(Artwork courtesy of Santos)
The Florida doom quartet Torche have never been ones to shy away from melody. From the git-go, band leader Steve Brooks has been a mainstream pop sort of metalhead, blending decidedly non-screamo singing with bottom-heavy riffage. At first glance the band’s musical DNA would seem unlikely. Sabbathy single-note chord progressions shouldn’t play well in the sandbox with major-key vocals and upbeat tempos, yet in Torche’s case they wring a lot of miles out of a beautifully incongruous jalopy.
2008′s Meanderthal was widely hailed as a masterpiece, but soon afterwards, original lead guitarist and long-time Brooks right-hand man Juan Montoya was acrimoniously dismissed from the band. Torche carried on and put out several EP’s and split sets as a three-piece–Songs For Singles being especially good–but questions remained. The biggest one: How would the band respond on their next full-length effort?
Harmonicraft answers listeners with a definitive ‘Huh?” The record feels like a band cautiously edging away from their earlier influences, but not quite sure where they’re headed to next. Oh sure, there are more than a few drop-A bombstring masterpieces to be had here. ”Looking On” is a menacing chunk of sludge that ends the disc on a doomy note. The 79 seconds of “Sky Trials” features frenetic grooves wrapped up in harmonized Brooks vocals. “Reverse Inverted” swaggers with new lead guitarist Andrew Elstner’s tripped-out solos and a towering finish.
Even with all that thumpy crunch, Torche finds the time to take some tentative detours. The restrained guitars and back-and-forth chorus of “Roaming” is a rock radio hit single waiting to happen. “Kiss Me Dudely” wraps a Lita Ford reference and an in-joke about Steve Brooks’ homosexuality in feedback squalls and aggressive tempos. “Solitary Traveler” is reminiscent of earlier Torche songs like “Sundown” and “Face The Wall”. Where the older tunes would go from dreamy atmospherics to a taciturn climax, “Solitary” instead drifts into melancholy shoegaze terrain. The most out-of-character moment is “Harmonicraft”, with gently distorted echoey guitar lines and synth-drum percussion. It’s like no other song in Torche’s repertoire and it could be the portent of a different direction for group to explore.
But as cool as these experiments are, they’re still fairly small steps away from their sound. The big problem Torche has is that when they nail their formula, it really doesn’t have a parallel in the current rock scene. Lead single ”Kicking” ranks with past gems like “Vampyro”, “Across The Shields” and “In Return”. As Brooks and Elstner croon out the bridge, the band takes off into an unambiguous soaring metal anthem. In lesser hands, fusing unironic majesty with pummeling guitar riffs would probably come off as a cynical Hum copy-cat. Torche somehow makes their improbable emotive rock work without winking at the audience.
At its core, Harmonicraft presents a bit of a puzzle. Because there is so much good going on in Torche’s sound, they could easily make four more albums that drill further down into their happy-doom formula. On the other hand, the quartet might be poised to take the music away from their past work. In that way, Torche’s latest disc might be roughly analogous to Slayer’s South of Heaven…or Radiohead’s The Bends. Either way, Harmonicraft has to make the short list for rock record of the year.