Archers of Loaf: Icky Mettle (Deluxe Edition)

Archers of Loaf
Icky Mettle (Deluxe Edition)

Archers of Loaf tend to not get the recognition that they deserve as one of the trailblazing indie alternative rock bands of the ’90s. They don’t have the slackness of playing and the wry, ironic (and sometimes downright sarcastic) lyrics of Pavement — which, for some strange reason, they get compared to a lot. They didn’t have the lo-fi, intimate aesthetic of Sebadoh or Guided by Voices. And while their fellow North Carolina counterparts Superchunk pretty much assumed the mantle of taking over from where Hüsker Dü left off, Archers of Loaf could rival that group in terms of sheer sonic bombast. Yet they got overlooked, and, to a certain degree, still do. Maybe it has to do with the fact that the band only put out four records (not counting a rarities compilation, live albums, various singles, and an EP) and then broke up rather unceremoniously in 1998, letting the rest of the indie rock world pass them by in the process. While Archers of Loaf may be thus relegated to a B-list of powerful indie rock bands that paved the way for a million other atonal guitar-based artists, a register that would also have to include vital but lesser championed acts like Chavez and Jawbox, they definitely shouldn’t be forgotten. One reason for that: there’s a song on their 1993 debut, Icky Mettle — which has now been remastered and appended with the following year’s Vs. the Greatest of All Time EP as well as various seven-inch rarities — that is, by and large, one of the absolute pinnacles of early ’90s college rock.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you “Web in Front”.

“Web in Front” tends to overshadow everything else to be found on Icky Mettle, originally released on the tiny Alias label based out of San Francisco (and was home to a stellar roster of groups such as Yo La Tengo, American Music Club and — one of my personal all-time favourites — Too Much Joy). I’ll give you an example of just how profound of an effect this song had on people back in the day. In the fall of 1994, when I was a freshman journalism student, I recall socializing with one of my floormates in his dorm with a few new friends, hanging around and listening to music. Somehow, Icky Mettle got placed into the CD player, and the strains of the album’s very first song (“Web in Front”, naturally) could be heard wafting out of the speakers. Then, when it was over a scant two minutes and loose change later, my acquaintance got up, hit the reverse button on the stereo, and we listened to it all over again. And again. And again. I hate to admit this, but I never got around to hearing the entire album at the time because we only listened to that one song ad nauseam.

It’s easy to see why there was so much excitement around that piece of music. First off, “Web in Front” opens with one of the greatest lyrics that came out of the ’90s alternative rock gold rush: “Stuck a pin in your backbone / Spoke it down from there / All I ever wanted was to be your spine / Lost your friction and you slid for a mile / Overdone, overdrive, overlive, override.” To someone who pined for love and affection from the opposite sex at 19, that lyric just sticks out in retrospect as a would-be klaxon about the perils about getting something you want (a relationship) and then realizing that the package might not be worth the effort. (Too bad I didn’t see it at the time.) Secondly, the song is simply hook laden, and it rocks out meticulously in a less than 125 second span. There’s no wasted note, no wasted emotion, no fluff or overbearingness. It simply clocks in and clocks out, and yet seems whole and unified. “Web in Front” is simply perfect, and had the band decided to repeat the song countless times on the disc without anything new added, thus eliminating the need to hit the back button, the album would earn a well-deserved 10. And despite the fact that Archers of Loaf are not considered to be in that upper-tier of alterna rock bands from the era, “Web in Front” still endures. Heck, not too long ago on Facebook, one of my friends there posted a YouTube video of a young boy singing along to the song, which seemed to be an odd choice for the youth of today to be playing karaoke with. But there it is. “Web in Front” certainly has multigenerational legs, nearly 20 years after its release.

Having just written almost 500 words on just one song from Icky Mettle is probably unjust, as there are 12 other songs deserving of attention. There’s very little flotsam and jetsam that surfaces on the record, as it stands up as a cohesive statement of jarring guitar melody. For instance, “Last Word”, which follows “Web in Front”, is a rip-roaring heavy anthem that starts out melodic enough, but takes a jarring left turn into off-kilter territory before ploughing head-first into an awesome chorus that sticks like dirt on flypaper. “Wrong”, released as a single prior to the album’s release (as was, cough, “Web in Front”), boasts a crusty riff before a lead guitar, playing in the upper registers, glides in and nestles agreeably into the morass like a buddy muscling his way onto a crowded couch. Just like the Pixies, the song plays fast and loose with soft-loud dynamics, but does so a bit unconventionally: the soft part comes during the track’s bridges, rather than during the verses. “You and Me” starts out as a barebones vocal against some almost randomly plucked bass notes. Just when you think that this trick is carried on a little too long, and the song will start to suck…it doesn’t. It achieves lift-off and careens into a noisy jam ripped from the songbook of Bob Mould. All these twists belie the promise laid out in the lyrics of “Web in Front”: “And there’s a chance that things will get weird / Yeah, that’s a possibility.”

