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Sweet and Lowdown

Torche takes on metal with an unlikely arsenal of pop hooks

Torche redefines "power trio."

By Lee Gardner | Posted 4/15/2009

"So far the reaction has been mixed," says Torche drummer Rick Smith about the band's current tour opening for proggy California band Dredg. "Certain people seem to be into it, but the first night in Portland [Ore.], I had people just rolling their eyes right in front of the stage. Definitely not getting into it at all."

To each his or her own, but it's a little difficult imagining Torche's eureka formula of unalloyed metal power and unabashed pop hooks not winning over susceptible converts everywhere the Miami/Atlanta-based trio brings it. The high-velocity downtuned downstroking of guitarist/singer Steve Brooks and bassist Jonathan Nuñez and the thunderous fusillade of Smith's kit create a straight-ahead high-traction wallop seemingly tailor-made for today's more omnivorous heavy-music fans, while Brooks' choirboy bellow, uncanny melodies, and some surpassingly glossy vocal harmonies offer accessible sing-along entry points as clearly marked as Interstate exits. But to hear Smith tell it, Torche's hybrid appeal hasn't made things as easy as you might think, especially when navigating the insular subscenes that constitute the rock demimonde.

"Our sound gives us a hard time fitting in everywhere," Smith says by cell phone while browsing a Denver K-Mart as the tour van gets an oil change next door. "When we play strict metal shows, a lot of the metal dudes don't get it or it's not their thing--the poppy hooks and stuff, it just doesn't connect. But then we can play an indie-rock show . . . we toured with Mogwai, and their crowd was not feeling us either. It was just too loud and too abrasive for too long without dynamics, I guess they just couldn't get into it."

Torche (pronounced "as if the 'e' wasn't there," Smith says) sprang from the ashes of Floor, Brooks' long-time Miami-area band, a cult favorite that made the most of slow, thudding melodic melodrama before its dissolution in 2004. For his next project, Brooks wanted to pick up the mood, and the tempo. In addition to Nuñez and Floor guitarist Juan Montoya, he recruited Floor fan Smith.

"Everybody I'd always jammed with were grindcore dudes," says Smith, who still plays in grind act Shitstorm. "I had never played in any slower kind of bands before, but I think Steve was kind of into that. He was itching to do something that was a little more upbeat and energetic. When Floor would play, everything was slow and heavy, and he wanted a more pumped-up live show, something he'd have fun playing." He laughs: "I was actually kind of bummed. I wanted to play slow."

Torche's 2005 self-titled debut sounded like, well, a more upbeat Floor, no more or less distinguished. The 2007 EP In Return, on the other hand, offered a glimpse of a band growing into its outsized sound. The title track's furious stomp and stop-time sludge riffing underpinned a tune so deft and sly it could have slipped out of Arthur Lee's songbook, and the remaining tracks veered from the near power ballad "Bring Me Home" to the almost comically heavy "Tarpit Carnivore," the latter a bowel-loosening poke at the overwrought extremism of metal as well as an excellent example of it. Tours with the likes of metalgaze titan Jesu and Japanese heavy-pop fellow traveler Boris, among others, followed.

Last year's Meanderthal (the band's first for neu-metal mecca Hydra Head) actually shaved off some of the idiosyncrasies displayed on the EP while it upped the quartet's game. The result was an uncannily streamlined and powerful rock record that beckoned no scene-specific modifiers, nor needed any. It landed on top-albums-of-2008 lists all over the place, from City Paper to "extreme music" mag Decibel, where Meanderthal took the top spot ahead of metal stalwarts such as Nachtmystium and Opeth.

Smith says the band is "thrilled" about the album's reception, though he allows, "I don't think any of us expected it. We certainly weren't writing a 'record of the year' in anyone's eyes other than our own."

For all the band's successes, it has suffered setbacks, including parting ways with founding guitarist Montoya late last year. Rather than replace him, Brooks, Nuñez, and Smith have continued as a three-piece, a seemingly daunting task considering the rich, thick guitar textures that Montoya helped provide. "Steve had to step it up a lot," Smith acknowledges. "He went out and got all the necessary effects pedals and learned the solos. We just have to figure everything out equipment-wise to do it."

Ironically, Smith describes the new material the band is working on as "definitely very guitar-y. More riff-y . . . layers and stuff." "Mash It Up" and "Sugar Glider," two new songs on the flip of the new "Healer"/"Across the Shields" 12-inch, flash Torche's signature high-speed heaviness and high-gloss riffs, but also veritably wriggle with skirling six-string lines and soaring solos. They don't sound much like a band likely to reprise "Tarpit Carnivore" anytime soon.

"All of our stuff is pretty upbeat now," Smith says. "I think it's always in the back of our mind that we wanna write some heavier songs to kinda balance it out, but this new record so far is all poppy songs."

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