The late ’80s and early ’90s produced a wealth of indie rock bands whose strengths stemmed primarily from their rawness, smart-assed sense of humor and extraordinary songwriting talents. In a relatively short span of time, labels ranging from Sub Pop to Matador and Merge were dropping classic albums from the likes of Superchunk, Sebadoh, Pavement, Built to Spill and Guided by Voices, amounting to a treasure trove of low fidelity gold and endless soundtracks to slackerdom, in sometimes simultaneous highbrow and inebriated fashion. One of the era’s best yet somewhat less widely heralded acts, North Carolina’s Archers of Loaf played their brand of indie rock just a little rowdier and more abrasive than contemporaries in other corners of the country. And at times, they even resembled Fugazi with a two-drink minimum, juxtaposing the prevailing image of college-educated smartass with a more muscular and fierce approach. Even today, frontman Eric Bachmann has aged into one of indie rock’s most badass singer/songwriters, both sounding and looking the part with his gruff vocals and graying beard to match.
However, and this is the more important part, Archers of Loaf’s fierce take on indie rock is also an enduring sound. With an ongoing series of reunion tour dates, Archers of Loaf have proven the freshness and vitality of their catalogue, which dates back to a narrow range between 1993 and 1998 that produced four scruffy but kickass full-lengths. The band essentially flew under the canonical radar, but still produced a handful of underground singles and videos, from “Harnessed in Slums” to “Scenic Pastures,” which aired a handful of times on 120 Minutes. Yet the band’s first album, Icky Mettle, remains their strongest and most exciting recording, a messy but uncompromising slab of distorted guitars and hoarse bellows just barely disguising rock anthem hooks and highly infectious melodies.
Remastered and reissued as a two-disc deluxe edition by Merge Records, Icky Mettle loses none of its excitement or sheer visceral impact. Here, the band is at their most direct yet abrasive, cutting through the bullshit and getting down to making the most intense slab of indie rock possible. Even the song titles, which include “Fat,” “Toast,” “Might” and “Wrong,” indicate a band without enough bother for pretense. At times, the band plays what amounts to a slightly artier version of hardcore punk, careening at high speed through “Sick File,” dropping an arsenal of F-bombs in “Fat” and cooking up a searing platter of menacing post-hardcore on standout “Last Word.” And yet, the band’s knack for melodies is undeniable, their more radio friendly tracks outshining their meatier throwdowns if only slightly. Leadoff track and single “Web in Front” deserves its own place in the indie rock hall of fame, as its soaring two minutes find Bachmann offering awkwardly brutal honesty about a relationship (“there’s a chance things’ll get weird, yeah it’s a possibility“), while turning “All I ever wanted was to be your spine” into a powerfully upbeat refrain. “Might” has a similar kind of surging giddiness to it, while “Hate Paste” is the band’s own twisted take on a waltz. Then there are instances such as “Backwash” in which the band’s raucous side and more tuneful approach come together splendidly, and the results are sublime.
In re-releasing Icky Mettle, Merge packaged the album with 1994′s Vs. The Greatest of All Time EP, as well as 7-inch singles originally released during the same timeframe. And though the bonus material reveals that the band’s b-sides and non-album material is sometimes even more abrasive than that of official albums, it nonetheless retains their infectious intensity. Though “Audiowhore” takes a minute to get off the ground, once it does it proves to be one of the band’s noisiest and beastly tunes. “Lowest Part Is Free!” and “Freezing Point,” though not as unhinged, rock sufficiently hard. B-side “South Carolina” is a little bit slower, but bathed in glorious fuzz, while the 7-inch version of “Web in Front,” unfortunately, doesn’t have the same surge of energy that the album version does. However, the adrenaline rush of “What Did You Expect” is one of the band’s most manic highlights, not quite as abrasive as “Audiowhore” but just a tad more nutso than any of the proper album tracks.
In the years that followed, Archers released three more albums (all on Merge’s reissue schedule): the comparatively manic Vee Vee, sole major label release All the Nation’s Airports, and career closer White Trash Heroes, which transitions nicely between the band’s melodic guitar scrape and the dark folk of Bachmann’s Crooked Fingers. As an introduction to the band, be it now or back in 1993 as young Chapel Hill troublemakers, there’s no better starting place than Icky Mettle. For while the band never indicated they gave much of a shit about getting anything perfect, on this album they came awfully close.