White Trash Heroes is a record buried by denial. Fans make excuses (it was, after all, Archers of Loaf’s exhausted swan song), critics wield perspective (Icky Mettle is just so much more focused and immediate), and history opts not to comment on its shoddy short-term memory. Even the nauseating cover photo of a punk-rock bathroom offers preemptive advice to the prospective listener: Turn around and walk away. But really, what is this? A jaded, clinically taut kiss-off to 1990s guitar rock? A messy exhuming of cultural baggage to the tune of neurotically entwined guitar riffs? An album that opens with a martial treatise on the viral dissemination of popular culture and ends with a bleary snapshot of some rural county fair has some explaining to do.
But who will listen? The album is too abrasive, too challenging, too instigative. It wasn’t an album that the Archers seemed destined to make, but it became their destiny: Noise-rock band from fertile Chapel Hill, North Carolina, scene dehumanizes itself with icy keyboards and minimalism. It’s what happens when you replace a band’s blood with binary code, as the Police did with Ghost in the Machine and Talking Heads did with Fear of Music. It’s a manifestation of the sublime and impossible: What if Philip Glass had come of age in the geographical shadow of Fugazi? What if he was reared on the steady waft of grunge’s slow death? This record answers that type of burning question. It also single-handedly removed the band from the hipster-darling phone book. With White Trash Heroes, the Archers dejectedly abandoned their seven-year career, leaving behind a flaming wreck of twisted metal and blue flame.
What a way to go out.
For those caught slumbering under the watch of post-Cobain false idols, the Archers were the bench-clearers brandishing billy clubs. If its lumbering mass didn’t happen to collide with the monotony of your personal life, White Trash Heroes could be ignored. But if it happened to interrupt your path, escape was not an option. In particular, “One Slight Wrong Move”, the album’s clank-boom-steam centerpiece, sounded like nothing else at the time. This was their theme: the death-rattle rhythm of metal and steel, the coiling Eastern guitar riff, the squalls of feedback, the human voice replaced with the future shock of a low-octave talk-box used not for kitsch or fun but to incite paranoia. “One Slight Wrong Move” is, as a friend put it, “skull-bashing”—a terror alert for a country not yet familiar with terror alerts, an antidote to the personal Jesuses promised by pop music. “And we work forever each and every day / And we surrender anyway, in so many different ways”. Caught in the song’s stranglehold, you’re powerless under the sway of the cold, menacing rhetoric: “A hundred million people could be wrong / A hundred million people have been wrong before.”
It’s eerie, because the institutions of control the Archers were rallying against (fascism, totalitarianism, corporate dictation, household complacency) crop up in the album’s very presentation. The album is alternately overpowering and hypnotic; longed-for lulls follow brutal punishments. At its heart, White Trash Heroes is a confrontation with emptiness, the emptiness embedded in consumer culture, the emptiness of a cultural landscape that was once again being stripped of its idealism, the overwhelming emptiness that accompanies the close of a century. While it would be ridiculous to suggest the Archers were ragtag Kreskins, their tone in 1998 is arguably prescient; it evokes the impending malaise of a new century ushered in by dot-com busts, Y2K scares, catastrophic acts of terrorism and a pall of never-ending aggression. Visions of innocence would be exposed as nothing but exorbitant fantasies. Perhaps this cold vision of inevitability drove listeners away, this assertion that rock ‘n’ roll can’t always be relied on for escape and absolution.
Or maybe it was the jagged shape of the songs. When it’s not busy being confrontational via the raw onslaught of instrumentation, White Trash Heroes is oblique (the garbled paranoia of Eric Bachmann’s lyrics); it repeatedly tests listeners’ patience with abrasion (“I.N.S.”) and repetition (the seven-minute title track)—hardly the kind of recording most people invest time in. It’s easy to reject the entire affair as lacking a confident coherence. The song structures are knotty (the dueling riffs in “Fashion Bleeds” and “Perfect Time” demand concentration) and some of the conceptual elements (namely, the Glass-esque loops of “Dead Red Eyes” and the title track) can frustrate if overanalyzed. Still, navigating the uncertainties of devastated cultural terrain isn’t easy: the Archers blow through screamcore (“Banging on a Dead Drum”), a Pixies-esque instrumental (“Smokers in Love Laugh”), neon-hued neo-blues (“Slick Tricks and Bright Lights”) and pieces of scrapheap beauty (“Perfect Time”) before the ten-song manifesto runs its course. It doesn’t all work—both “I.N.S.” and “Banging on a Dead Drum” are inscrutable slices of temper heavy on shock and light on exploratory gestures—but the Archers don’t pretend that they think otherwise. In fact, they seem to readily admit to the blemishes in a less-than-utopian reality in which they themselves are implicated: “There is no perfect time / Too fast or slow,” Bachmann croaks in “Perfect Time”. “There is no perfect place / No picture-perfect face.”
While probably no time would have been perfect to release their crowning achievement, the Archers dropped White Trash Heroes one year too late. Audiences had already embraced Radiohead’s OK Computer in 1997, a record that flailed its arms with a similar flag-down-the-plane-from-the-island finality. Both albums are timely documents of fear, skepticism, and defeatism, but White Trash Heroes remains the more visceral of the two. And though not as sonically immaculate and ornate as its British counterpart, White Trash Heroes retains its relevance because it feels so explicitly irrevocable—it’s a heap of racket, piled under the archway into this new era, that we can’t help but track into the house under our feet. At the end of a century, unfortunate new beginnings are chartered.