Artist Spotlight: Archers of Loaf

Welcome to this re-post of an Avocado Artist Spotlight on Chapel Hill guitar heroes Archers of Loaf: four guys who made rock music that was frequently full of off-kilter eccentricity, unbridled aggression (burly, arty garage-punk? Apocalyptic noise-pop?), and a strange, bruised beauty.

Up top: Archers frontman Eric Bachmann (in his post-Archers guise of Crooked Fingers) doing a semi-recent solo acoustic rendition of one of the Archers’ defining “hits”.

Uncluttered by the raucous sonic detritus that was a Loaf trademark, what shines through there is the essential tunefulness and self-deprecating melancholy (“You’re not the one who let me down / But thanks for offering”), mixed with a predilection for grotesque lyrical imagery full of scum and viscera and bodily functions and the subterranean drawn straight from the Freudian unconscious muck (i.e., the improbably-catchy – even tender! – chorus, “All I ever wanted was to be your spine”).

Here’s “Web” in the form that launched a thousand mixtapes:

Archers of Loaf – Web In Front

Is there any better thumbnail of repressed teenage emotional confusion than “Jot it down and I stuck it in the basement / Underneath the living room floor / For some reason I don’t think I’m gonna make it / Some reason I don’t think about it / Anymore”?:

Archers of Loaf – Might

This one is memorable for the piercing, barely-controlled tone of that careening kamikaze lead guitar, scribbling and scrawling across the verses with a crayon labeled “Air-Raid Klaxon”:

Archers of Loaf – Wrong

Why, indeed, is The Man always trying to keep me down?:

Archers of Loaf – What Did You Expect?

As you can see, Archers were a band that made good use of odd tunings and dissonance. For example, “Slow Worm” (there’s that “underground” imagery again), the closing song on their debut Icky Mettle, has some of the strangest, yet most beautiful guitar sounds I’ve ever heard.

It totally shouldn’t work, but it totally does:

Archers of Loaf – Slow Worm

One thing that took me a couple listens to realize back then was that every AoL string squeak, every metallic scrape, every amp squawk, was not the mark of players who did not know what they were doing; but instead were shards of noise deployed as unshakeable hooks – fashioned with intent, and cast with deadly precision.

The Archers just had a different idea of what constituted “catchy”, and damned if they weren’t right:

Archers of Loaf – Lowest Part is Free!

Bachmann’s hoarse, strangled bellow was also one of the most distinctively-rhythmic vocal deliveries in rock, syncopating his words pugilistically like a rapper over the band’s roar.

Sometimes the effect was sardonically resigned, like in the wonderfully-titled fife-and-bugle call-to-arms (or at least, “off-the-sofa”) slacker mock-anthem “Underachievers March and Fight Song”.

Usually, it was instead blood-pumpingly rousing, like this rallying cry for the slum-dwelling “thugs and scum and punks and freaks” who “wanna be free”:

Archers of Loaf – Harnessed in Slums

If the Archers sometimes sounded like a feral junkyard Television who’d strung their tangling dual guitars with rusty barbed wire, by their incredibly varied (even pretty!) third LP All The Nation’s Airports (1996), the North Carolinians had allowed some kudzu to intertwine with those strings and soften them up, just a little.

This allowed them to find a satisfying middle ground somewhere between R.E.M. and Sonic Youth; as evidenced on the patient, shimmering instrumental “Acromegaly”, or the jangling “Scenic Pastures”:

Archers of Loaf – Scenic Pastures

This one has a nagging, circular structure, continuously eating its own tail like the failing relationship seemingly being alluded to in the sampled answering-machine monologue:

Archers of Loaf – Form and File

Listening to Airports today, it oddly seems like a post-9/11 album; it’s full of pilot paranoia and pervasive surveillance, assassinations and terrorists and hidden dangers.

But hopefully the unnamed lurking seamonster in this beautiful saloon-piano number is just metaphor:

Archers of Loaf – Chumming the Ocean

Another piano piece from the same album, completely-vocal-free this time, this is heartbreakingly lovely; it sounds like the saddest silent-film soundtrack in the world:

Archers of Loaf – Bombs Away

By their fourth and oddly-paced final studio album White Trash Heroes, the band were burned out from relentless touring. They were also unhappy with their choice of label, having signed early with Alias after being initially turned down by some of the better-known indies (and in turn, famously turning down an in-person offer from Madonna to sign to her boutique Maverick label), and generally unsure of their path forward.

Bachmann in particular felt he needed to try out less-noisy directions, both to follow his muse, and because he had been advised by his doctor that continuing to shred his larynx was unsustainable.

While the album is by no means a failure (indeed, it points to several possible new sonic directions, some of which Bachmann made good on in his subsequent folkier solo and Crooked Fingers work), it does have an audibly-frustrated darkness to it; the band sometimes sounds like a raging beast growing tired of pointlessly, ineffectually beating against the bars that contain it.

I’ve never been able to work out exactly what to call this snare-driven track – “electronoiseabilly”?:

Archers of Loaf – Fashion Bleeds

The nasal, twangy falsetto Bachmann adopts on this song seems almost whimsical, until you realize how freaking dark the impressionistic lyrical imagery is:

Archers of Loaf – Dead Red Eyes

It feels like a transitional record, a huge unresolved question mark; unfortunately the answer never came, and the band split amicably.

We’ll head out into the night with the weary, elegiac title track, which has an almost bagpipe-like drone to it:

Archers of Loaf – White Trash Heroes