However, Icky Mettle doesn’t go weird for the sake of being weird. There’s a certain attempt at keeping the listener on his or her toes without sacrificing bracing hooks where they’re needed. Listening to Icky Mettle is a little like watching an indie filmmaker trying to follow certain forms and conventions in his or her movie, but then throws in a quick cutaway here and there just to make things interesting. The band spells out this dynamic in “Plumb Line”, which boasts the prescient chorus “Because she’s an indie rocker / And nothing is going to stop her.” Believe me, nothing is stopping or holding back Archers of Loaf throughout the running order of Icky Mettle. Beyond the carefully sculpted musicianship, the album is littered with all sorts of lyrical bon mots. On “Plumb Line”, there’s the line, “Clearly, it’s just bad luck / Clearly, it doesn’t mean a….” When you think singer/guitarist Eric Bachmann is about to unleash a well-placed f-bomb right there, he instead shifts to the non-rhyming “thing”, which takes all of the momentum sideways. That’s not to say that the album is entirely perfect in the wordsmith department. “Toast”, which goes two minutes and 55 seconds before any vocals kick in, paints a banal portrait of a soured domestic romance, as Bachmann bellows repeatedly, “There’s something wrong with my toast,” as though he’s one of the three bears that got paid a visit from Goldilocks. However, such lapses are minuscule in the context of the larger record.

Being a remastered edition, there’s a second disc full of all sorts of odds and sods. The jury is out as to whether or not the world really needed to hear the embryonic seven-inch versions of “Web in Front” and “Wrong” all over again, but these inclusions might be interesting for fans who want to hear how the song morphed from A-to-Z in terms of what wound up on Icky Mettle proper. While the second disc is generally not as strong as the first, there’s still a bevy of material that should please old and new fans alike. “Revenge” is an interesting piece of surf-rock cum spaghetti western strumming that sounds a little like the band attempting a cover version of something that mutated out of the 1960s. The drum line from “What Did You Expect” will give you a serious case of whiplash, and, despite the three-minute length and upper mid-tempo pace, it sees Archers of Loaf almost experimenting with hardcore filtered through the melodic sensibilities of Lou Barlow. “Powerwalker (A Day in the Park)” again resurrects a surf-rock guitar sound (aligning the band again with the Pixies) matched with the frenetic attack of Jawbox. However, the real standout is the opening cut from Vs. the Greatest of All Time EP, “Audiowhore”. The song starts out with some frittering sound effects and the sound of what appears to be a boat creaking on the seas against a lonesome guitar line before transmuting into a power riff that ricochets off your eardrums and drips with unbridled energy. As a cut that (one would presume) didn’t make the cut for Icky Mettle, it is the band’s most successful attempt at experimenting with contrasting dynamics.

When all is said and done, the re-released Icky Mettle and the debris of its castoffs make the case that there was much more to Archers of Loaf beyond the sublime “Web in Front”. True, the droning quality of the feedback-saturated guitar tones have been done to death in the interim years since it first debuted, and yet the record doesn’t really feel old thanks to the power and the direct honesty of its penmanship, and its willingness to turn itself on its head at any given moment. Icky Mettle holds up well to repeated listening, regardless if you choose to have a go at the whole thing or just listen to “Web in Front” a million times on repeat. The record might not be mentioned in the same breath as Slanted and Enchanted or Alien Lanes, but that could be a result of the fact that Archers of Loaf had the misfortune of being relegated to a quirky West Coast label as opposed to a bastion like Matador. By unearthing this gem on the much hipper Merge (home to Superchunk), perhaps the band will now gain a bit of exposure to the hipster masses — let alone those thirtysomethings who want to relive their college or university glory days. While the legacy of Archers of Loaf has been hitherto neglected to a certain degree, Icky Mettle is a record that deserves to be heard — and heard loud in the most literal sense. Icky Mettle might have a reputation for containing a one-trick pony and the band’s singular best known moment in the form of “Web in Front”, but there’s a wealth of material to really dig into and enjoy. That one song might cast a long shadow, but there’s plenty to discover on its fringes in the blistering sunlight that encompasses the rest of Icky Mettle.

RATING 9 / 10