Reviews of albums and EPs by Archers of Loaf:
1993: Icky Mettle (9/10)
I came at Archers of Loaf backwards: years ago (and I mean years) I ripped White Trash Heroes from my old radio station’s copy. So though I knew their reputation, the only thing I new about them was that the album I had, and which I liked, was apparently utterly not representative of them.
After hearing their debut I think I like WTH even more, as it is quite the impressive left turn. But that isn’t to sell this short at all.
Icky Mettle is a rare thing: it is an incredible balancing act between hooks and art (in this case, some of the finer things in life: noise, aggression, guitar lines that belong in much heavier / artier songs).
It is one of the great indie rock albums of the early ’90s, kept off the top only because of a lack of absolutely classic songs (that’s not to say the songs are bad, as they are good, but they are rarely if ever great).
It really is an impressive, and all the more so given that this was their debut. I mean it is a rare thing for a bad to get it this right on their debut album (though other bands have and some of AOL’s contemporaries did manage this feat as well).
Really, really awesome.
PS It almost makes me regret going to the Flaming Lips’ free show last night [during 2012 NXNE] instead of the reunited Archers of Loaf’s much more expensive show held at the same time. Almost.
My #4 album of 1993. Read my reviews of albums released in 1993.
1993: Archers of Loaf vs. The Greatest of All Time” (7/10)
I saw them last night [January 2023] and Bachmann said this was recorded somewhere in New York after they were denied entry into Canada when they lied about their reason for crossing. (Imagine how rarely that happened pre-911.) I guess that’s supposed to explain how it was recorded, and why it sounds so raw. That is a good thing.
I hadn’t listened to this prior to preparing for the show. But then they played half of it during the show. I think the recording does a pretty good job of capturing what makes them a great band. There’s less thought put into it than some of their later recordings. Fun stuff.
1995: Vee Vee (8/10):
This is a band that likes instrumentals more than most loud rock bands of their era but, even for a band that likes instrumentals, I’d say it’s a bold move to lead off your second album (the album that is almost always “difficult” for bands of this era) with a track that takes over 2 and a half minutes for the vocals to kick in. I like it.
It’s definitely got that “difficult 2nd album” vibe though, at least a little bit. Things are grungier (sonically and not in terms of genre) and the songs are not as catchy. There are new musical ideas, or perhaps older ideas pushed to the fore that were in the background before. It feels like there’s been some kind of “growth” is what I’m saying. But, unlike most of those “difficult 2nd albums,” the growth here feels organic and recognizable as the band on Icky Mettle.
More importantly, the same energy is here, as is on the debut. And the songs remain interesting, both musically and lyrically. One thing you learn from seeing AOL live, if you didn’t know from listening, is that their riffs can be quite complicated. (For some reason I never heard that in their music. Or didn’t hear it much compared to say, the math rock I listen to from this time. But they write some knotty riffs.) And though I’m not always on board with Bachmann’s lyrics I do think he’s an above-average lyricist, especially for this style of music. He can be a little obscure sometimes, and sometimes he can be a little too obvious or lazy. But, most of the time, his lyrics are above average.
Icky Mettle is a pretty great record. And, like most second albums, this isn’t up to that (rather incredible) standard. The songs, for one, are just not as good. (Typical for a 2nd album.) But it’s still a good record which exemplifies why they are a pretty great band.
1996: All the Nations Airports (6/10)
The pop album that really isn’t – it’s cleaner, sure, but is it that much cleaner, that much more commercial? Most of their catchiest songs are on their debut and this record just doesn’t feel anywhere near as “commercial” to me as its reputation suggests. I guess they’re a little less aggressive, and a little less noisy, but I think it’s relative and it doesn’t feel to me like a different band, or a band that has “sold out” by moving to a major label and cleaning up their sound.
