On Archive Material, Silverbacks Expand Even While Documenting Constrictive TimesMusic Reviews Silverbacks
You could be forgiven for having heard Fad, the 2020 full-length debut of Dublin quintet Silverbacks, and filing them away in your mind as “Irish post-punk band.” Dropping bands into such reductive buckets is a necessary evil of discovering, engaging with and evaluating new music—if you can’t boil a sound down into a distinct data point, putting it in the proper context becomes a much taller task. For their part, Silverbacks—brothers Daniel (vocals/guitar/percussion) and Kilian O’Kelly (vocals/guitar), Emma Hanlon (vocals/bass), Peadar Kearney (guitar) and drummer Gary Wickham (drums/percussion)—are unconcerned with how their band is defined, even if they may happen to disagree with it. It’s that disinterest in painting by numbers that defines Archive Material, their second album, returning Fad producer Daniel Fox (of Gilla Band, fka Girl Band), and their first for Full Time Hobby. Listeners who come looking for that Irish post-punk band they liked will find it, but they’ll also encounter an added emphasis on sonic diversity and nuance, the smooth surface they’d committed to memory enriched by unexpected wrinkles.
As if to reassure us of this, Silverbacks open Archive Material with the blistering three-track stretch of singles “Archive Material,” “A Job Worth Something” and “Wear My Medals.” Here, the band’s three guitars function less like guerrilla warriors and more like guided missiles—where on Fad, you may have been surprised by the mathy riffage that unexpectedly ends “Dunkirk,” or the wiry bent notes that punctured the verses of “Just in the Band,” the opening stretch of Archive Material is defined by sheer precision and force. The title track screeches to a stop after each chorus, with Daniel O’Kelly and Hanlon’s French vocals (“Ils s’entendent pas,” they insist, meaning roughly, “They don’t get along”) giving way to call-and-response guitars that sound like rock ‘n’ roll morse code. “A Job Worth Something” lays a Hanlon/Wickham foundation before incorporating dual lead guitars that later dominate the track entirely. “Wear My Medals” screams through your speakers, wielding a hard-charging two-note riff like defibrillator paddles. Silverbacks sound more determined and purposeful even in their stylistic sweet spot, pushing their broken-glass guitars to the limit, rather than simply resting on them.
The influences Silverbacks cite in the album’s press materials—Television, Neil Young, Weyes Blood, and Bradford Cox/Cate Le Bon collaboration Myths 004—serve as a concise summary of the give and take between the ‘70s New York rock ethos that Silverbacks first established on Fad, and the exploratory spirit that begins to bubble up on Archive Material. “Wear My Medals” occupies both ends of that spectrum, moving from breakneck post-punk into an atmospheric breakdown, palm-muted guitars taking a backseat to flute-like keys and Hanlon’s delicate vocal. Archive Material at large opts for a similar tack, spreading out in unexpected directions as it progresses. Mid-album instrumental interlude “Carshade” (a successor to Fad’s “Dud” and “Travel Lodge Punk”) is hazy and atonal, with layers of feathery Rhodes piano providing a bit of breathing room. The following track, “Central Tones,” delivers on its title with a rollercoaster of distinct guitar sounds, moving from a whammy-heavy melange of dream-pop and surf-rock into slashing arena-rock choruses and a spacey psych-rock bridge, missing only the kitchen sink. The light touch of “Econymo” evokes Thin Lizzy and Steely Dan alike, while Daniel O’Kelly’s “Nothing to Write Home About” vocal calls to mind both Cheekface-esque talk-singing and Animal Collective’s “My Girls.” And the Hanlon-led closer “I’m Wild” is equal parts Aldous Harding and Harvest-era Young. It’s as if Silverbacks have every card in the deck in their hands, and though their poker faces need work, they’re not ready to lay it all on the table just yet.
If there’s one card Silverbacks could stand to play more frequently, it’s Hanlon’s—the band noted upon the release of “Wear My Medals” that they “always set out while demoing to write ‘Emma Songs’—songs that we think will specifically work for Emma’s vocals,” but here, as on Fad, there are only a pair of them. Archive Material is awash with evidence of the band’s instrumental advancement, but they still have room to grow in terms of their vocal interplay. “Rolodex City” is one of a handful of tracks that leans in that multi-dimensional direction, with Daniel O’Kelly handling verses before Hanlon steps in for the hypnotic bridge: “Slide to the left and put your foot down,” they command in unison as the world crashes down around them.
Speaking of which: Archive Material does live up to its titular documentation of The Times, lyrically speaking. “A Job Worth Something” finds Daniel O’Kelly beating himself up (and relatably so!) for holding his made-up office job instead of helping people while he still can—i.e., while the planet’s still spinning. On the title track, he can’t help but observe, “What a time to be alive,” and he opens “Econymo” with the quip, “The decline of Western civilization / I read it on the back of a T-shirt.” “Wear My Medals” and “Central Tones” are sardonically dismissive of the empty glory of competitive success (“Bronze plate and a talking head / And I’m your hero,” Hanlon muses in the former), while “Nothing to Write Home About” expresses a tender skepticism about art’s ability to ease life amid catastrophe (“All the pop hits will cool your jets,” Hanlon sings). Whether all our efforts on this dying world will be for naught is an open question, but Silverbacks bear witness nonetheless on Archive Material, advancing their craft even as the ship sinks beneath their feet.
Scott Russell is Paste’s music editor and he’ll come up with something clever later. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.