Touché Amoré have always dealt in intense feelings and emotional exorcisms from deep within an often wounded and vulnerable place. And they let those emotions out via blistering punk anthems that juxtapose ruthless abrasion with shimmering and elegant guitars. If their music is a kind of 21st century update of screamo—which it arguably is—it’s as gorgeously executed as such a thing has ever sounded. But it’s a still visceral, powerful and ultimately draining experience, however it’s labeled.
Transitioning from 2013′s Is Survived By, Touché Amoré were already taking their earnestness and directness to the next level, which resulted in their being signed to powerhouse punk label Epitaph. But in that time, tragedy struck; vocalist Jeremy Bolm’s mother died after battling cancer, a devastating experience that came to form the basis of their new album, Stage Four. The title is in part a nod to where they are in their career: It’s their fourth album, as well as a new level of exposure and success. But it’s a double-edged reference point, also reflecting the disease that took Bolm’s mother’s life, and its specter is inescapable throughout. And for a band for whom catharsis is a mode of operation, tackling a topic rooted in such deeply personal pain makes the experience all the more fatiguing, if ultimately more affecting.
Bolm is frequently direct in his plain-spoken depiction of his grief. On “Displacement,” a tense and slow-burning hardcore number, he yells, “You died at 69/ With a body full of cancer/ I asked your god, ‘how could you?’/ But never heard an answer,” before describing a real-life account of totaling his car and walking away unscathed. But the album is as much about the aftermath and picking up the pieces as it is a magnifying glass on the grieving process. On “Palm Dreams,” against a backdrop of melancholy surf riffs and power chord punch, Bolm addresses the questions he never got to ask his mother, lamenting, “I dug through forty years all alone.” By the chorus, the only answer he receives is the harmony of his bandmates: “On my own.”
Perhaps because of the already overwhelming nature of an album that deals so directly with the death of a loved one, or simply the natural evolution of a good band getting more adventurous in their approach, Stage Four features a wider sonic spectrum than any of Touché Amoré’s previous records. The brooding “Water Damage” begins with clean vocals and a post-punk inspired bassline, unlike the usual blend of Bolm’s righteous screams against hardcore guitar punch. Closing track “Skyscraper” is the most stunning surprise, essentially the band’s truest ballad, with Bolm abandoning his hardcore yelp in favor of a vocal duet with singer/songwriter Julien Baker. Their harmonies during the refrain, “You live there/ Under the lights,” is the most gorgeous moment on the record, a simple and elegant elegy to a person gone but not forgotten. As the song comes to a close, a voice can be heard on what sounds like a voice mail recording, discussing the mundane task of picking up a prescription at CVS. Taken on its own, it doesn’t feel important, but as the last voice recording that Bolm’s mother left him, it’s a memento—a comforting lifeline. For a band that traffics in screamed catharsis and open wounds, it’s the most devastating sound on the entire album.