As sculpted shards of guitar—tumbling, tolling, squalling—shower the jittery bounce of a piano on opener “Human,” it’s obvious that Reason in Decline, Archers of Loaf’s first album in 24 years, will be more than a nostalgic, low-impact reboot. When they emerged from North Carolina’s ’90s indie-punk incubator, the Archers’ hurtling, sly, gloriously dissonant roar was a mythologized touchstone of slacker-era refusal. But this, the distilled shudder of “Human” (as in “It’s hard to be human / When only death can set you free”), is an entirely different noise. In fact, it’s a startling revelation.
A few distinctions between 2022 Archers and the Clinton-era crew—whose “South Carolina” could be heard blaring out of Jordan Catalano’s car radio on ABC teen-angst epic My So-Called Life. First, guitarists Eric Bachmann and Eric Johnson, once headstrong smartasses inciting a series of artful pileups on the band’s four studio albums and EP, are now a fluidly complementary, sonically advanced unit. Notably, Johnson’s signature trebly lines peal clearly above the din instead of struggling to be heard. Second, singer-songwriter Bachmann, after throat surgery, relearned how to sing (this time from his diaphragm); as a result, he no longer howls like the angriest head cold on the Eastern Seaboard. And now, his lyrics balance righteous wrath with a complex tangle of adult perspective. He still spits bile, but it’s less likely to concern scene politics, music trends, or shady record labels thwarting the dreams of a young rock band.
Bachmann puts it bluntly: “What I really think about going back to the Archers and doing a new record is that the three other members of this band are awesome. It’s not about responding to the past or whatever our bullshit legacy is. I just wanted to work with these guys because I knew the chemistry we had and that we still have. I knew that was rare. I didn’t care what it ended up sounding like.”
Archers of Loaf’s first tour of duty ended after 1998’s White Trash Heroes. The album did not raise the band’s once touted commercial roof, and the members—Bachmann, Johnson, bassist Matt Gentling, and drummer Mark Price—were a bedraggled bunch of coulda-beens. Price was unable to play without extreme pain due to carpal tunnel syndrome. Bachmann itched to try a different musical approach. Everyone was tapped out in one way or another. Though the four remained good friends and convened for occasional reunion gigs (to support Merge’s 2011–12 album reissues, for instance), they never worked on new music. Gentling had joined Band of Horses; Johnson, now a criminal defense attorney in Asheville, North Carolina, contributed guitar to projects when he had the time. On his own, Bachmann thrived, releasing 11 albums of atmospheric, folky rock/pop under his own name or “group” moniker Crooked Fingers. In recent years, he’d toured as a sideman/foil for torch-country star Neko Case.
After some reunion shows in 2015 reignited the band’s creative passion, Bachmann attempted to write new Archers material. But he just couldn’t do it. For him, the voice and identity of the band was trapped in the past.
“For Archers lyrics, songs, everything, I had to imagine I was this angry white curmudgeon college guy who hates capitalism and consumerism and has a broken heart,” he says now, from his home in Athens, Georgia. “He’s bitter about relationships, so he makes fun of things to seem cool. As I’ve aged, I’m far less like that anymore, but it is a part of my personality. I just wasn’t excited about re-energizing it. But if I don’t have a position or point of view to start from, I can’t get out of the gate. In the course of writing the actual songs, that guy eventually went away.”
The first sound files he shared, and worked on, with the band included the exhilarating rush of “Raleigh Days,” which revisited an era when young Triangle bands ached to “be somebody” (’80s/’90s Raleigh punk venue the Fallout Shelter is name-checked). It could’ve been the best song on the band’s third album. For that reason, they left it off Reason in Decline, releasing a 7-inch in 2020 to reintroduce the band.
It was a promising start, but there was one problem: The pandemic had cold-cocked Bachmann. Unable to perform, tour, or earn, he’d become the full-time stay-at home parent of a toddler son, while his wife toiled as an ICU nurse. The change was profound. “I’m 51, I’ve been [writing and playing music] since I was 14,” he says. “I’ve been doing it for a living since I was 22, that’s 37 years. For the first time, when COVID happened, I couldn’t do it. All that was taken away and it was a massive psychological setback, to the point that I had to get help. I already had a problem with suicide ideation, constantly thinking about this shit. And I’m not ashamed to say that. Thousands and thousands of people have the same problem. Anyway, all this got baked into the songs.”
On “Saturation and Light,” for example, over a breaking wave of ringing guitars, scampering bass, and rumbling drums, Bachmann tersely counsels against the danger of self-pity. “In the Surface Noise” and “Breaking Even,” two thunderous, tension-filled blasts steered by the rhythm section’s precise wallop, are almost as harshly reflective. On the former, Bachmann views his “white boy, first-world problems” in light of the systematic, global bigotry magnified by the police murder of George Floyd in 2020; on the latter, he digs into his COVID-induced isolation and despair.
Originally, Bachmann worried that the new songs would be too personal and hesitated to share or even finish them. “Human,” for instance, references his aforementioned pandemic-induced breakdown. “Those lyrics are so dramatic, and I didn’t know if I wanted to share that part of my life. But they also have a playful, dry wit that I like, so that made it seem okay. I’m singing ‘cocaine caked around your nostrils,’ and it’s like I’m wearing a cape and there’s a candelabra on the piano [laughs].”
Despite his concerns, the album teems with intimate emotion and atmosphere that’s more suggestive than personally revealing. The band reshapes its powerful twin-guitar tumult into expansive backdrops that sparkle and cast shadows around Bachmann’s haunting ballads. “Aimee” is a dusty, fingerpicked ode that he describes simply as “a nice song about a couple that loves each other”; it echoes plaintively in a light-streaked cave of plinks, flutters, and moaning guitar twang. “The Moment You End,” a rootsy ramble about losing your sense of self in a relationship, anxiously builds to a gorgeously woozy shimmer as Bachmann’s croon turns bittersweet.
Point of order: For anybody worried that the band is going soft or getting lost in their feelings, pub-punk stormer “Screaming Undercover” will take your fucking head off with its chant-along, outrun-the-cops, Replacements-ish blur.
Given Bachmann’s state of mind—plus the state of the world—during the writing and recording process, it’s no surprise that two of Reason in Decline’s more memorable songs have the word “war” in the title. A face-first, cinematic tour through the carnage of imperialist greed, “Mama Was a War Profiteer” goes beyond truth-telling and questions America’s cynical view of overseas poverty and conflict as just another economic opportunity, all while children’s limbs get blown off. The somber, insistent piano meditation “War Is Wide Open” closes Reason in Decline with a bang of frustration and dumbfounded horror. While we consume news of bloodshed and corruption day after day, what do we do with the burden of knowing? What is our responsibility? Bachmann’s war is more internal than on the roads outside Kyiv.
In short, this is not your father’s Archers of Loaf, even if you’re a father now who was a fan then. (If that’s the case, congrats on surviving the Plague and getting to hear this fearlessly poignant record, you alt-geezer!) Otherwise, thank your youthful fucking lucky stars, kids! Enjoy Reason in Decline with fresh ears and do as the Archers have been doing: Stay humble, stay informed, express yourself creatively, and try not to lose your goddamned mind while the polar ice caps melt. Peace.www.archersofloaf.net/