January 16th, 2015. A phone call no one ever wants to receive. A sudden switch is what they called it. Like a record player belt abruptly stopping, with it that sharp and uncomfortable sound piercing the air. A brain aneurysm. My mother was gone.
One year and eight months on, 16th September 2016. American post hardcore outfit, Touche Amore put out their fourth studio record, Stage Four. The rusted brown cover, with its symmetrical squares, and delicately placed thinning flowers staring out from the heavily stacked display at All Ages Records. Prior to this release Touche Amore had cemented their name amongst the world of modern hardcore with 3 studio records, and a dozen split EPs, birthing bands such as La Dispute and Pianos Become The Teeth, giving a new emotional approach to a genre that had once been seen as ‘tough man’ music. It is arguable that vocalist Jeremy Bolm, through either his own record distribution, featured splits, or consistent tours, is responsible for most of the bands we see within the genre today, from Turnstile through to underrated punk outfits such as Culture Abuse.
“Something you love is gone…”
But the title of this record wasn’t in anyway coincidental with the 12 tracks now being the band’s fourth full length release. Instead, a rather dark, and more personal experience had penned the title three years prior to it’s release. In 2013 Jeremy’s mother passed of stage four cancer. Throughout the decades they have said that music has become an outlet for both fans and musicians alike, and in some ways, the medium has a more haunting effect on the human psyche. It becomes a trigger for emotions. “I skip over songs, because they’re too hard to hear. Like track two on Benji or “What Sarah Said”, reflects Bolm on the single, New Halloween. Upon hearing the lyric it became apparent. This record would become mine and so many other’s What Sarah Saids, Track 2s of Benji.
On previous releases Touche Amore had never shied away from slamming into a whirlwind of shrieking guitars, and sonic bass lines, such as the opening of 2013’s, Is Survived By. However, Stage Four’s opener, Flowers And You seems to take a more delicate approach. The off set heavier strums of guitar filling the atmosphere with a sound that makes you feel uneasy, before flipping into a riotous downpour of melodies and riffs. It’s a feeling that can be comparable to the first few moments you hear of someone’s passing. The first step of shock, before the racing thoughts of ‘why, how, when?’.
The five stages of grief are noted as shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, all of which are encompassed within the 34 minutes and 58 seconds of this record. On previous releases Bolm had become acclaimed for his way with words, disguising meanings in metaphors, but on Stage Four an honest bluntness seems to seep through instead. And while all of the lyrical content is set against the usual Touche soundscape, it’s the collision of bluntness and a newly found hollowness during the bridge of Rapture that seemed to have hit the hardest when visiting this record during many a sleepless night. “Something you love is gone, something you love is gone.” The simplicity being comparable to the infamous line in What Sarah Said, where Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard simply says, “that love is watching someone die.”
“Highlighting the charming ability of Touche Amore to disguise even deeper meanings within their creative outlets…”
Unlike prior releases such as Survived By and Parting The Sea Between Brightness And Me, the structure of the record isn’t as sporadic, but rather feels like a more intricately and planned out journey. Sure, tracks such as Displacement , and the appropriately titled, Eight Seconds seem to leave you instantly filled with a pacing rage, but when put into context, it’s a rather honest reflection of the moments that catch you off guard when processing grief. Those moments where the smell of a RED perfume, or a simple word seems to spark a feeling so intense that you run to the heaviest of sounds in hopes it saves you hitting your fists into the drywall of your childhood home. Each track takes us back into the cycle and the five stages, all beautifully laced together by the definitive tones and sounds that define the character of Touche’s music.
Through the work of guitarist Nick Steinhardt, this band has always been bold and assertive in making sure that they’re represented just as truly visually as they are on record, and this didn’t change with Stage Four. The 90s-esque video for, Palm Dreams at first confuses us by seemingly representing a woman’s desires to blend into her new Hollywood surroundings, but in reality the track is Bolm beginning to learn about who his mother really was, or rather wondering what had taken his family to California, further highlighting the charming ability of Touche Amore to disguise even deeper meanings within their creative outlets. However, the newfound bluntness strikes once more, and even now I struggle to watch till the end of the video for the more touching and visceral video for, Skyscraper. Pushing around what appears to be the wheelchair of his loved one, it isn’t until the final closing shot of the chair being empty that it once more hits. But rather this time around with a more enlightening feeling. A feeling of calmly being able to hold onto memories of those you’ve lost when revisiting the places, and memories of when you saw them last.
“It is a testimony to the band’s unconditional empathy, a last farewell letter to not just whom Jeremy Bolm had lost, but who we have all lost…”
Never before has a Touche record featured a vocalist that wasn’t of the same spiel of hardcore as the band themselves, but Julien Baker’s heavily uncredited appearance on the closing track, Skyscraper, strikes with an entirely new purpose. Much like how as time passes on you reach a point of acceptance, the slower tempo of this closer appears to show that Touche Amore themselves are beginning to move on. That they’re not always going to be a band to produce just heavy and anger driven short hardcore anthems, but rightfully so have become a band that can slow things down once in a while. That can take their time to reflect. That can say goodbye to both the people and the sounds that once defined them.
Grief affects everyone differently. Some repress it, others let it consume them, and some use the catharsis of it to produce a painfully honest, intimate, and beautifully chaotic soundscape that reflects their inner most thoughts during some of the most painful experiences of their lifetime. Stage Four was more than just the fourth venture from Touche Amore. It is a testimony to the band’s unconditional empathy, a last farewell letter to not just whom Jeremy Bolm had lost, but who every listener had parted ways, and inevitably at some point will have to say that dreaded goodbye to as life continues to tick on, one record, and one step at a time.
WORDS: GEORGIA RAWSON