Like many towns (Athens, Seattle, Austin) before it, Chapel Hill, NC became an indie mecca in the early 1990s. Like the other bands — scene leaders Superchunk, the wondrous Polvo, Small — to emerge from the area at the time, Archers of Loaf creates provocative guitar rock with distinctive, if collegiate, melodic dissonance.
Icky Mettle showcases the particularly crafty dual-guitar efforts of Eric Johnson and singer Eric Bachmann, who allows (in “Web in Front”), “There’s a chance that things’ll get weird.” While they certainly do, there are enough hooks — especially on “Wrong,” the swirly “Hate Paste,” “Learo, You’re a Hole” and “Slow Worm” — to lure in even a casual listener. Affecting the personality of an intelligent, reflective loner, Bachmann battles between nasal plaints and frustrated hollering. Drummer Mark Price is intriguingly unconventional but solid, and bassist Matt Gentling lopes effectively in the mix.
Engineered by Shellac’s Bob Weston, the five-song …vs the Greatest of All Time captures a different sound for the Archers, one that somewhat bridges the gap between full-length releases. While “Audiowhore” is more experimental than most of Icky Mettle, the ringing guitars and low, rumbling bass of “Lowest Part Is Free!” are more familiar. After a free-form guitar solo introduction, “Revenge” melds spaghetti western, reverby surf and quirky pop.
Evidently satisfied with Weston, the Archers returned to Chicago to make the excellent Vee Vee. Both as musicians and songwriters, the band is better-developed and more dynamic, progress which pays off in the moving opener, “Step Into the Light,” poignant “Greatest of All Time,” Polvoid “Underdogs of Nipomo,” raw “Nostalgia” and even the odd “Underachievers March and Fight Song.” Bachmann’s stunning “Harnessed in Slums” is one of the best protest songs in indie-rock. Noisy as ever, the Archers really get weird here, and steep in the gritty buoyancy of Bachmann and Johnson’s tangled guitars.
The Speed of Cattle, an eighteen-track collection of Peel sessions, B-sides and other rarities, is more than just a fans-only necessity. It includes the group’s first single (“Wrong” b/w “South Carolina”), the “Web in Front” demo, a version of Treepeople’s “Funnelhead” and other hard-to-find roughhewn gems.
Like prolific neighbor Mac McCaughan (Superchunk/Portastatic), Bachmann has a solo project, one that points to the various musical subcultures revolving around the Chapel Hill scene. The breezy, ambitious and mostly instrumental Barry Black incorporates jazz, folk, rock and other genres; the adventurous arrangements include rainsticks, cello, fiddle, trumpet, trombone and sax. The band’s loose lineup includes former Red Clay Rambler Bill Hicks (fiddle), former Ugly American Chris Eubanks (cello) and pianist Ben Folds as himself; guest scenester Frank Heath (owner of Chapel Hill club Cat’s Cradle) adds vocals. Barry Black includes the surfy “Cockroaches,” the Coltrane homage “Train of Pain,” the lovely, minimalist “I Can’t Breathe” and “Animals Are for Eating,” sort of underground Raymond Scott. Only “Golden Throat” truly resembles the Archers, as Bachmann takes the lead vocal on a snaky guitar-rock (with banjo) offering.