By the time I reached age 23, I kinda figured I was done being truly blown away by music. Don’t get me wrong, I’d still discover new bands and enjoy them, and there were still some important records from the past that I was planning on getting around to, but I figured that teenage feeling was gone. When you’re 12 or 13 and a song blows your mind because that’s how I feel about that girl in my math class. That was behind me. When you’re 15 or 16, and a song blows your mind because that’s how I feel about, like, the world and stuff. Sadly, those days were over as well.
Let’s be honest, those angsty middle school and high school years are when music hits you the hardest, and anything after that never quite has the same effect. Or so I thought. Just when I thought my enjoyment of music from here on out was destined to be less emotional and more academic, I heard an album that brought back all those super-heavy ninth-grade feelings that I had given on up on trying to recapture. That album was Touche Amore’s Is Survived By.
When I heard this album, I was five months removed from graduating from college, and the closest thing I had to a job was an extremely part-time gig at the liquor store near my house. It paid minimum wage. What was truly pathetic about this situation was that I was actually happy about it. Hey, a few weeks earlier I didn’t even have the job; at least things were getting better.
So I took my $88 check to the record store across the street from my old college campus and went hunting. I bought the Touche Amore album based on some positive reviews, and because I knew they were the band that inspired Thursday’s “Stay True,” one of my favorite songs from a few years earlier. I thought about buying the LP, but decided to save money by buying the CD, a decision I would regret as soon as I actually listened to the album.
Is Survived By is only 29 minutes long (which was still 10 minutes longer than their first two albums), but it feels a lot longer. I realized that sounds like an insult, but I intend it as the highest praise. It’s so epic and grandiose that when you look at the clock and realize not even a half hour has gone by since you pressed play, it briefly throws you for a loop, sort of like when you have a long, confusing dream, then you stare at your alarm clock at wonder how the hell only 15 minutes had gone by.
By the time those 29 minutes were over, I felt like my life was in a completely different place than when they had started, because I had every insecurity that I was desperately trying to shove into the back of my mind for the last five months laid out before me. Do I have anything important to say? Will I ever succeed as I writer? Will I succeed as a human? These were the questions I had gone out of my way to avoid for months, and now, thanks to Jeremy Bolm’s brutally honest lyrics, and even more brutal vocals, I was forced to confront them directly.
Is Survived By is a highly meta album. It was made after Touche Amore had become critical darlings of the hardcore scene with their first two albums, and the world was wondering if they’d stick the landing the third time around. Bolm mentions this directly on “To Write Content,” when he shouts “I won’t fake what is expected to succeed with album three,” while acknowledging that he’s become a different person since making the first two albums, and this is something his fans are going to have to deal with.
Truthfully, it’s hard to picture this album as being a sellout move when it’s so aggressive from start to finish, but the hardcore scene demands purity like no other, and he knew it might be an issue. In retrospect, it feels as though the only way Bolm could make a third album that carried the emotional resonance the band’s fans were expecting was to address the situation head on. The resulting honesty went a long way in making Is Survived By so memorable. More so than on any of the band’s other albums, I felt as though I was experiencing exactly what was going through the artist’s mind as they were creating their art.
One could argue that Is Survived By is a concept album about its own creation. For me, it felt like a concept album about being a writer. Mostly, it feels like an album about trying to justify your own existence in the world, and being able to credibly say to yourself “Yes, I matter. The things that I’m doing are important.” In “Praise/Love,” Bolm admits that every kind word his art has received over the years has gone a long way in validating him. “A glutton for praise / A glutton for love / Abuse my name for all of the above,” goes one of the album most memorable and oft-repeated phrases. It’s yet another remarkably honest moment, especially when you consider how many artists will go out of their way to insist that critical appraisal of their work is irrelevant to them. And with that honesty comes fear; fear that when praise means so much to you, you will subconsciously create the art that you think will earn you the most praise rather than the art you actually want to make.
