At this stage, Los Angeles post–hardcore act Touché Amoré don’t have anything to prove. With three records of increasing quality under their belt, the Californian five-piece can rest easy knowing they have already achieved an incredible level of success for a young band with humble beginnings. Frontman Jeremy Bolm himself has spoken about wanting to stay the genuine, heartfelt group they are known for in the face of success in interviews. And then, life dealt him a cruel hand.
Stage Four doesn’t just refer to Touché Amoré's fourth LP, you see. It is the stage of cancer Bolm’s mother was diagnosed with, her second bout, during the band's wildly successful tour of their previous record Is Survived By... leaving her with anywhere between three months to a year left of life.
So, naturally, when listening to Stage Four, you are listening to part of Bolm’s grieving process. This would suggest that Stage Four is a particularly tough listen and, at times, that is not wrong. Bolm recalls how “She passed away about an hour ago/While you were onstage living the dream” on ‘Eight Seconds’. He deals with themes of guilt on ‘New Halloween’, of questioning his mother’s faith on ‘Displacement’, of burying his mother on ‘Benediction’, of emptying her house on ‘Water Damage’.
However, to simply label this album as 'difficult' would be to ignore the positive cathartic effect of venting. Despite the tragic consequences, Stage Four still manages to sound ultimately hopeful, that Bolm has been able to achieve some sort of peace in writing so openly about a very personal struggle. Part of Touché Amoré’s crossover appeal is that he is one of the best frontmen in the genre. Yes, he still largely screams, but he has an amazing clarity to his voice both in being a decipherable vocalist and a very direct lyricist. As a result, the listener feels right there with him when he “skip[s] over songs, because they’re too hard to hear/Like track two on Benji or “What Sarah Said”/They just hit too close when I’m already in my head” on ‘New Halloween’, painting a very humanising picture of grief.
Of course, Bolm isn’t responsible for everything and is highly fortunate to be backed up by a band as talented as Touché Amoré. It’s an exciting time for punk in America, with bands such as Self Defense Family, Pianos Become the Teeth, Title Fight along with Touche Amore leading the charge to push the boundaries of what being a punk band even is in 2016. TA’s musicianship makes them stand out from the crowd, just as Bolm’s talent as a vocalist does, and they are particularly impressive here.
While last year’s Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens dealt with similar themes in an equally brutally honest way, Stevens’ music lends itself much closer to dealing with grief. While punk music is great for venting, it is often seen as not much more than that. So for Touché Amoré to tell a difficult story while retaining their sound is really quite an achievement. For large parts, Stage Four is a fairly typical Touché Amoré album, such as excellent single ‘Palm Dreams’, which shows an already very high standard. But then there are moments where they really push beyond expectations into indie-rock.
Some genre diehards may not be pleased, but what has always kept Touché Amoré head and shoulders above the rest of the pack is their awareness and willingness to do things differently. At times, Stage Four has more in common with Interpol or The National on tracks like the superb ‘Benediction’ or the stunning final one-two of ‘Water Damage’ and ‘Skyscraper’. This is partly because Bolm has started experimenting with his voice, creating a Matt Beringer-esque tenor. But also Nick Steinhardt and Clayton Stevens’ guitar interplay, along with bassist Tyler Kirby and drummer Elliot Babin’s propulsive rhythm section, constantly keep these tracks intriguing and with plenty to discover.
So, Stage Four is quite possibly Touché Amoré’s best album yet. They have once again one–upped themselves into crafting a fierce record which would do all their families proud. It is a fitting and touching end that Bolm leaves the final voice on the record, after the Julien Baker duet ‘Skyscraper’, to the last voice message his mother left him, sounding sickly but loving and supportive. There is no doubt that this something we can all relate to.
9Adam Turner-Heffer's Score