Touché Amoré's fourth album is its most confessional to date, and arguably its most powerful.
After clean guitar leads give way to a stampede of distorted guitars and pummeled drums on "Flowers and You", the opening track on Touché Amoré's fourth studio LP Stage Four, vocalist Jeremy Bolm screams, "I'm heartsick/ and well rehearsed!" He is not inaccurate in that estimation. Heartsickness is perhaps the foundational subject of Touché Amoré's music; just four records into a career that began with 2009's …To the Beat of a Dead Horse, the band sounds well-rehearsed in that subject indeed. But just five songs later, Bolm confesses, "There is no dress rehearsal / Just a script that I never read… Is it curtains already? / I haven't learned my lines." So much has changed for Bolm in so little time.
This is consistent with the life experience that motivated Bolm's storytelling on Stage Four. The album chronicles his process of grieving over the death of his mother, who passed away from cancer on Halloween 2014. Stage Four is a reference both to her disease and the album being Touché Amoré's fourth release. The union of these two events is fortuitous: the band is maturing alongside Bolm, who after his mother passed was forced to mature in a way that only death can inspire. “You get to your late-20s, early-30s, people start passing away," Bolm told Spin in an interview related to the premiere of Stage Four's incredible and cathartic finale, "Skyscraper", a duet with Julien Baker. The genres labels that Touché Amoré is typically associated with – hardcore, screamo, and the like – are commonly used to signpost the music of youth, of the adolescent screaming his existential woes. On Stage Four Touché Amoré is well past that point.
Not that the band hasn't already proven itself several cuts above the easy stereotypes of screamo bands. Touché Amoré's last LP, 2013's Is Survived By, is a major sonic progression from the band. …To the Beat of a Dead Horse and 2011's Parting the Sea Between Brightness and Me bear many of hardcore and emo's requisite traits: mosh pit-inducing riffs, angsty screaming, and lyrics that read like they came from a secret journal. "Leaving your mark is just too much to ask / I'll just bow my head and leave out the back", Bolm yells on Is Survived By opening number "Just Exist". Guitarists Nick Steinhardt and Clayton Stevens know when to stamp their foot down on the distortion pedal, but Touché Amoré's heaviness comes more from its emotional lyrical matter than it does headbanging riffs. Steinhardt and Stevens are often more likely to back up Bolm's screams with ultra-clean guitar effects and melodic arpeggios. This light/dark and clean/dirty contrast is a feature of many metal subgenres, but that hasn't prevented Touché Amoré from putting a unique stamp on it.
"Flowers and You" exhibits all of Touché Amoré's aforementioned traits to a pitch-perfect degree: it's the sound of a band that knows what it does best. But right away there's a strong lyrical indication that Bolm is exploring newer, deeper territory: in the song's bridge, backing vocals chant, "It was time this whole time." Soon after, it becomes clear that Bolm is talking about his mother's death, and for the remainder of Stage Four's emotionally bare 30 minute runtime he unspools reflections on her life, his relationship with her, and how he handled her departure from this world. Touché Amoré's lyrics have always centered on weighty subjects, but more than any of the band's past three releases, Stage Four warrants the expression "not for the faint of heart".
Lyrically, Bolm is in top form, and the rest of the group steps their game up to match the intensity of the album's concept. Touché Amoré's songs trend toward short lengths, and nowhere is that economy of sound and meaning better captured on the harrowing "Eight Seconds", which lasts only 1:33 despite containing enough emotional heft for a much longer track. "Eight Seconds" recounts the moment when Bolm misses the phone call relaying the news of his mother's death right before he goes onstage with Touché Amoré at the eponymous Gainesville, Florida venue. When he finally returns the call, the results are devastating: "I crossed Southwest Second Street / Made the call and stared at my feet / 'She passed away about an hour ago / While you were onstage living the dream'". In the next song, "Palm Dreams", Bolm returns to Touché Amoré's native California, where his mother once moved out to from Nebraska. He asks her in apostrophe: "Was it all the palm trees / Placed where they shouldn't be / That made you feel complete / In this land of make believe?"
Throughout Stage Four, Steinhardt and Stevens interweave melodic and melancholic leads ("Posing Holy") with crushing distortion ("Palm Dreams"), using the latter to drive home moments of catharsis and employing the former to give Bolm's words space to ring loud and true. The heavy guitar tone on "Flowers and You" is reminiscent of Deafheaven's Sunbather. (Steinhardt is responsible for that album's iconic sleeve art). The music of Stage Four is a well match for the ochre tone of the record cover: autumnal and pensive, this is music for a twilit season of life.
The most notable sonic progression on Stage Four is the increased usage of Bolm's non-screamed vocals, which are utilized on "Benediction", "Water Damage", and "Skyscraper". Bolm's regular singing voice is a perfect match for the Baker duet "Skyscraper", which ranks among Touché Amoré's strongest songs. Together the two singers give a simple yet beautifully elegiac farewell to Bolm's mother from atop a Manhattan skyscraper: "You live there / Under the lights… New York City / It's all yours." On "Benediction" and "Water Damage" the vocals are less effective than Bolm's screams are throughout the rest of the record, in large part because he lets one influence show in a distracting way.
The National is not likely to ever be mentioned in the same sentence as the word "hardcore", but Touché Amoré tries its hand at incorporating the understated, sad-sack compositional style of that revered indie institution. The first minute of "Water Damage" finds Bolm doing his best Berninger, all low grumble and chopped vocal delivery. Yet when the song kicks up at the 1:15 mark, and Bolm is back to his normal yell, the effect is like watching a band go from karaoke cover tunes to gutsy original composition. The latter outshines the former so strongly that it feels like two different songs being stitched together, rather than the first minute being a slow-build coda to a climactic rush. The National's aesthetic can also be heard in "Skyscraper", not just in Bolm's low singing voice but also Elliott Babin's tightly wound drumming. "Skyscraper" nonetheless stands out because it sticks entirely to that style, and incorporates the voice of a singer whose voice so nicely matches Bolm's. Tyler Kirby's rumbling basslines keep these final songs on Stage Four rooted in Touché Amoré's hardcore terrain, but this stylistic digression at the end of the record hinders what otherwise could have been a more resolute finale.
But it is just that: a digression, and a minor one at that. Touché Amoré isn't aiming to be the Next Big Indie Act; Stage Four still features the band doing what it does best, and also improving on its sound in many key areas. Stage Four is the group's first LP for the reputable punk label Epitaph, and with the switch in label, these guys did what any good band should do: sticking to a sound they've spent a lot of time developing, while also seeing where else it can go. Bolm puts himself out there in a way unlike ever before, and his bandmates make sure to keep the music as gripping as the poignant narrative that unfolds on Stage Four. Bolm is right when he says that there is no dress rehearsal in preparing for the death of a loved one. But if any of us could face Bolm's situation in the way that he does on Stage Four, we'd be just as well off as if we could have the chance.