Rapidly approaching their tenth birthday, Touché Amoré have come a long way from cutting their teeth within the relentless slog of the basement/house show circuit.
They’ve remained consistent in some respects, however – the sonic battery reminiscent of the Californian hardcore scene they paved their way from is still a huge part of their music, as is the sensitivity and care in their writing that has seen them grow far beyond that. Stage Four is their fourth full-length release, catalysed lyrically by frontman Jeremy Bolm’s internal turmoil during and grief following losing his mother to cancer.
I’ve been a big fan of Touché Amoré since I first heard 2013’s Is Survived By. Since that last record, their fellow New Wave of American Post-Hardcore bands (I know, it’s a mouthful, I promise not to say it again) have branched out and done some very different things. Pianos Become The Teeth changed their sound by completely dispensing with harsh vocals, while Defeater ploughed on with an (admittedly strong) album in the same vein as their previous work. Meanwhile, La Dispute cemented their place as the most popular and successful of them all, their music progressing in a way that feels natural – neither stagnant nor radically altered. A developmental mixture steeped in diaspora, then. What’s Touché’s take on this?
‘Flowers And You’ kicks things off gently at first, easing in with chilled out guitar work and rolling drums. The sound brings to mind the band’s California home and I can almost see myself in the passenger seat of a car staring out at palm trees passing by. This doesn’t last. Soon enough, the bass kicks in, the snare pounds through and the guitars dive into a punk sound that could almost have been lifted straight from Is Survived By. It’s as though the band have picked up exactly where they left off, with Bolm’s vocal delivery bordering the nostalgic, coming across as more poet than singer with raw emotion seeming to drip from every word. This isn’t to say there aren’t small differences – everything has been tightened up, the vocals wind around the guitar lines flawlessly, but it all feels very much a more polished version of the Touché Amoré we already know.
The first few tracks don’t bring any real surprises. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though – to invoke a tired old idiom, why fix something that isn’t broken? Tonally, there´s nothing to fault; the bass sits perfectly and drives everything forward whilst the snare in particular cuts through clearly to accentuate the guitars. When ‘Displacement’ starts, I’m instantly reminded of La Dispute’s ‘Wildlife’ as Jeremy laments “You died at sixty-nine, with a body full of cancer”, and I wonder if I’m in for something a little different, perhaps a little more considered, before the drums double up the beat and we’re straight back in. Just a little breather, I guess!
It feels like a wasted opportunity. This is, after all, the track from which the album takes its name and these are clearly very talented musicians – surely this is the perfect point to break things down and produce something more mature to give context to the mayhem around it, given the serious lyrical content (‘Stage 4’ being a reference to the most advanced stage of cancer). My doubts are assuaged however when ‘Benediction’ opens with, of all things, clean vocals. The song builds slowly, the guitars giving Jeremy plenty of space to tell us about his memories of a lost loved one fighting sickness. This is the maturity I was hoping for – Is Survived By managed to mainline a breakneck relentlessness from first to last, but the band couldn’t have pulled it off twice. The softer approach is needed here to give more impact to everything else and when ‘Eight Seconds’ reintroduces the classic Touché Amoré sound I feel refreshed and ready to embrace it.
By the time I get to ‘Palm Dreams’ I’m thoroughly immersed. By now the band are blending everything together, with the refrain of ‘On My Own’ really nailing that melodic hardcore tag. A little later those clean vocals emerge again in a personal favourite, ‘Water Damage’. The songwriting really shines through at this point and a lot of people will find something to relate to. Memories of a family member suffering through dementia and/or late stage cancer (the two are both lyrical themes of the album and I haven’t quite unpicked where the lines between them are yet, if they exist at all) are so real in their significance. The little details within emotionally huge topics really bring this record to life lyrically.
‘Skyscrapers’ ends the album beautifully. It’s a simple track with layered guitars and vocals building to a crescendo, before fading out and leaving the listener with a slight jolt on realizing the album’s over after little more than 30 minutes. Special mention should go here to Julien Baker’s additional vocals on the final track, which complement the song wonderfully.
Stage Four is an amazing piece of work and some of the best material I’ve heard in 2016, but it’s perhaps held back by the fact that too many of its tracks could fit straight into the band’s previous release. Is Survived By is a legacy that was always going to be hard to match, and while there isn’t really anything wrong with Stage Four in isolation, it doesn’t quite match that level for me. As a final note, for those with no prior experience of the band, this is possibly the best place to jump in.