In a year full of good music, it can be difficult to decide which records deserve your attention most. It seems as though every week has at least two releases worth dedicating precious listening time to. At that rate it can quickly become an overwhelming task to simply keep up. That’s why I find it necessary to tell you that if there is one must listen record this year: it’s the latest offering from Touché Amoré, titled Stage Four.
The album’s title is a reference not only to the fact that it is the LA-based band’s fourth full-length offering, but also to the cancer that took away frontman Jeremy Bolm’s mother in late 2014. This loss becomes the lyrical focus of the album, with Bolm audibly going through the stages of grief across each song. Using the passing of your mother as the basis for your record is pressure enough, but taking into account that Stage Four is the follow-up to a widely loved album (2013’s …Is Survived By), and is also the band’s first release for Epitaph Records — an alternative/punk institution — and you have pressure which could paralyze a band. However, Touché Amoré has proved that they are anything but your average band. All of these factors created a perfect storm that has allowed the band to create their greatest work to date.
Like their contemporaries in Pianos Become the Teeth, Touché have driven their sound into far more melodic territory. But instead of doing a 180, Stage Four retains much of the aggression prevalent on previous records. “Flowers and You” kicks off the album with reverberating guitars and hi-hat rhythms. As the kick drum, second guitar, and bass layer on top of each other the buildup sound leads to the introduction of Bolm’s heartbroken yelps. The song’s cathartic and aggressive vocals are familiar territory, even though the instrumental hints at the melody still to come. This melody arrives around the two-minute mark, and the “clean” vocals have a filter over them. The filter almost feels like a mask; a trial run for Bolm to get his feet under him before he commits to singing. As Jeremy sings on, the filter is removed and we hear his Matt Berninger-esque voice sing, “Just a simple conversation about nothing much at all. / Couldn’t keep me in the room / I just kept walking down the hall.”
Lead single “Palm Dreams” has similar melodic sensibilities, with the refrain of “on my own,” building with harmony, cutting through what is otherwise a by-the-numbers Touché Amoré song. The second single, “Displacement” has some breakneck drumming from Elliot Babin alongside Bolm’s signature howl. The song is a perfect blend of the inherent heaviness of the band, coupled with the lush, natural production style of Brad Wood. The penultimate track, “Water Damage” builds to a crescendo of guitar chords and cymbal crashes worthy of being played alongside some of Deafheaven’s best work.
Stage Four’s closer, “Skyscraper,” is the crowning achievement of the record; a reward for those that make their way through the entire album. Julien Baker’s feature consists of mostly harmony lines that weave in and out of Jeremy’s vocals, which switch between monotone singing and throat-shredding screams. The mid-tempo sonic assault just seems to keep building on itself, adding more instrumentation and vocal layers. This continues until the song fades out, but just before the last note stops ringing, a voicemail from Jeremy’s mother, a casual message about dropping off a prescription, fades in. In the context of the 10 songs preceding it, this is a heart-shattering memorial to a woman who was so clearly loved.
Touché Amoré has earned the place they currently occupy in the music scene through hard work and sincerity. While the former is evident simply in the sound of the record, the latter is what really shines. As would be expected given the subject matter, this album is emotive beyond belief. Heavy themes often go hand-in-hand with heavy music, but it is a mark of this band’s true artistic talent that Stage Four is so thought provoking and gorgeous. This record forces its listeners to confront the mortality of not only themselves, but also those they love. This is emotive, artful, melodic hardcore — the kind that stays with you long after the final sounds of the voicemail end.
At various points in our lives we are forced to face the inevitability of death. It’s dark and unsettling, and a topic most don’t want to think about, never mind confront directly. When we find ourselves in those situations, it’s comforting to know that this record exists, and can be used as a resource to help cope with the unhappy reality of our loved ones passing away. Stage Four stands as reassurance that even when we feel alone in our sadness, others go through the same circumstances.