Archers Of Loaf followed the blueprint of a lot of early-’90s indie-rock bands: They were an eclectic group of music geeks, inspired equally by punk and art, releasing catchy, jagged singles and compilation tracks while gigging around the local circuit and trying to scrape together the money and material to record an album. But that first album—1993’s Icky Mettle—was unusually confident and tuneful. The opening song, “Web In Front,” fused Pavement’s literate, lo-fi stream-of-consciousness bent with Superchunk’s scruffy forcefulness, tossing out witty lines like “You’re not the one who let me down / but thanks for offering” with grabby non sequiturs like “I got a magnet in my head!” The song crossed over from college radio to the fledgling modern-rock format, and Archers Of Loaf became one of the rare indie-rock bands to earn the respect of old-guard critics like Robert Christgau, who admired AoL’s untethered aggression, scratchy guitars, and willingness to veer wildly between Dadaist absurdity and direct expressions of anxiety about relationships and culture.
Icky Mettle isn’t Archer Of Loaf’s best album; that would be the 1995 follow-up Vee Vee, a more focused and ferocious expression of the frustrations inherent in being part of the slacker generation. From Vee Vee onward, Archers Of Loaf indulged more in the experimental non-rock that frontman Eric Bachmann had explored with his instrumental side project Barry Black (and continued to get into with his current outfit, Crooked Fingers). The band broke up in 1998, having never made a bad record, but also without becoming the world-beaters that many expected in the wake of Icky Mettle. The new double-disc edition of Icky Mettle explains why hopes for AoL were so high, and why those hopes may have been misplaced.
The album itself is as energizing as ever, with hooky, quirky rockers like “Wrong,” “Might,” and “Backwash” serving as a rebuke to all those wags who insist that “indie rock” rarely lives up to either half of its name. But the second disc of the Icky Mettle reissue shows two different sides of the Archers: first with the early singles, which are sloppier and more in-jokey, more like the promising local band that AoL was at the start, and then with 1994’s brilliant, thorny EP Vs. The Greatest Of All Time, which mixes arty noise and gut-punch rock before ending with the hand-biting anthem “All Hail The Black Market.” With Bachmann’s choked yelp—always sounding like he gargled with malt liquor before stepping up to the microphone—and his bandmates’ mighty roar, Archers Of Loaf seemed loose, engaged, and capable at the start. And the group remained so for the next five years. It’s just that the road to alt-rock success grew straighter and straighter throughout the decade, while Archers Of Loaf—which had already made its most accessible album—preferred the detours.