I think this is Bachmann’s least good set of songs of their original four albums and I’m not sure it’s close. “Assassination on X-Mas Eve” is far and away Bachmann’s worst song, lyrically (that I can understand the lyrics too). It almost feels like a joke. There’s nothing on here that matches the best songs from Icky Mettle or even “The Greatest of All Time” and possibly even Vee Vee. Aside from that song I just mentioned, none of them are bad, but I do feel like it’s clear Bachmann was running out of steam as the principle songwriter. (Or maybe he was just writing other songs that didn’t fit the band, as that could explain both White Trash Heroes‘ left turn and also Crooked Fingers.)
Their sonic palette has expanded. Bachmann plays the piano for the first time, something that it’s hard to imagine the band on Icky Mettle doing. Though this record sounds mostly nothing like White Trash Heroes, it does make some sense as the stepping stone between their original sound and the sound they had on that record, when they are often unrecognizable as AOL. But this record is still close enough to their original sound to both sound like AOL and not really feel like an interesting left turn.
I do feel like I’m being more critical than I mean to be. This is a band I enjoy, but I do feel like this record is clearly their weakest of their original four albums. It lacks the songs of their first two records (especially their debut) and it lacks the radical changes in direction of their fourth (seemingly final) album. The lack of great material is the bigger issue. But, I do think the lack of variety is also an issue for me, given that I know White Trash Heroes better than any of their other albums. I know it’s coming next.
1998: White Trash Heroes (8/10)
I understand, from my limited knowledge of their catalogue, that this final album is somewhat of an anomaly for this band. But, as the album that introduced me to them, I can’t help but have a soft spot for it. And I wonder if it is the fear of change in fans that has resulted in the view that this is their worst record.
Because it’s certainly not a bad record. It’s got lots of compelling melodies buried in quirky arrangements (which sound like they were dreamed up by a different band than the one that recorded their debut) and it manages to stand out among so much of the other indie rock of the era (that I am aware of) in its embrace of both keyboards/synths and folk music.
I love it.
2023: A successful change in style, even if Bachmann does sing one song as if he’s Adam Sandler (“Slick Tricks and Bright Lights”). I think it’s pretty hard to successfully transition your sound when your last 3 (and only) LPs have all had the same overall sound. I wish more bands could expand their palette and sound like this. On the other hand, I understand why fans hate this. It’s easy for me, because this was the first record of theirs I heard.
2022: Reason in Decline (6/10)
I used to be so skeptical of reunions when I was younger. I thought they were almost always cynical cash grabs and a waste of my time as a fan. The older I get, the more that seems (mostly) not true. A lot of bands seem to reunite primarily because they a) miss playing together and b) are mature enough to actually get along now. I’m sure the money helps, of course, but I suspect it’s not the primary motivation, especially when the band wasn’t together that long. (I think seeing fans lose their minds at your shows is probably a bit of a motivator too.)
Bachmann has done a fair amount since AOL broke up and I think that’s reflected, at least a little, in his songs. Certainly, some of these songs sound like they were written for AOL pre-White Trash Heroes but a few could easily have been Crooked Fingers songs and others are perhaps most appropriate to WTH, if only the arrangements were weirder. I think Bachmann is a better lyricist than some of his contemporaries and I think that’s still true. I do think this set of songs has more in common musically with All the Nations Airports than any other of their albums, and I’m not sure that’s an entirely positive thing. I do think this set is catchier/more immediate, though.
As with so many bands that have reunited, the edge has dulled just a bit. Not as much as you would expect, which is a good thing, but a little bit. (It’s worth noting that, not being entirely familiar with their catalogue, I confused a couple of these, particularly “Screaming Undercover,” for earlier releases when I saw them live. So that’s a good thing.) The instrumental palette is regrettably back to what it was pre-WTH. I understand that’s what everyone wants but me, but I would have liked a little more artiness, I think.
The production feels…softer?…to me, too. I’m not sure what it is exactly, since their records aren’t particularly grimey and usually a good job is done capturing how they sound. But this one definitely doesn’t sound as loud. Maybe it’s the mix?
Anyway, I didn’t really have any skin in this, since I really like two of their records and had never heard the other two until recently. I think it’s a fine reunion record, though it definitely doesn’t change how I feel about them. I can’t imagine I’ll spend a lot of time listening to it going forward.
My #3 album of 2022 only because I haven’t listened to a lot of music from 2022.