“Step Into the Light” resembles that Boston ensemble, with a more hushed entrance as the record opens. It swells and hovers as if somewhat alien. What follows is one of the best songs from the decade. “Harnessed in Slums”, for a band from a basketball-obsessed campus, tells the tale of those harnessed wanting to break free. It’s a memorable subject for a three-minute tune, and its rousing chorus and insistent tempos celebrate as they comment upon the cheerleading, ra-ra rants of such schools as their own University of North Carolina.
While the lo-fi tag hung around this Chapel Hill quartet, Eric Bachmann’s strangled vocals owe as much to punk as the more classic rock traditions mined by Pavement, and the results on this follow-up to Icky Mettle foreshadow their attempt to leave behind their snarlier, harder edge for experimental textures, as on the start of “Fabricoh”. This hisses and crackles like the analog and vinyl formats technology were discarding, the lo-fi aesthetic giving way to shiny discs and ordered sound files. It also sounds – given that song’s telling title – as if the Archers fought off compromise which had lured their peers (Sebadoh?) and predecessors into pop after post-punk. This combination of anger and melody shows the band’s ability to appeal to what was still labeled as a “college rock” crowd. A dozen years after R.E.M.’s rise, adventurous listeners sought not the increasingly cheery direction of the Athens band, so much as an edgier (by then) Southern college town rooted in slamming menace as well as pop-directed swagger.
Bachmann’s vocals confront the listener, freed from the band’s backing as well as fettered to it. Music lurches in. Guitars wander up and down the scale, anchored by an assertive rhythm section. This heavy, formidable, and unsmiling approach demands attention from the listener. The band’s records never were easy listening. Yet, this progressed from the raw, shredded, full-throat shrieks of the often fearsome Icky Mettle through the Vs. The Greatest of All Time EP into more eclectic, precise music.
“Underachievers Academy and Fight Song” recalls in its title a song by Mission of Burma. It awkwardly hops along with a whistling melody in a ramshackle mood, but I like it better than its grating inspiration, “Academy Fight Song.” It heaps a wobbly skiffle tune on top of a folkish delivery. It sounds like its title. It’s also one of those CD surprise songs that stops after a few minutes, only to burst into a few seconds of final sound three minutes late after as much silence. That college prank wears thin.
Bachmann and Eric Johnson’s loud guitars, Matt Gentling’s amplified bass, and Mark Price’s drums may have been played as loud as Led Zeppelin but their melodies, like those of many Southern college rockers, reminded audiences of the Who or British rock from the late 1960s.
The re-issue features a second disc full of demo tapes, some labeled “boombox”, and out-of-print singles from the Alias and Esther record labels. These prove rewarding, surprisingly, for more variety than the bonus tracks on Icky, which blurred their harsher, unrelenting attitude. Some sound almost unrecognizable, as in “Don’t Believe”, with its lazy bottleneck guitar and metronomic backing, compared to even the one-off B-side! Other B-sides echo 1960s film soundtracks (“Mark Price, P.I.”) or cover (?) John Coltrane (he’s credited even if “Equinox” proves a previously unreleased if underwhelming take on a trucker’s shaggy-dog ghost story), as well as more of their trademarked loud-soft put-downs of romantic foils (“Bacteria”).
The boombox tracks are as spartan as you might suppose, guitar or drum machine in a dorm, perhaps? The songs are barely there, but you can hear Bachmann building them up as if he woke from a dream to record them. This ambiance heightens the sense of the band’s college-town roots and shows their talent at constructing such ambitious and aggressive songs, with penetrating lyrics, out of such humble beginnings. “Don’t have words for this part yet”, Bachmann comments over one guitar section.
Archers of Loaf, in their earlier recorded stages, may best be taken in small doses, for they can pummel your eardrums with a steady roar, angry vocals, and tragicomic lyrics, but for rousing, grumbling tunes, this album offers a more accessible entry. The band’s maturity comes from this more diverse, if more modest, second record. The bonus tracks may appeal “for fans only”, but they may find these obscurities and rarities entertaining, as well as the original record, long out of print on the defunct Alias label. Not as soft a record as the third, the overlooked All the Nation’s Airports, or the sad, keyboard-based final CD White Trash Heroes, this sophomore record proves the most accessible