Throughout this album, Bolm lays out his insecurities to the listener in a remarkable way. In truth, as much as it felt jarring to have his album remind me of every concern about by existence that I had avoided confronting, the fact that Bolm was able to handle these topics so candidly gave me confidence that I could do the same. Essentially, he reminded me of all the problems that I had yet to address, but he was also letting me know, “Don’t worry dude, you got this.”
It’s three years later, and there’s a new Touche Amore album out. Obviously, the fact that you are reading this piece means that my writing career is going better than it was then. It’s not perfect, but people are giving me money to write things for them, and it took about a year for the novelty of that to wear off. I still work the occasional shift at the liquor store I mentioned earlier, and the boss is kind enough to still give me the employee discount, but I no longer need that gig to feel as though I am contributing something to society. I’ve known about the existence of Stage Four, the fourth Touche Amore album for months, and I’m conflicted. As a music fan, the thought of hearing new songs from a band that blew my mind long after I thought it was possible is enthralling to me. But that’s just it; there’s also a profound fear of disappointment. What if they don’t have it this time? What if I leave this album feeling underwhelmed? Part of me almost doesn’t even want to listen.
After about 30 seconds, I realize what an idiot I’m being.
While I have no idea if Stage Four will mean as much to me as its predecessor did, I can happily report that it is a stunning album, one of the best I’ve heard in 2016. Once again, Bolm is able to expand the band’s sound into new realms while not sacrificing the edge and the power that made them so vital to begin with. Bolm’s lyrics are simultaneously emotional and clever, particularly on “Water Damage,” in which he screams about “patriotic coffee cops” and a small old-fashioned television with a dangerously bright picture. Somehow, Bolm relates to us that these seemingly innocuous items means something to him. Somehow, you find yourself caring about them, too, even though you’re not sure why. The record deals with Bolm’s grief over the loss of his mother in 2014, so it’s easy to see how these mundane objects become imbued with the sense of something larger. Is it the power of his lyrics, or the conviction with which he delivers them? It might seem like a cop-out to say this, but it has to be a combination of both.
The album’s most emotional moment likely comes on “Displacement,” in which Bolm admits, “I don’t know what I believe,” an identity crisis likely facing much of the demographic that makes up his fan base. As we get older, our opinions are bound to evolve, and yet, that’s a natural cause of insecurity: If I’m able to change my mind on something that used to be something so important to me, did I ever have any convictions to begin with? Bolm consistently feels like he’s in a primal scream therapy session with himself; ironically, it makes him a damn good psychiatrist.
But while Bolm’s lyrics and vocals can be praised endlessly, we’d be selling this album short if we did’t talk about the music. As raw and aggressive as the vocals can be, this is also a remarkably beautiful record from a purely musical standpoint. The song structures here are often complex and surprisingly elegant; there are certain moments that wouldn’t feel out of place on an Explosions In The Sky record, as hard to believe as that might seem. While the incendiary rage of Bolm is the driving force behind Touche Amore, his bandmates create a beautiful backdrop, one that can be subtle or as intense as the situation requires.
To be sure, there are few moments here that might throw longtime fans for a loop. For one thing, there are a handful of times when Bolm actually sings rather than giving us his trademark roar. The first of these songs is cleverly titled “Bendiction,” perhaps a nod to the fans who might think he’s a traitor for softening his edges even the slightest bit. Elsewhere, the album closing “Skyscraper” — which features rising folk singer Julien Baker — is remarkably subtle and ranks among the most beautiful songs the band has ever recorded. Of course, these tracks are still the minority, and most of the album is as heavy and intense as ever, but the band’s willingness to evolve and leave their comfort zone suggests that they are built for the long haul.
Touche Amore’s first two records proved that they were able to create a brutal, emotional experience. Their last two records have kept that promise while also taking the band into new places. After four albums, it feels like this band has what it takes to stick around for quite some time. Perhaps Stage Four will grow to mean as much to me as Is Survived By, but what really matters is that it will undeniably have that effect on someone, probably on thousands. More than five years after Geoff Rickly and Thursday warned Touche Amore about what fame and success might do to them, it’s become clear they had nothing to worry about. This band, without question, has stayed true.