As with many strains of British pop music, the efforts of Ohioan Robert Pollard, former Guided By Voices front man, though brilliant, can sometimes come across a bit mannered. That isn’t the case with The Planets Are Blasted, the sophomore release by Boston Spaceships, Pollard’s new vehicle. The album is one sharp punch after another, starting with the typically absurd “Canned Food Demons” then “Dorothy’s a Planet,” enlarged from a thumbnail sketch of a demo on GBV’s Suitcase compilation to a rich ballad. Scarcely a breath then the macho rock posturing of “Tattoo Mission” and “Keep Me Down,” and the perfect pop miniatures “Catherine From Mid-October” and “The Town That’s After Me.”
He still manages to get in a rock anthem with “Headache Revolution.” On the brooding “Big O Gets an Earful,” Pollard sounds like a ringer for Peter Gabriel, melody as enveloped by clouds as any early Genesis. But Pollard somehow makes the prog- and classic-rock moves feel new and fresh. String arrangements render these songs lush and fuller than his usual lo-fi work. Cap it off with his album art for a total package. As with any great collage artist, the pieces never seem random but somehow inevitable.
They’ve shortened their name from the original … And You Will Know Us by The Trail of Dead, which was seemingly as long as, well, a trail of … Speaking of prog rock, Trail of Dead is sorta like indie rock’s prog-metal Dream Theater—nothing as hideous as that sounds, but heavy and symphonic and conceptual. Leaving the Interscope label to their own Richter Scale finds them reinvigorated, taking on singer Conrad Keely’s philosophical concepts with renewed energy.
Track titles like “Isis Unveiled” and “Halcyon Days” hint at epic gnome-rock themes that are perhaps better half-enunciated through the poetic language of lyrics. Although the title might be taken from a British TV-documentary essaying the history of individual psychology in the 20th century only to see the concept of the individual turned against us in commercial and political manipulations, it’s more likely a reference to the deeply personal nature of some of the songs, like “Pictures of an Only Child.” This is an example of theatrical rock that doesn’t keep the listener at arm’s length.