Californian hardcore punk band Touché Amoré have always defined themselves by their DIY work ethic, honest and emotional lyrics, and blistering live performances. On their fourth full-length album Stage Four, singer Jeremy Bolm reflects on the loss of his mother to cancer. In exploring themes of grief, loss, closure, and even hope, the band have never sounded so vital and urgent.
Bolm’s grief and sense of guilt weigh heavily on much of this heartbreaking album. On the song “Eight Seconds” he reflects on a phone call he received after a show. Scared of what he would hear, he put off answering, and when he called back later he was told “She passed away about an hour ago / When you were onstage living the dream”. It’s one of the band’s more traditional punk songs clocking in at just over 90 seconds, but the intensity works in its favour with aggressive percussion and heavy, melodic riffs. On other tracks like “New Halloween” he wrestles with the guilt and responsibility he feels, singing that “I was told you were half asleep, told myself you would be proud of me. But it’s not that easy.” His coarse, abrasive delivery might put some off, but it serves to reinforce the intensity of what he’s saying in a way that traditional singing could not.
Musically the band are pushing themselves to new heights and exploring influences from further afield than their traditional melodic hardcore roots. Their previous album, 2013’s superb “Is Survived By”, drew heavily on alternative rock, leading to a more accessible, melodic sound. While Stage Four exists in a similar vein, the band draw on post-punk, jangle pop, and even shoegaze. Guitarist Nick Steinhardt is one of the primary songwriters in this band, and his involvement and friendship with diverse bands like the blackgaze band Deafheaven shines through on this album.
Bolm also frequently pushes himself out of his comfort zone, occasionally shifting from his usual hoarse vocals to more melodic singing. He’s not the most tuneful, but it provides some great variety and his delivery is never anything less than convincing. It serves to reinforce the more melodic sensibilities of the band, and has a certain Ian Curtis edge to them at times. On ‘Benediction’ the band draw on a bit of pop-punk with singing, gang vocals and all. It’s one of the weaker cuts of the album due to its lack of momentum, never really going anywhere, but it’s still enjoyable enough. “Softer Spoken” features some devastatingly pretty melodic guitar lines, while “Posing Holy”‘s catchy melodies and shout-along chorus prove a rousing success.
A particular highlight of Stage Four is “Palm Dreams”. It features catchy, The Smiths-esque jangly riffs and a great performance by drummer Elliot Babin. Bolm reflects on his late mother’s decision to move from Nebraska to California in the 70s, saying in an interview that “If this song inspires anyone to ask the questions they’ve never asked their loved ones, I’d call it a success.” Closing track “Skyscraper” is the climax of this album, featuring a heartbreakingly beautiful duet with folk singer Julien Baker. The noisy, shoegazey crescendo of this track is a stunning and cathartic conclusion to this gorgeous, emotionally draining album.