artists instead. It didn’t matter whether or not these bands belonged to real independent record labels. Rock radio and the influential MTV weren’t particularly interested in this new underground, but the burgeoning number of online pop culture sites were all over this type of music.

Social media had yet to take off and YouTube was still a few years away. For a few years in the early 2000s, these sites had an outsized, taste-creating influence. They might generate buzz and break up groups, at least to some extent. No one was headlining arenas based on positive reviews from PopMatters or Pitchfork, but they might sell some clubs. The boost given to Arcade Fire’s Funeral in 2004 by rave reviews from music sites paved the way for the band to win Grammys and eventually play 10,000-seat venues.

Tags and source codes was a relatively early beneficiary of this boost. Trail of Dead had released two independent albums, the second, Madonna, uneven but with real potential. Interscope picked them up and the group got to work on Source tags. They immediately reached that potential; creatively, at least, if not commercially. The AV Club, Pitchfork and yes, PopMatters all gave the album rave reviews. Metacritic, the online review aggregator, ranked it the 12th best-reviewed album of 2002.

It’s a record that effectively blends the band’s aggressive noise-rock tendencies with a new appreciation for melody and, in particular, melodic guitar riffs. The opener “It was there I saw you” sets the template for the album. Lead singer Conrad Keely screams over crashing guitars and Jason Reece’s expressive drums. The group then drops into a slow, silent section before slowly coming back up. The opening theme returns for a powerful ending, and that’s the whole song. Two sections, two very different atmospheres, and yet it works.

A song like “Another Morning Stoner” has a more melodic tone, and while Reece’s drumming is just as strong, it’s relaxed. It features a catchy guitar lead, which does a lot of work in setting the mood of the song. On the other end of the spectrum, “Homage” is full of hardcore energy as Reece takes over on vocals, screaming his head off. The band are savvy enough to provide dynamics amidst the fury, however, with a pair of noise-declining passages and even a solo in the middle of a piano song.

The best tracks on the album find the balance between power and dynamics. “Days of Being Wild” is another one that starts aggressively, calms down and builds, but it doesn’t return to the same musical spot. “Relative Ways” keeps the speed constant but changes the time signature and instrumentation for contrast. “Source Tags and Codes” manages to sound laid back while reaching the musical climax several times in the song.

On less melodic songs, Jason Reece’s drums provide the hooks. None of the three singers on the disc (bassist Neil Busch also takes a few turns of the microphone) is an outstanding singer. Sometimes the band’s guitarists focus more on the vibe and sound walls than on the riffs. In these places, Reece’s talent for memorable and catchy rhythmic patterns gives the listener something concrete to focus on.

This album still justifies all the hype the online music community gave it in 2002. It’s also a singular record in Trail of Dead’s now extensive catalog. 2005 worlds apart found the band trying to be more commercial and essentially failing, while 2006 So divided was a course correction that was not entirely successful either. After missing their chance at mainstream success, the band set up their own label and went independent again.

For the best or for the worst, Tags and source codes was the last album recorded by the original Trail of Dead lineup. Bassist Neil Busch left in 2004, and worlds apart was credited to the remaining trio. I saw the band performing in early 2009 as six musicians. Keely, Reece and three other members wore essentially the same black-on-black outfits, while founding guitarist Kevin Allen stood sullenly off to the side in jeans and a white t-shirt. It was no surprise when he left the band a year later.

Keely and Reece have continued ever since, with a rotating cast of players filling out the group. Their later material is often just as energetic as Source tags, but with a noticeable increase in prog-rock influences. Keely’s illustrations, a staple of the band from the start, informed this approach. Trail of Dead is now in the midst of an epic steampunk fantasy music story that has been going on for several albums. The intricate story is in the liner notes online for anyone dedicated enough to follow. Revisit Source tagshowever, takes me back to a time when the band’s lyrics were just as indecipherable, the songs were abrasive but catchy, and figuring it all out didn’t feel like homework.

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