Summery pop melodies, crushing stoner rock... what could be better?
Treading the line between heavy and hook-oriented over the course of an entire album can be an incredibly difficult challenge for a band, especially one that used to specialize exclusively in the heavy stuff. The closer you move towards "accessible", a horrific word to many on the metal side, the more delicate the balancing act becomes. One poorly-timed move, and you've gone from being a brave, cutting-edge metal band to just another indie rock retread (see the current release by Klimt 1918 for a perfect example of such a mis-step). So few have pulled off such a feat effectively, that it makes Torche's mission to fuse ebullient, sunny pop with gargantuan, down-tuned stoner metal all the more admirable, and not only does the Florida foursome clearly intend to swing for the fences, but their audacious, long-awaited second full-length comes off as a resounding success.
Compared to 2005's attention-grabbing self-titled debut, Meanderthal's improvements run straight across the board, with Torche's two most memorable tracks, "Rockit" and "Fire", serving as the starting-off points. The formula that's been at the core of Torche's sound from the beginning has not changed, with melodic, cleanly-sung vocal melodies and harmonies offset by the kind of stoner riffs that singer/guitarist Steve Brooks has been specializing in since his previous band, Miami cult faves Floor, but the key difference on the new album is that Brooks and his mates -- drummer Rick Smith, bassist Jonathan Nunez, and guitarist Juan Montoya -- now sound more comfortable than ever with their collective modus operandi. Consequently, they toss more variables into the mix as opposed to the comparatively rote 1+1=2 idea of the debut: the layering of harmony vocals are better, Brokks's voice is stronger, one end of the spectrum features more emphasis on fluid guitar harmonies atop the riff, while the other end contains some of the band's most crushing riffs to date.
That give and take between melody and muscle, hooks and heaviness, continues throughout Meanderthal, with neither overwhelming the other, creating a tension that's been harnessed brilliantly by producer Kurt Ballou. The Converge guitarist knows a thing or two about creating a perfect tone on an extreme record, having produced albums by the likes of Genghis Tron, Trap Them, and his own band, but never before has he worked on anything as remotely as ready-for-mass-consumption as Torche. As it turns out, this album just might be as big a breakthrough for Ballou as it is for the band. Instrumental track "Triumph of Venus" shoots out of the starting blocks with a nimble, jittery hammer-on riff and surprisingly hyperkinetic drumming by Smith (a strange departure that borders on the hardcore of Converge), which then immediately leads into "Grenades", which begins with an arena rock flourish of guitar melodies before the harmony vocals take over, the central riff towering yet every bit as catchy.
With hooks that seem plucked from Queens of the Stone Age, Foo Fighters, and Helmet, the 36-minute, 13-track album's pace is relentless, but things don't start to truly pick up until the sixth track, as "Healer" motors along at such a focused, desert rock pace, you half expect Kyuss to be behind the wheel instead of these guys. The much more lugubrious "Sundown" is skillfully infused with a mid-'90s indie rock influence, Brooks's vocal melody falling somewhere between Helmet and Fugazi. "Fat Waves" explodes with a frantic first half only to downshift into a thunderous coda, while "Without a Sound" focuses more on the crunch, Smith punctuating the choppy riffs by Brooks and Montoya following suit with primal tom tom fills. The album's real coup, though, the one song that's just begging to be released as a single and establish Torche as a crossover success, is the summery "Across the Shields", a four-on-the-floor rocker in which all of the band's strengths mesh the best, lead guitar melodies skittering atop the insistent rhythm riff, Brooks's strong singing giving way to a wicked outro riff.
Serving as a bookend to the album along with "Triumph of Venus", the monolithic title track is the one moment where Brooks returns to the "bomb string" sound he perfected with Floor, the lumbering pace and undeniable weight of the churning guitars bringing to mind the prehistoric imagery the title implies. At the rate that Torche is evolving, moments like this track might become less and less frequent, but judging by the discipline this band has shown thus far, it's a safe bet that subsequent albums will know exactly how far into "accessible" territory is too far.