For years, Jeremy Bolm has experienced catharsis via putting every last bit of himself into his band. The frontman of Touché Amoré has made himself known for his unflinchingly honest lyrical outlook, not to mention the physical and mental exertions that come with being in a fast-rising hardcore band. The Burbank, CA quintet—that’s Bolm, guitarists Clayton Stevens and Nick Steinhardt, bassist Tyler Kirby & drummer Elliot Babin—have been on the go since 2007, but it was on their third album, 2013’s Is Survived By, that they really came into their own.
That record was filled with self-examination and existential pondering that resonated strongly enough for the band to be snapped up by heavy-hitters Epitaph Records for their fourth full-length, the appropriately-monikered Stage Four, a title containing a gut-punch of a double entendre. In 2014, while the band was performing at Fest 13 in Florida, Bolm’s mother died of cancer at its most advanced stage: stage four. The album, therefore, acts as both a tribute to Bolm’s late mother and a harrowingly detailed look into his own loss, grief, and the cathartic feelings that they led to.
Even for a band this full-on, it’s searingly intense listening. On opener ‘Flowers and You’, Bolm excoriates himself for how he acted when alone with her: “I apologise for the grief / When you refused to eat / I didn’t know just what to say / While watching you wither away.” Stage Four is a heavy listen, but not in the ways longtime fans of the band might expect; its emotional depth and painful lyrical outlook are set against the most accessible music TA has ever written, emphasising the ‘melodic’ in the band’s melodic hardcore leanings.
‘Displacement’ pairs Babin’s expressive drumming with full-bodied hooks and atmospheric guitar flourishes rooted in post-rock, borderline uplifting in its execution even as Bolm wrestles with questions of religion, weighing up both his mother’s beliefs and his lack thereof, getting in car accidents and leaving unharmed: “Maybe that was you asking me to keep my faith? … She gave me her best / She swore I was her heart / I couldn’t worship the god that let her fall apart.”
Intertwined with the larger narrative, Bolm’s mother’s life is also explored; ‘Palm Dreams’, the album’s lead single, has him wondering why she decided to move to California in the first place (“What was it that brought you west? … Was it all the palm trees, placed where they shouldn’t be?”); while penultimate track ‘Water Damage’ focuses on the moment she informed him of her diagnosis, to devastating effect: “It’s been replaying, over and over / The words they echo, over and over / When you leaned in and said, ‘We both know what this is’ / And I haven’t recovered since.”
There are times when Stage Four can seem overwhelming, its lyrical candour and expressive musicianship verging on too much, but for every moment of brute force (‘Eight Seconds’), there is one of sheer beauty (‘Benediction’, featuring Bolm’s singing voice on a TA album for the first time). The band’s self-imposed limits have changed with each release; from 2009’s …To the Beat of a Dead Horse to their 2016 incarnation, Bolm and co. have been given time to find themselves as musicians and as people, and this has led to their crowning achievement. Stage Four is a difficult, yet rewarding and hopeful listen that takes Touché Amoré’s music to some surprising places & is deserving of wide crossover success.
review by Gareth O’Malley