Sturm and Clang

Scattered throughout the songs of Archers of Loaf are moments when you'd swear everything will explode in a discordant burst -- when the tension builds to a point where it threatens to rend the quartet into a thousand pieces of bone and flesh, spraying shrapnel of guitar wood, drumheads, and steel strings. It's a tribute to the band's greatness that its songs never fly out of control, nor do they bottom out in a raging and predictable mess of indulgent screech or white-punk noise. Instead the foursome manages to sustain that tension, keeping the threatening dissonance in check while allowing the songs' darting melodies to surface amid the prickly rock cacophony.

That's a rare talent among underground rock experimentalists, and while the resulting music may sound like artful improvisation, Archers bassist Matt Gentling insists this stuff is not the product of accidental genius. "We pretty much always know where the songs are going," Gentling claims during a phone interview from his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he's spending a few days on a rare break from the band's relentless touring schedule. "We play about 200 shows a year, so we know the songs pretty well, and as far as rock bands go we don't exactly lean toward the clinical side. We practice a lot but never the songs we know. We'll only bring something in to practice if we've forgotten a part of it. That doesn't happen much, though, because we're playing them on the road so much."

By his own estimate, Gentling figures the Archers --guitarist/vocalist Eric Bachmann, guitarist Eric Johnson, drummer Mark Price, and himself A spend as much time on the road annually as the average Joe or Jane does toiling each year at his or her nine-to-five. They've crisscrossed the U.S. numerous times since they formed four years ago in Chapel Hill A home of pop masters from Chris Stamey and Mitch Easter to Superchunk and Squirrel Nut Zippers. They racked up many, many miles on their recently deceased $5000 van, traveling to both major music meccas and Podunk burgs to slam out manic versions of tunes culled from their catalogue, which is voluminous even by the standards of the busiest indie-rock overachievers. Since 1992 the Archers have cranked out two wondrously dense and edgy albums (1993's Icky Mettle and last year's masterful Vee Vee, both on Alias Records), and filled the gap between albums with a fat-free EP ('94's Archers of Loaf vs The Greatest of All Time) and an array of singles and compilation cuts. Those singles, as well as a host of stray and previously unreleased tracks, have recently been gathered together on The Speed of Cattle, a career-spanning chronicle that moves from the band's hard-to-find debut single (1992's "Wrong"/"South Carolina") to some riveting BBC recordings made in 1994 for famed DJ John Peel.

Assemblages such as The Speed of Cattle provide a way for latecomers to backtrack through their new heroes' early work. Often these collections can serve to illuminate the growth of their subjects: Pavement's Westing (by Musket and Sextant) and Harry Pussy's new What Was Music?, for example. Or they can serve to track the demise of the group in question: Tsunami's World Tour and Other Delights, for instance, is a marvelous study of how a nice, economical pop band can become a dull, droning pop band.

The Speed of Cattle belongs in the former camp, and not just because it rescues some essential cuts from the long-gone pile (such as both sides of their out-of-print '93 single "What Did You Expect?"/"Ethel Merman"). The disc charts the development of the Archers' hyped-up, skronky guitar dynamics, as well as the maturation of Bachmann's lyrics, which in the past have covered everything from his own romantic dilemmas ("Wrong," "Web in Front") to the alt-rock world around him ("The Greatest of All Time," "Plumb Line").

Guitarists Bachmann and Johnson have evolved from the budding technicians heard wailing on "Bathroom" and "South Carolina" to the dazzling architects at work behind the complex and clanging instrumental "Smokin' Pot in the Hot City" and "Telepathic Traffic." Gentling and Price have grown as well, from two men working together on the bottom end of the rhythm ("Wrong") to a pair of roving adventurers who sometimes clash and sometimes lock into a ferocious groove and pile-drive through the space left open by the guitars ("Revenge," "What Did You Expect?").

This growth is marked definitively on The Speed of Cattle; more than merely pulling together the band's loose ends and related ephemera, the collection works as a cohesive whole. Granted, in typical fashion it was released to tide fans over while the band recorded its next album in Seattle with producer Brian Paulson (Slint, Son Volt). Nevertheless, Cattle flows with the grace and agility of the band's two proper albums -- unusual for these grab bags -- and cherry-tops what Gentling reluctantly acknowledges is a considerable body of work.

"Yeah, I guess it's pretty impressive," he says of the Archers canon, although he doesn't exactly hear any evolution there. "I don't know if you can hear a progression [on Cattle]. I don't think you can really draw a line in any direction from Icky Mettle to what we've just finished recording; it's more like three disparate points rather than three points in a line. Icky Mettle was pretty energetic and bouncy and upbeat. Vee Vee was kind of mellow and laid-back. Kind of whimsical, but I guess there's an intensity there. And the new one's definitely more intense than Vee Vee, whatever that means. It's more moody and perhaps a little darker."

Gentling also acknowledges -- again, reluctantly -- that the upcoming album is the one that Alias expects will break the band. Slated for release in September, the as-yet-untitled set will likely yank the band further from the domain of fanzines and cultists. As Gentling points out, that's actually already started to happen, thanks to the inclusion of a re-recorded version of "South Carolina" on last year's soundtrack for the ill-fated TV series My So-Called Life; the song brought the mainstream press sniffing around what they assumed was a new band -- the next Lisa Loeb, perhaps, or maybe Letters to Cleo.

Gentling laughs at the thought of being considered greenhorns. "There's that perception among some people, sure, but this didn't happen overnight," he contends. "We went for two years where we were touring so much that we could only hold part-time jobs at home. But we were still losing money on tour, so we'd have to rush back to Chapel Hill to make enough money to pay rent. We were always behind on bills, always in debt. Whichever house any of us was living in was pretty much packed, every room full of people just so we could afford rent."

These days the group doesn't have to worry so much about making the rent, and they've all quit their day jobs to clock miles in another "cozy" van. "It's getting easier for us," Gentling says of touring. "We aren't exactly raking in the cash, but it's like anything: The more you do it, the more little tricks you figure out to make it better, the more you figure out how to handle little problems that come up. We've figured out that it's best to ask people if we can sleep on their floor, but we can stay in hotels and motels about half the time now. We know our way around most cities, and we know it's better to take the Lincoln Tunnel into New York than the Holland Tunnel. Where we're at now, stuff like that really makes a difference.

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