Archers of Loaf – Icky Mettle

July’s three-night sold-out run at the EARL is ample proof that the time is ripe for an Archers of Loaf reunion. Not every town will respond so rabidly – it doesn’t hurt that half of the band’s Chapel Hill fanbase has likely relocated to ATL since graduation and is now feeling the peak of mid-thirties nostalgia pangs. The attention is nonetheless well deserved, as the quartet’s music has held up as well as anything from indie rock’s early ’90s heyday. The Archers are launching a reissue campaign of their four proper albums with their 1993 debut Icky Mettle. All will be worth revisiting, but Mettle is the clear must-own.

The Archers were most readily comparable to Pavement, who burst onto the scene a couple years earlier and arguably established the indie rock template. However, Eric Bachmann’s Carolina crew plowed significantly more adrenaline into their tunes, filling the open spaces with punk aggression rather than white noise. They also shared the unbridled enthusiasm of Chapel Hill scenemates Superchunk. In fact, Merge seems such a natural home for the band that it’s easy to forget why it took so long for the pair to join forces, apart from an early 7″. Recall that Merge began life as a singles label, and had yet to take on the responsibilities of album distribution by the days of Mettle.

Like many great albums, Icky Mettle draws its spark from the trauma of breakup. Bachmann has no time for introspection – he’s looking to lash out at anything and everything, hurling bile and accusations set to anthemic guitar clamor. The entire record feels like an argument – from the collision of guitar lines to the occasional background chants that stand in defiant opposition to Bachmann’s lead vocals. The early salvo of “Last Word” and the memorable single “Wrong” sets a death-defying pace, and the tempo hardly lets up with the punchy “Might” and the pure thrash of “Sick File.” When Bachmann adopts a detached tone (“You and Me”) and falls back on more classic riffs (“Plumb Line”) hints of another contemporary – Dinosaur Jr. – peek through the surface.

Icky Mettle‘s reissue was remastered by the redoubtable Bob Weston – who deserves some sort of legal designation as the only engineer qualified to touch up 80s/90s underground classics. He wisely limits his tinkering to adding a tad more prominence to the knotty guitar interplay between Erics Bachmann and Johnson, a weapon that carried more weight amid the THC haze that descended upon follow-up Vee Vee. If the Archers could sound drunken and sloppy it was because of exuberance rather than lack of proficiency – Bachmann was a UNC music major and multi-instrumentalist, and the rhythm section of Matt Gentling and Mark Price had chops to spare. Icky Mettle is the rare debut that strikes an ideal balance between reckless discovery and considered purpose.

Yet the fun’s only starting – this bonus edition includes a nearly-as-good second disc, anchored by Vs. the Greatest of All Time, originally released as a 10″ EP that in fits and starts contains some of the Archers’ finest moments. The quartet had already begun the exploration that would persist through its catalog as well as Bachmann’s solo turns.  Standout “Audiowhore” percolates in hushed tune-up mode for a full 90 seconds before exploding into a fusillade that lends credence to Bachmann’s professed love of Motörhead.  Meanwhile, the band’s disdain has shifted from exes to the major label bloodsuckers that had begun to infest their idyllic playground. On “Lowest Part is Free” Bachmann derisively calls out for A&R, and chides pretenders who’ve “Got nothing to say, but you sing it anyway.” The bonus disc continues with a parade of solid early singles, notably the Merge gem “Ethel Merman,” before closing with the hilarious rarity “Powerwalker,” which proves that Bachmann can get equally lathered up over something as mundane as an exercise fad (“Why don’t you just fucking run? So sorry if it hurts your knees”).

Maturity has served Eric Bachmann well for much of his Crooked Fingers career, and the Archers of Loaf hit their share of peaks on later records as well – but they never again pinned the meter with gatecrashers’ abandon as consistently as they did on Icky Mettle.

Archers of Loaf
Icky Mettle