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The hard-rocking members of Torche have been back in South Florida for two weeks or so, and they've been filling their time with decidedly softer pursuits. Guitarist Juan Montoya spent a recent weekend morning helping out at a garage sale. Frontman Steve Brooks took a day trip to Busch Gardens.
The pair are not exactly household names in Miami. But they are the city's most celebrated guitar-hero exports of late, purveyors of epic, layered songs both crunching and psychedelic. Along with bandmates Jonathan Nuñez (bass) and Rick Smith (drums), they just spent two months touring the country with Boston's monsters of aggressive experimental rock, Isis, joined at the end by British supergroup Jesu.
Like these bands and other outfits such as Mastodon Torche is part of a new wave of bands giving hard rock a swift kick in the ass. Just don't make the mistake of calling Torche "metal." To Brooks, it's practically a four-letter word.
"I grew up listening to metal," the baby-faced 33-year-old says. "Then in the Nineties, I went through metal denial, because it's so limited. There is other rock that is so much heavier," he says, citing classic punk as well as bands like MC5. "Ninety percent of metal is so weak to me."
A song like "In Return," for instance, starts at a steady, chugging clip, its minor-key guitars pitched just below ear-bleed levels. Brooks's throaty voice appears on top as a syncopated counterpoint, more like another instrument than a show-stealing focal point. Then comes a meaty riff, the cymbals crash, and the whole thing turns on a dime into a moment of beautiful dissonance.
"The type of stuff that Steve writes has always had a Black Sabbath influence," explains Montoya, a disarmingly genial 35-year-old. "But we also like a lot of other British stuff from the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. We use a lot of My Bloody Valentine-type layers, especially on the new stuff. Tons and tons of guitars. Melody, without it being too sugar-coated. A thousand guitars attacking at the same time. A swarm of bees."
The band's self-titled debut album appeared in 2005, courtesy of indie label Robotic Empire. The critics raved. Decibel magazine, a heavy rock bible of sorts, summed up its brief review thusly: "Go get this. Now." But Decibel also noted that despite the record's "melodic, upbeat, and wholly life-affirming" qualities, the band was "destined to be lumped into the doom/stoner scene." It's been hard for Torche to escape such pesky rock-critic constructs.
"The thing is, they're not really a metal band," says Lindell Trocard, a buyer at Blue Note Records and longtime local rock show promoter. "They're beyond that. It's like they're taking huge pop songs but still applying the whole heaviness aspect." Trocard pegs the Torche sound as a combination of Radiohead's melodic, experimental sensibility with Black Sabbath's unabashed roar. The quartet is "out to please no one but themselves," he says. "It's that whole take-no-prisoners thing."
Still, much of the genre-pigeonholing that Torche suffers has to do with its pedigree. Nuñez and Smith still play in the not-quite-demurely named grindcore trio Shitstorm. Both Brooks and Montoya along with nearly every Miami rock guitarist in the Nineties put in time with different formations of Cavity. (That band's spastic, explosive sound and screeching vocals were, to the uninitiated, about as painful as the group's namesake.) Most significantly, Brooks spent more than a decade fronting local heroes Floor.
Three years ago, Brooks asked Montoya to join Floor. "I was really excited because I was a big fan of the band," Montoya recalls. "But when I joined, he just decided to start a whole new band. It was kind of weird, because the name Floor was already established, had releases, had this amazing cult following. But Steve was the only original member, and he wanted to get rid of the bad demons that he carried from that band."
Brooks was ready for a clean sonic break as well, a natural result of growing older and tiring of the same scream-laden formulas. "Floor was more of a feedback, doom type of band. The musicianship was limited," he says. "I listen to all kinds of music, and I wanted to touch on a noisy, swirly side."
For those unfamiliar with the intricacies of hard rock subgenres, doom stresses atmosphere more than other metal subgenres, which often prize technically flashy riffs. But it operates at one tempo: a painful-sounding crawl. Imagine slogging through a haunted swamp at midnight while suffering a slow-burning anxiety attack: Doom would be a good soundtrack.
Breaking out of that ghetto was freeing. Brooks and Montoya were able to appropriate musical elements from bands they admired, such as My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr., and Sonic Youth. And Brooks was able to drop the guttural yelps that marked his vocals with Floor. His singing with Torche can sound droning, but it's also unmistakably melodic.
"The bands that got me into heavier music were bands like the Melvins, Black Sabbath, Godflesh," Brooks notes, "and they weren't screaming. Then bands like eyehategod came out, and everybody was screaming. It really turned me off."