If you're talking about best '90s rock records (I'm leaving out the dubious qualifier "indie" here), the conversation is likely to center around Pavement's Slanted & Enchanted or Nirvana's Nevermind, along with a handful of others. They're both perfectly fine choices -- excellent records, innovative, birthed a swell of followers, etc. -- but how representative of their time are they? Slanted & Enchanted is heralded for being exceptional, and it is. Literally. It's fantastic take on classic rock, it's laid-back nature, is an exception in the early-'90s rock scene. Sure all those musicians looked like bums, hence that "slacker rock" title, but the music was fiery, combative, informed more by the fury of punk rock than the haze of classic rock. Their fresh approach made Pavement brilliant, of course, but they operated more as outliers than poster children in the end.
Nevermind is undeniable for its seismic cultural impact -- a double-edged one that confirmed the commecial viability of fuzzy rock music and sent major labels to cash in on the pretensions of grunge -- but this poses some problems for it as the definitive '90s rock record. It's its own huge thing, really, and as time has passed it's become more about the cult of Kurt Cobain than the time it arose from.
There are important, if less linear, impacts Nevermind made in its time though. For one, had Sub Pop not sold Nirvana's contract to DGC (and worked it out so they got a percentage of sales) the label would almost surely have shut down. Secondly, the popularity of bands like Nirvana sent labels looking for the "next Seattle," which lead many of them down to Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Which is where Archers of Loaf was, building its sound over the course of a series of singles before releasing 1994's Icky Mettle on Alias Records. It didn't get them a major label deal (they would turn one down in 1995), but nearly 20 years later Icky Mettle emerges as that representative sound. This is the '90s rock record. You can argue over whether it's the best, and pit it against the likes of Pavement, Superchunk, Sebadoh, Dinosaur Jr. and others, but this isn't about that. This is about representing a time and place, capturing just what made this sound and this period in a particular subset of rock music so damn compelling. Icky Mettle does all that not by sounding like every other record from the time, but by establishing its own unique, blaring fuzz that hits not just with volume, but with a rare force.
The album starts with "Web In Front," perhaps the band's best known song, and it's actually a bit of a red herring. It's a downright fantastic song and gives us the immediate hooks that ride under the band's sound throughout its career, but it's the squall of feedback at the front of "Last Word," that lascerating riff that cuts in over the thumping drums, that really starts the album. That is Archers of Loaf: Guitars all distortion, riffs somehow both surgical and chaotic, Eric Bachmann's gruff voice sneering out each line. The interplay between guitarists Bachmann and Eric Johnson created a wave of crashing noise, and the rhythm section (bassist Matt Gentling and drummer Mark Price) thundered underneath.
Icky Mettle, with all its deafening grind, manages to hit all the major rock tropes of the time in brilliant ways. "Wrong" is every bit the excellent fuck-off tune that Superchunk's "Slack Motherfucker" was ("Learo, You're a Hole" is a close second). "You and Me" gets quieter and then louder and then quieter than the Pixies ever did, and the poles of that song show the careful craft that underpinned all those unruly decibels. The band unleashed hell whenever they could, but there was also an irreverence that snuck its way in sometimes. "Toast," one of the hardest hitting numbers on the record, finds Bachmann screaming at the top of his lungs, "There's something wrong with my toast!"
These guys could do that and not undercut the anger and resilience of the rest of the record. They also weren't afraid to reign it in and deliver the catchy power-pop of "Might" or "Plumb Line," the latter of which, with its "She's an indie rocker, nothing's gonna stop her" refrain surely made it a mixtape favorite. The point in all of this is that Icky Mettle does exactly what you expect from albums of its time. It's rough at the edges, it's volatile, it's self-referential, self-deprecating, and in the end a screed against anything and anyone that rings false. It's a full-throated call for honesty, for purity of sound, for making your own fucking racket.
Merge Records, who now probably outsell some of those labels who tried to poach their flagship band Superchunk back in the '90s, smartly uses their new reissue of Icky Mettle to tell the story of the album, how it came to be. The 7-inch versions included show how the band had the songs, but didn't fully bloom until they got in the studio for the record. Versions of "Wrong" (the first song they ever issued) and "Web in Front" sound solid but restrained, and comparing them to the album versions shows they knack for layers and a surprising polish to such an abrasive sound. Meanwhile, Vs. The Greatest of All Time, the EP released later in '94 is included to show the more experimental side of Archers of Loaf's sound, stretching its screeching noise to staggering size on, say, "Audiowhore."
Chances are Icky Mettle will never wrestle the "Best '90s Rock Album" title from some of the bigger names of the time. But this much is certain: The album is a crowning achievement of its time, one that takes all the conventions floating around and ups the ante on them all. It doesn't just represent its time, it represents the very best that could be achieved outside of the major label rush to cash in, by just plugging away at basement shows and dive bars and cranking out demos in a storage space. If you want to remember what the early '90s were like, if want to know what it must have been like in the storm of bands coming up in Chapel Hill then, leave the flannel in the closet and put this record on as loud as your neighbors can stand. Then go catch them on their reunion tour. I promise the songs sound as fresh now as they did in 1994.