To coincide with their reunion, Merge Records re-released the Archers of Loaf – the best band with the worst name – discography, starting with their debut album, 1993s’ excellent Icky Mettle. The underrated rock quartet may just receive the attention they deserve via those spruced-up deluxe editions, allowing older audiences to reminisce and younger audiences to catch up with an excellent record they may have missed the first time around. The band’s thudding, raw and occasionally whimsical early songs sound was truly captured on this influential debut record.
During their first run, the band were (perhaps unfairly) likened to seminal ‘90s band Pavement due to their wayward attitude to song structure and alternatively-tuned guitars. Comparing the two now seems completely redundant; whilst Pavement were the sarcastic, self-aware high achievers of the class of ‘90s indie, Archers of Loaf were the jocks who snuck into the library after football practice, piercing their grungy pop songs with literate resentment and healthy bursts of noise. Both bands have managed to retain a place in the notoriously picky annals of ‘indie rock’ through steadfast belief in their individual strengths – smarmy-yet-poetic wordplay paired with beautiful jangle and spittle-flecked cynicism riding knotted guitars retrospectively – and both hold a unique place in the hearts of their fanbases. The one thing the bands do have in common is their outstanding songwriting ability, completely outmatching the vast majority of their peers in both catchiness and inventiveness. Neither band played the industry game and have both have managed to cement their legacies by remaining true to themselves and just how they desired to sound (which lead to both bands releasing experimental, divisive albums throughout their tenure).
Through bracing sections of noise, the highlights on Icky Mettle ring out loud and clear: early single ‘Wrong’’s pop/pogo-ing rallying call; ‘Might’’s longing bridge sections; the refrain in ‘Plumb Line’ of ‘You’ve got a great collection of things/’Cause that’s the best you can do’ (summarising the intense superficiality behind a lot of alternative culture); ‘Slow Worm’ has thudding open strings and anti-guitar solo; and ‘Toast’’s abastract sound collage that gives way to a soaring refrain. The song that left the greatest mark on the audience of ‘90s MTV viewers was album opener ‘Web in Front’. Possibly Archers of Loaf’s greatest 129 seconds, it’s a perfect rock song, perfectly walking the tightrope between longing and triumph, noise and melody. The song chugs by on a simple three-chord shift with messy lead guitar lines that melodically and beautifully underline Eric Bachman’s impressionistic lyricism (‘All I ever wanted was to be your spine’) as his words hit home through his subdued phonetic phrasing, the words chosen for their sound as much as their meaning.
Punk and hardcore have long been touchstones for ‘alternative rock’ outfits you can hear the fire of those genres blazing through Archers of Loaf’s sound too; these influences were present in their sound rather than credibility-grabbing soundbites. ‘Last Word’ sounds like it’s about to fall apart at any time during its mid-pace scraping assault, ‘Backwash’ is as relentlessly hungry as any 90-second hardcore blast and ‘Learo, You’re A Hole’ borrowed from the snotty delivery of Archers’ early influences and attached it to the band’s innovative guitar work, and this melodic-yet-messy approach would be further explored (and exploited) and the band’s darker, critically lauded follow-up Vee Vee.
Archers’ frontman Eric Bachman has said that he finds the album’s energy and cluelessness embarrassing now, but it’s this naivety and thrill of discovery that allow Icky Mettle to sound individualistic, sloppy and brilliant this day. It’s one of the best excited messes ever committed to tape and will continue to teach bands that they can meld mess and pop mastery into their own sound far into the future.