Genre aside, Touché Amoré‘s fifth studio album, Lament, couldn’t be better timed. The Los Angeles band’s approach to post-hardcore feels very mid-to-late 2000s when screamo achieved its greatest commercial success. Vocalist and lyricist Jeremy Bolm writes the kind of quotable missives that one can easily imagine an angsty teen keeping close to their heart. (Check these eternizing lines from “Non Fiction” from 2013’s Is Survived By: “With time we’ll all be gone / But how you lived can live on.”) The dual guitar threat of Clayton Stevens and Nick Steinhardt puts Touché Amoré several cuts above their screamo contemporaries, with both contrasting high-tempo riffs with clear, delicately picked guitar parts.
This harsh/clean aural contrast is the bread and butter of many subgenres of metal and hard rock, and Touché Amoré have across four studio records (plus 2019’s Dead Horse X, a “re-recording” of their 2009 debut …To the Beat of a Dead Horse) proven themselves to be excellent practitioners of the style. Sure, this aesthetic sounds increasingly dated – gone are the years where bands like Thursday could regularly place high on the Billboard charts. But Lament‘s release comes near the end of 2020. The year of COVID. An album called Lament, which features someone screaming on every track, feels appropriate if on-the-nose.
It’s undeniably groan-inducing that so many pieces of writing you will read this year, including this one, give space – even when it’s not necessary – to address, as the saying goes, “these unprecedented times”. Fair enough. However well its instrumental quality and emotional tenor match our current moment, Lament is certainly not a “COVID album”, or an artwork which should have foisted upon it the expectation to sum up an unfortunate year. Bolm explicitly addresses the political climate in the United States on the piano-led closer “A Forecast”, taking time after announcing he’s “found the patience for jazz” to memorialize his dead. “I’ve lost more family members / Not to cancer, but the GOP / What’s the difference I’m not for certain / They all end up dead to me.”
Yet, for the most part, Bolm’s lyrics trend toward the universal, expressing anguishes and woes that know all years and seasons. The closing lines of “Limelight” fit just about any time of major transition: “So let’s embrace the twilight / While burning out the limelight.” What makes Touché Amoré so compelling as a band is how well they speak to the present, while at the same time sticking to the sound they’ve been refining since …To the Beat of the Dead Horse. Their sound has sharpened and deepened.
To see this in action, one need only listen to Lament‘s highlight and an instant classic for the group, “Reminders”. Structurally, it doesn’t seem that different from any other emo anthem from the past two decades: it utilizes a basic verse/chorus structure and hangs on a catchy chorus. But its small touches make it a resonant, chant-along ready tune that’s likely to become a future concert favorite. The simple power chords of the main riff contrast with the clean, math rock-esque guitar part on the bridge. Drummer Elliott Babin’s jerky rhythm in the verses – moving from insistent snare hits to a thudding sequence on the toms – builds expertly to the group vocals in the chorus, where Bolm pines for “a way to feel free / without being someone else”. (Here, Julien Baker joins the band, following her excellent appearance on the gorgeous closer of Stage Four, the band’s last studio LP.)
For those who connect with Touché Amoré’s brand of post-hardcore, a song like “Reminders” is an eruption of serotonin, a display of all the catharsis and joy that comes from the union of melodically screamed vocals and distorted guitars. Yet “Reminders” need not just be for the true believers; if any song in the band’s discography could position them for bigger mainstream audiences, it’s this one.
“Reminders”, like most of Lament, showcases those songwriting skills that those who appreciate Touché Amoré have come to know, while also throwing in a few new flourishes. The dusky, western vibes of “A Broadcast” – led by a lonesome contrast of Nick Steinhardt’s pedal steel and a quietly strummed acoustic guitar – bring to mind the desolate soundscape of Godspeed You! Black Emperor‘s F#A# ∞. “A Forecast” features the kind of meta-address that Bolm utilized on tracks like Is Survived By‘s “To Write Content”. Here, he wraps up the album with the farewell, “So here’s the record closer / I’m still working out its intent / I’m not sure what I’m after / But it couldn’t go unsaid.” But it’s the decision to have Bolm talk-sing these lines over a simple chord progression on the piano played by Babin, with the vocals and the instrument produced to sound as if they are on the other side of the room, that make the breaking of the fourth wall more direct and effective.
These few moments aside, what you get from Lament is, by and large, what has come to be expected from Touché Amoré: guitar playing that moves from booming riffs to crisp, melodic lines, earnest first-person narratives from Bolm, and a bagful of quotable lyrics. (Bolm’s best work lyrically can be found at the end of “Exit Row”, in a stanza that repurposes Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias”: “Flesh is flesh whether live or dead.”) In saying this, it may seem that I am arguing that the band has stagnated, arrived at the terminal point of its aesthetic. Yes, Lament does not match Is Survived By‘s musical advancement, nor does it contain the harrowingly memorable lyrics of Stage Four – an album about Bolm dealing with his mother’s passing from cancer that, I must admit, has aged marvelously, much more than I anticipated in my review of it for this publication.
But there is a virtue to a group digging into their songwriting crevices, finding new ways to tweak a strong pre-existing musical sensibility. Lament ends up being for Touché Amoré’s sound what Bolm yells on the chorus of “Reminders”: “A subtle way to reinvent the past.” And that is just fine, if not greatly welcome in 2020.