In which the brawny but somewhat clinical roil of Miami's hardest-rocking export becomes a rousing, universal sprint.
It’s about damn time. Not just for a new Torche album -- though it has been a solid four years -- but for an album like this: a muscular barrage of ear-filling power riffs and dogged rhythm that sounds uplifting without being masked in grandiose pretension. Where so many of their contemporaries thrash or jitter as a way to mask their lack of any real force, these Floridian sludgers know the inherent joy in noisy creation, and choose to relay it with sheer strength instead of bile or melodrama.
Previously, you might’ve been able say that the Torche formula is basically double-pronged. They either give you some downtrodden head-chugging or they carry their triumphant riffs to the sky. (Okay, triple-pronged -- they always leave a long track of molasses atmospherics for the end.) Not so anymore, and when they do lean on formula, it’s still hard to think of a band that are pushing it forward with such a bracing sense of control. Harmonicraft, their third full-length, is a punchier and more varied listen than last year’s ‘hard’ indie object of affection, Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life, and though neither of these groups are breaking new ground on Venus, the difference between them is that Torche’s pummels aren’t placed on a rotating tray of anthem after anthem after anthem. They’re anthemic, for sure. ”Letting Go”, “Kicking”, “Snakes Are Charmed” (those guitar lines!) and the amazing “Kiss Me Dudely” have the elation of a carful of kids on the first night of summer. The hidden one-minute rush that ends the album will probably leave your body rattling with anticipation. But it’s all noisily sequential, and the record’s 39 minutes -- still the longest of the band’s three -- fragments these moods with the hefty rumble of “Reverse Inverted”, or the math-y riffs of “Sky Trials”. “Roaming”, a slow trudge of a song, is broken up unexpectedly by a sudden tempo change: a recurring two-bar call-and-response vocal hook that sounds almost pop-punky. The swarming instrumental title track feels like the band is trying to suffocate you with pent-up tension. “Solitary Traveler” carries a loud, sad nighttime fatigue while guitars squeal by like falling satellites. In general, the songs are brief and ongoing, and while each one comes to a full stop, the pauses between are paper-thin if even discernible.
The band’s phrasing is punk-ier now -- so punk that newcomers might be tempted to write-off the musicianship as a lot of offhanded come-what-mays. Don’t -- there’s no complacency in these guys, and though I really wish the bass had more to do (or was audible anywhere besides “Kicking”), the players bring something integral that isn’t just the mere sound of their instruments. (Though that’s key, too.) New guitarist Andrew Elstner, replacing Juan Montoya, brings a little more buoyancy and nimbleness to the faster ones (and the feedback). Though you might not always know what singer Steve Brooks is saying -- I usually don’t -- his assertive vocals sound weirdly comforting aside the busy dins. (Listen to the way he starts sinking the word ‘kingdom’ in “Kicking” -- it totally makes the song.) Drummer Rick Smith is the not-so-secret weapon. His low thundering in "Walk It Off" and his outro to “In Pieces” (dig the taps of cymbal disguised as cowbell... or is it the other way ‘round?) are precisely timed and impeccably executed.
It’s hard to tell what genre the band belong to anymore, which isn’t to imply there’s any need for one. The sense of brightness that was present (but kept at a reasonable distance) in the pretty good debut and the pretty excellent Meanderthal is amplified here, and many (most?) songs on Harmonicraft could fit comfortably into a more conventional arena setting than the ones from their murkier beginnings. Some might take these increments of accessibility as caterings, of course. But the hell with those people. This is rock that seems expansive and tightly-wound at the same time. How much of that have you heard lately? The sludge comes with ebullience if not speed, and the hints of sunbaked ‘90s tunes are framed as triumphant charges toward a greater... something. When you ignore the practical implications and cut right to the heart of it, genres are silly anyway.