Eighteen years ago, in the middle of the night, a group of guys in North Carolina gathered in an empty club to record some music. The club was Chapel Hill's now-legendary Cat's Cradle, and the guys were the now-legendary Archers of Loaf, who'd been playing together for a year when they commenced their midnight-oil-burning recording sessions. "The Cradle shows would end around 1:30, then they'd have to clean the place," says Archers guitarist Eric Johnson over the phone in his Carolina drawl. "We'd come in at three in the morning and record for three or four hours, and we did that over the course of... that's funny, I can't remember the exact number of days it took us to do it."
However many days, the result was Icky Mettle, Archers of Loaf's explosive and gnomic debut. Released in 1993 on Alias Records, Icky Mettle came at the tail end of the post-Nevermind gold rush, amid a bumper crop of guitar-drenched indie rock, but the Archers record quickly distinguished itself as something special. A 13-track tour of squirrelly song structures, tense melody, and crushing audio squalor, Icky Mettle steadily built a reputation as a ramshackle indie-rock classic, led by the almost-barely-a-hit "Web in Front," as perfect a slice of the Archers as there ever will be. What follows is a 40-minute storm of chaotic rock that runs toward the roughest noise and coalesces, now and again, into shimmering songs. Icky Mettle's stature was formally cemented last month when Merge released its deluxe reissue. But little in the record's creation hinted at such future significance.
"We were writing in the recording sessions," says Johnson, detailing the record's piecemeal assembly. "'Hate Paste'—we didn't play that as a band. [Eric] Bachmann brought in a recording of just vocals and acoustic guitar that he did at home. It was really good, and we came in and added instruments." Thus was born the Archers' sound, an alternately spiky and murky guitar clamor that arose out of necessity. "It was a twist of fate," says Johnson of the band's signature spike-murk racket. "We would practice so damn loud that I couldn't hear myself. I was playing things in a lower register, to complement what [Bachmann] was playing, but I couldn't hear myself, so I started going a little higher. I was heavily influenced by guitar players who played up high like that, like [Big Country's] Stuart Adamson. When The Crossing came out, I fucking loved that record, and I was amazed at the guitar parts. 'How'd he get his guitar to sound like bagpipes?!'"
Along with the submerged songcraft and violently mutated Big Country influences, Icky Mettle is lit up throughout by what I'm tempted to call obstinate artistry, but what might be just a clear vision and confidence. Songs build from long stretches of wordless music into melodic vocal chants that exhaust themselves in seconds, following whatever idiosyncratic itch seizes the band's hive mind, and the push-and-pull/stop-and-start of the running order is integral to the Icky Mettle experience.
Upon its release, Icky Mettle found a small, devoted audience and inspired a rejected courtship by Madonna's Maverick Records (Archers smartly stuck with Alias). To celebrate the 2011 reissue, the band is embarking on a reunion tour, the seeds of which were planted at this year's Sasquatch! festival, where a reunited Archers sprang to such forceful life they had to keep going, at least for a while. And while the overlap of the reissue and reunion tour seems to posit Icky Mettle as the Archers' finest hour, it's not that simple. Icky Mettle may or may not be the band's best record, but it's definitely the first, and what came after only expanded the amazements. Vee Vee in 1995—led by the amazing "Harnessed in Slums" ("I! WANT! WASTE!")—found the Archers' songwriting getting sharper while the swamp of noise grew richer, or maybe just murkier, creating a record that's equal in every way to the debut. All the Nation's Airports in 1996—recorded in Seattle and distributed by Elektra—was a stark stylistic shift that worked, with the murk replaced by angular guitar play and the closest the band ever got to pop songs. White Trash Heroes in 1998 brought the Archers' initial run to a contentious close, getting almost progy in places and pissing off some core fans, but boasting a clamorous grace all its own.
Even the band's non-LP releases are canonical, most notably the singles "What Do You Expect?" and "Quinn Beast" and, especially, the 1994 EP Archers of Loaf vs. the Greatest of All Time, as great a record as the band ever released. The latter features at least two Archers classics: the colossal "Audiowhore" and "Lowest Part Is Free!" a sparkly explosion of a song that includes one of the band's first layered vocal lines, with bassist Matt Gentling spewing secondary lyrics under Bachmann's lead. (Fun fact: All of the music name-checked in this paragraph is included on the new Icky Mettle bonus disc.)
Archers of Loaf have always blanched at comparisons with Pavement, which is understandable: The Archers' music feels much more of a piece with Superchunk and '90s Sebadoh than with Malkmus and company's arch poetics. Nevertheless, what made Pavement's 2010 reunion so gratifying is repeated with the Archers of Loaf's 2011 tour: the opportunity for an underappreciated-in-its-own-time band to connect with the scores of fans that have popped up in the interim, lured in by the legend. And, as with Pavement's tour, Archers of Loaf seem as excited about this opportunity as the audience. When I ask Johnson about the response to the reunion tour, he's almost speechless. "The reaction... wow... it's been so overwhelmingly positive. We've been playing bigger venues to more people, and almost all the shows have been sold out." Then his Southern humility kicks in: "I'm not bragging—I'm just stating," he says with a laugh. "More shows have been sold out on this tour than we were used to. I think kids who were in college [during Archers' original stint] now have jobs and can afford to go out and have a night on the town. Back then it was like, 'Shit, we're either gonna go to the show or we're gonna eat.' Back then, I guess they wanted to eat."