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Underground metal ain’t what it used to be. Sometime between the end of the death metal era in the late ’90s and the release of Torche’s self-titled debut in the spring of 2005, shorthairs with Stockhausen records took over from the dudes with prison tattoos. Experimentation became and remains the norm. Yet, even in this trial-and-error environment, few are as ambitious as Torche. Like many of its alt-metal peers, the Miami quartet dabbles in dub, drone, and psych-rock. But whereas most begin and end with genres that could be described as arty, Torche adds accessibility to its fusion, pairing Sabbath-esque heft with the kind of hooks you’d expect from U2 or Joy Division.
The band’s debut, which was recently remixed, remastered, and all but rerecorded, sent music writers into a hyphenating frenzy. If none came up with a tag that was adequately expansive—my favorite is “stoner-pop”—they at least got the implication right: This is something new. Torche reinforces that message on its second and latest release, In Return. The seven-song recording—a beautifully packaged 10-inch EP that is accompanied by a CD of the same material—clocks in at less than 20 minutes and was originally intended as a series of splits and 7-inch releases. But, as City Paper contributor Nick Green pointed out in a Torche feature in Decibel, In Return is more albumlike than the full-length and only a couple minutes shorter. It doesn’t hurt that the music rewards repeated listens.
Much of this easy-on-the-ears appeal is attributable to singer-guitarist Steve Brooks, who, as a vocalist, is the throughline connecting the many moods of Torche. On the debut album’s “Fire,” for example, Brooks delivers a performance worthy of a summer jam contender, stoking the word “fire” for all of its heat and Bono-evoking warmth. And even when he’s singing over something more metallic, he still sounds melodic because, well, he’s singing. Brooks, unlike so many of his heavy metal peers, actually hits notes and holds them and does so without resorting to the usual underground clichés: no Cookie Monster growling, no black-metal rasping. Brooks just sings, and he does it well.
That is, of course, when he’s not playing the guitar hero, the role he chooses on In Return’s lyric-free opening track, “Warship.” The song is just about the heaviest, most rudimentary composition in the Torche catalog and, given its placement, seems to suggest that the band has something to prove. Or perhaps Brooks and his bandmates—guitarist Juan Montoya, bassist Jonathan Nuñez, and drummer Rick Smith—care as much about the sounds they make as the songs they write. On “Olympus Mons,” In Return’s other instrumental track, the band proves that it can distinguish itself with a single burst of sound, a signature effect that is achieved, repeatedly, when the band members hit a down-tuned note in unison and let it linger. The secret ingredient might be studio sweetening (I haven’t heard the band live), but it sounds like an IED nonetheless.
It’s safe to say that real bombs are one of the band’s primary obsessions. “War is beautiful,” Brooks sings on the debut album’s “Charge of the Brown Recluse.” His sentiment is either sung in character, sarcastically, or ironically, because the same record also has the kind of high-quality anti-war music that I once thought would be the highlight of the Bush administration—that is, until Pink bummed me out with “Dear Mr. President,” her godawful No Child Left Behind song. “Make love not war,” Brooks pleads on “Holy Roar,” a song that begins with the shock-and-awe couplet, “You’re the beast and we’re the cattle/Send our brothers out to battle.”
Were In Return to include a lyric sheet—something the label wanted but which Brooks refused to provide—it would no doubt indicate similar life-and-death subject matter. The only parsable sentence on the title track is “Wake up now!” a line delivered with all of the oomph and urgency of an anti-war slogan. Whenever I hear it, I imagine a throng of black-clad demonstrators descending on the Capitol. The following song, a shoegazer ballad called “Bring Me Home,” suggests that the mood of In Return isn’t one of a triumphant comeback. Once again, most of Brooks’ words get lost among the power chords and feedback. But the one line that is audible, “Bring me home,” is not what you’d expect from a narrator who has control over the chaos that surrounds him.
Torche, on the other hand, is in complete control. The song “Bring Me Home” is a marvel of hair-on-end composition, the type of tune that all but writes its own scene in a middlebrow art-house flick. Though the remainder of the disc is not as explicit in its devotion to pop, there is at least one other instance of unabashed tunefulness. Midway through the under-three-minute title track, Brooks steps away from the microphone, and one or both of Torche’s guitarists rip into a solo that is as euphoric as the song is brief. The passage reminds me of nothing so much as the Top 40 music that enlivened my family’s marathon car trips in the early ’80s, when the charts were ruled by guitar-pop bands such as Styx and REO Speedwagon.
In other words, it’s anything but a metal solo, and Brooks is anything but a metal partisan. According to Green, Brooks has instant recall on just about any Guided by Voices tune; the frontman is also fond of another beloved indie-pop act, Magnetic Fields, and says that Spirit of Eden, a late-period release by new-wave outfit Talk Talk, is his “all-time favorite record.” How much of this seeps into Torche’s music? For folks who downloaded Radiohead’s new record, In Rainbows, this week, probably not enough. But it’s clear that these guys are only out to please themselves. There’s no road map for their alt-metal journey. They are, to paraphrase another hit that sounded great on the road in the early ’80s, going their own way.