Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Archers of Loaf. Icky Mettle (Alias, 1993)

"And that's a lot to reject/ If that's the best you can do/ And that's a lot to accept/ If that's the best you can do."

Icky Mettle is one of the best records of the last twenty years, period. A relentlessly hooky, punchy, snarling LP packed to the gills with perverse riffs and absurdist, Honors English lyrical nonsense, Archers of Loaf's debut is alarmingly accomplished, and sounds as brilliant and fresh today as it did nearly two decades ago. It's a snapshot of a particularly vibrant time for American indie rock (the early '90s) in a particularly vibrant place (North Carolina). And it sounds huge.

Like Superchunk and Polvo, two other mindblowing Carolina acts of the era, Archers were committed to making a giant sound from below the Mason Dixon line, contributing to the regionalism and local scene-centrism that broadcast indie rock from places like Chapel Hill, Athens, DC, Austin, Chicago, and Olympia. In many ways, Archers embodied the energy and excitement of the time, churning out overstimulated blasts of sonic mayhem informed by noise-mongers like Sonic Youth, the Pixies, and Mission of Burma, full of enthusiasm and bright ideas and songs where red-faced anger and wide-eyed delight seemed to have each other by the throats.

The Archers sound was always a winner: jagged distortion and slamming drums wrapped around Eric Bachmann's sandpaper baritone, odd-cornered and off-kilter melodies that were catchy -- really catchy -- in spite of themselves, lyrics that usually didn't mean anything but were great to drunkenly shout along to. There was menace and self-doubt and wounded pride, served up on a tarnished platter at earsplitting volume.

And as far as first albums go, Icky Mettle knocks it out of the park. The entire LP is incredible, from first song to last. And speaking of first: Has there ever been as great a first song/first album cut as Web In Front? Doubtful. It's a classic, from its one-two-three-four snare count off to Bachmann's immortal introduction -- "Stuck a pin in your backbone/ Spoke it down from there/ All I ever wanted was to be your spine" -- to the sheets of white noise that serve as the canvas for exhilarating lead guitar murder. Meanwhile, the rhythm section just keeps swinging and swinging, going for broke with crashing cymbals and massive kick drum volleys. "And there's a chance that things'll get weird/ Yeah that's a possibility," admits Bachmann in one of the album's best lines, providing an epic statement of purpose disguised as a winningly confused rallying cry. "Web In Front" could serve as the theme song to early '90s indie, encapsulating everything great and thrilling about the genre in just a shade over two minutes.

And while "Web In Front" is the clear standout, the rest of the album far from pales in comparison. Cut after cut finds Archers serving up plate after plate of thorny, twisted masterpieces. The snarling "Last Word," the stuttering, furious "Wrong" ("No I do not think that you could love me anyway/ Because you are inferior to me/ And no I do not think that you could love me anyway/ Because you are superior in all aspects to me" -- brutal and hilarious), the chiming anthem of Plumb Line, and Learo, You're a Hole's slashing stomp and needling guitar lines are just a few of the highlights.

In the years since Icky Mettle, Archers of Loaf have broken up and Eric Bachmann has moved on to the far more contemplative and somber roots-rock project Crooked Fingers. A few years ago, he told some rock scribe, "When we first came out we had that energy. It's a weird thing that you can't put your finger on...I listened to Icky Mettle, and I almost cringe when I hear it. But what the people probably liked when they heard that record was the energy we were putting out." Uh, yeah, Eric: it was the energy, plus the effing rad songs. And if I ever hear you badmouth Icky Mettle again, Eric, there's gonna be trouble.