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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Archers Of Loaf: Icky Mettle


1) Web In Front; 2) Last Word; 3) Wrong; 4) You And Me; 5) Might; 6) Hate Paste; 7) Fat; 8) Plumb Line; 9) Learo, You're A Hole; 10) Sickfile; 11) Toast; 12) Backwash; 13) Slow Worm.

«What makes this sound so compelling is the way it explores the full spectrum of guitar-centric rock, pulling together the blunt and abrasive with the thoughtful in the musical equivalent of a shotgun wedding with the bride and groom doing everything in their power to hold it together while the family is watching in uneasy silence». -- Gregory Heaney, All-Music Guide.

Damn, I wish I could write that way — it takes so much time to realize how entirely devoid of sense this phrase is that no one will probably even bother, leaving the page in a dazed, confu­sed, and, perhaps, even mystified state of mind. On the other hand, I could not say that this band's lyrics — or even the title of their debut album — or even their own name, for that matter — do a good job of surpassing Mr. Heaney in terms of clarity. "All I ever wanted was to be your spine / Lost your friction and you slid for a mile" (ʽWeb In Frontʼ) is a fairly diagnostic couple of lines, and almost each song yields more of the same stuff.

Anyway, Archers Of Loaf stem from Chapel Hill, NC, and, in true indie-rock fashion, consist of 2 guitars, 1 bass, 1 set of drums, and 1 soulful, but rangeless vocal coupled with one of the guitars (Eric Bachmann, no relation to Randy Bachman whatsoever, not to mention the extra n). Since they formed in the year of Nevermind, there is some temptation to pigeonhole them as «grun­gers», which they are not if, by «grunge», we mean the narrow spectrum from Nirvana to Alice In Chains to Pearl Jam and the like. The three differences are in that Archers Of Loaf are:

— nowhere near as heavy: they like low notes and power chords as much as the next guy, but it is clear that Black Sabbath is not a big influence. Sonic Youth, perhaps, but not Sabbath;

— absolutely not «depressed» or «depressing». Most of the music is energetic and angry, but the­re is no suicidal or end-of-the-world-ish ring in Bachmann's voice at all. Only once does he at­tempt to descend into autistic melancholy (ʽYou And Meʼ), but, set against all the other songs, it almost feels like a theatrical gesture for diversity's sake. Spiritual darkness as an essential compo­nent of grunge is completely lacking here;

— simply put, a «post-modern» band: much like Pavement and the Pixies, they inject their tunes with absurdism, irony, and nihilism, although the music is never as experimental as that of Pave­ment, and the band is also affected by a near-complete lack of sense of humor, which makes their post-modernism very, very strange (since we usually sense po-mo the best through the artist's abi­lity to laugh off and ridicule all of the cultural conventions of the past).

All of this puts an individual spin on Icky Mettle, which is a great advantage, considering that the actual songs kinda suck. Well, not «suck», perhaps, but whoever claims that Bachmann and the other guitarist, Eric Johnson, are accomplished riffmeisters must be fairly new to this whole «rock» idea: fifty percent of the time at least, the chord sequences are generic indie fare that you can just as easily encounter on an Avril Lavigne record. The other fifty percent show a little bit more inventiveness: ʽWrongʼ, for instance, opens with a simple, but fresh «scratchy» pattern (for some reason, complemented by an odd «cuckoo» tone from the second guitar — absurdism on the prawl!); ʽLearo, You're A Holeʼ comes replete with a head-splitting overdub of several dro­ning parts that paint the air in aggressively psychedelic colours; and the beginning of ʽToastʼ is like a lo-fi take on the mysterious otherwordliness of The Cure, before the proceedings calm down to give us a nice contrast between a thin, friendly, fun-sounding riff and an all-out scream-fest ("There's something wrong with my toast!" — go figure).

Repeated listens bring out the small details that should, perhaps, be the Archers' major claim to fame. For instance, the main guitar line of ʽWeb In Frontʼ is loud, but totally uninteresting — just a standard «chugga-chugga» recorded for the millionth time. Listen closely and you will notice a thin, almost harp-like, «ethereal» guitar playing a much more complicated role in the adjacent speaker, growing a bit more audacious by the end of the song but still not competitive enough to properly grab your attention until you've listened to this for a second time... and a third one... and a fourth one... by then, the main riff will finally fade away and the nice ringing guitar-harp will be all over your ears. (Stupid question: why not get rid of the main riff altogether?).

ʽPlumb Lineʼ is the slyest of the lot, giving Bachmann enough microphone space to deliver the catch phrase "She's an indie rocker / And nothing's gonna stop her / Her fashion fits" loud and distinct, over a proverbial indie-rock melody if there ever was one — and thus, ensure the band a firm position on college radio and in certain critical minds. But the idea of Icky Mettle is not to glorify indie rock, or propagate teenage rebellion, or even vent one's frustration over failed re­la­tion­ships — there is a little bit of everything, which all melds together in one big fat nothing, and that is the idea of Icky Mettle: to make a modern rock album about nothing. Of course, it would have helped, if, like Seinfeld, these guys at least had a sense of humor to compensate. In its place, they put loudness, brawn, and elements of weirdness, still rather random on this record (but they would grow in numbers by the time they got around to the follow-up).

Today, in knowledgeable circles, Icky Mettle is deemed as sort of a minor classic of the decade. I am not sure if it will hold up as well as the best grunge, indie, and pop-rock records from its era, because the songwriting seems fairly mediocre to me, even if the songs gain a lot through extra touches and flourishes once they are realized on tape. (Same problems as with the Afghan Whigs — another band vastly overrated by connoisseurs and reasonably forgotten by the masses). But there is certainly an enigmatic aura about the album — after all, not every piece of music will prompt the reviewer to describe it with the sort of quotation that I used to preview my own text. Trying it out won't hurt, and, want it or not, these Chapel Hill fellas were an integral part of the indie movement back in the day — gotta know our history.

Check "Icky Mettle" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Icky Mettle" (MP3) on Amazon

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