Pavement hit the ground running in 1991 with Slanted and Enchanted, running a sublime California vibe through cracked amps and collegiate arrogance. They sounded like the smartest garage band in the world, tuneful enough for the dweebs and noisy enough for the critics. Their misshapen anthems found a home in college heads, and their debut took on canonical status in underground circles. By 1993, however, things were vastly different. Grunge had taken over, and the band was a second-stage Lollapalooza act taking potshots at the Smashing Pumpkins and the Stone Temple Pilots. This isn’t to suggest that their sophomore outing, Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, wasn’t brilliant, but rather to illustrate how the band had moved from cult-rock favorites to My Favorite Indie Band(tm).
Fortunately for college rock elitists, 1993 also brought Archers of Loaf, heir apparent to indie rock’s crown. Indeed, the band’s debut album, Icky Mettle, spawned several cult radio hits, placing the band squarely on Pavement’s crumbling pedestal. But where Pavement were West Coast slackers too young, smart and talented for their own good, Archers of Loaf were East Coast (NC) punks, pressure-cooked in sweaty dives and smelling of cheap beer. Moreover, they sounded pissed, unable to decide if this young-and-intelligent gig was really worth it. Archers of Loaf sounded uptight, like the angriest, dumbest, smartest garage band in the world.
A decade later, Icky Mettle stands as a landmark underground album. The album is still an exhilarating listen: The 13 songs explode off the disc with an intensity that is sadly unparalleled in lo-fi rock. Eric Bachmann, the towering, rail-thin frontman, has one of the great indie rock voices: unadorned and containing a potent, raw energy that transcends his obtuse lyrics. Eric Johnson is a criminally overlooked guitarist – his screaming harmonics and nail-gun riffs provide the melodic undercurrent of the album. The rhythm section provides the backbone for the album. The band’s best songs usually build off of one of Matt Gentling’s rollicking, loose-cannon bass lines, and drummer Mark Price is a forceful time-keeper who never intrudes into the band’s sound.
A run through the album produces an unrivaled string of classics. “Wrong,” the first single, is as close to the indie-rock sound as you can get. It builds on a piercing guitar attack, lulls into a gutty bridge and explodes back into the chorus. Bachman packs more hooks into one song than most bands fit on an album, and the cut and paste songcraft serves to highlight each one.
“Might” is a short-lived sing-along, thrashing against both itself and a painfully disinterested underground scene. “Plumb Line” is fuzzy genius, keenly aware of the social scene Pavement ripped open. The band’s harsher material is often ignored, but “Fat” and “Backwash” feel like sweet cigarette burns, steamrolling their way through Bachman’s non-sequiturs. The start-stop attack of “Hate Paste” is a dynamic revelation, and “You and Me” lulls the listener into a slow, warm bass intro before riding a shrieking guitar into an unforgettable melodic churn.
The band’s tour de force, “Web In Front,” hasn’t lost a step in ten years. Opening with five shitty snare hits, the song winds along 2 ? minutes of unbelievable hooks, ridiculous lyrics, and a contagious vigor that is drowned out only by a chorus of Archers and a guitar solo that sounds like a flair thrown up from the sewers. It’s been called “the greatest indie rock songs of the 90’s,” and a simple, stunned nod of agreement will do nicely here.
After Icky Mettle, the polarized their melody/noise dynamic on 1995’s excellent Vee Vee, and subsequent albums produced a dense, dark noise burble that failed to resonate with the late 90’s scene, but was never anything short of awfully good. Bachmann’s post-Loaf slum-folk project Crooked Fingers attests to his considerable songwriting gifts. The band’s enduring legacy, however, is Icky Mettle, 37+ minutes of gritty, angular indie rock that is striking in its raw force and hearty melodies. Icky Mettle reminded everyone that punk rock filtered through youth and intelligence could still breed brilliance.