SoFla Does CMJ

Hialeah gets a shout-out in Manhattan

For a second, there's a relative quiet at the Gramercy Theatre. Onstage at this swanky rock theater on Manhattan's East Side are the South Florida hometown heroes of Torche, and they've just finished ripping through one of their trademark smart, heavy jams. They've made it onto a killer bill as part of the recent CMJ Music Marathon, on the festival's last night, Saturday, kicking off a tour with legendary British post-metal act Jesu. They've apparently created multiple cases of whiplash in the audience of appreciative superfans and industry wheelers and dealers alike.

The band pauses to retune and switch instruments, and the sudden absence of noise is deafening. That's when the cry rings out.

"Hialeah!" yells an anonymous voice in the crowd near stage left. Frontman Steve Brooks starts, looking confused. Then his cherubic cheeks spread into a grin. "Hialeah!" he calls back, shouting out the city where he lived for three years. Random pockets of audience members titter as the rest look on, confused. That's when I realize that truly, no matter where you go, in the music scene South Florida people are like roaches: ubiquitous, unflappable, crumb-snatching, and happy to generally freak the hell out of everyone else. I mean that, of course, in the most loving way.

CMJ is a week of live music madness sprawling across downtown Manhattan and northern Brooklyn, akin to Winter Music Conference but focused on bands more than DJs. The official roster is carefully vetted; thousands of bands send demos for consideration, but only a couple hundred are approved. Torche was one of two South Florida groups selected. The other was the five-piece act The Mood, which actually moved to the city a couple years ago to get its hustle on. After a few member swaps, three-fifths of the band hails from the Fort Lauderdale area.

The Mood is led by 25-year-old Marco Argiro, an improbably tall and wiry, indefatigable charmer who is always neatly turned out in immaculate minimalist ensembles of early-Beatles style, almost-rockabilly clobber. His father, Mario Argiro, is the longtime proprietor of the posh Las Olas atelier Moda Mario. Besides a fastidious attention to style, the younger Argiro has doubtlessly inherited some of his father's knack for business and applied it to his band. It's impressive.

The Thursday before the Torche performance, The Mood played its first of two showcases at the subterranean club Crash Mansion, a strangely nice venue on the newly strangely nice northern stretch of Bowery. Although it was an officially sanctioned CMJ event, the lineup was a little scrappy, mostly smaller New-York bands playing every hour on the hour. Our boys (and girl) got the semi-early 9:00 p.m. slot, but from the second they took the small stage, they looked professional as hell.

Argiro is smart to consider the importance of image to his band's musical style. It's supertight, superclean, and upbeat, with a dusting of classic, retro power-pop, accented by keys and even the tinkling of a glockenspiel. Shiny and happy, the group's outfits look like its music: coordinated, high-contrast, deceptively simple, but modish and striking. Between songs, the band doesn't dither, banging into the next three-minute ditty like a slick rock machine. By the end of the set, The Mood had amassed a gleeful little bouncing clot (mostly girls) in front of the stage.

No wonder: Argiro is a tireless promoter who will talk to anyone. During the week, at a daytime party lubricated by free thick Southern Comfort-spiked punch, I point out a Devendra Banhart look-alike's impressively waxed, curling mustache. Less than 10 minutes later, Argiro has befriended not only him but also all of his nearby friends. Cards are exchanged, backs slapped. Later that day, at Fall Out guy Pete Wentz's emo-tastic East Village bar, Angels and Kings, Argiro persuades two previously bored-looking blondes to attend his show. This focus and shrewd thinking, as well as a knack for writing songs so hooky they're barbed, has paid off. The Mood now shares a manager with legends such as Earl Slick, and right before press time had snagged two licensing deals with MTV's The Real World.

Torche's musical world, meanwhile, is galaxies away. The band is anything but pop; its music is relentless, pounding, heavy, and churned out at these-go-to-11 volumes. But the songs are nuanced, smart as hell, and mind-blowingly layered. That Saturday it's clear that in the world of stonery, metally, post-whatever heavy rock — which, outside of Miami, is a big, hip world chronicled even in forward-thinking fashion magazines — Torche is minor royalty and rising.

That night the band is playing a big-deal, Blender magazine-sponsored show; it's second in the lineup, after experimental Minneapolis act Fog and right before the cultish, elusive Jesu. The Gramercy Theatre is a fancy kinda place, a former, um, actual theater now run by Live Nation. It has a puzzingly broad and upscale selection of canned beer; the most deferential, speedy bartenders; and the cleanest floors I've ever seen at a rock club at the end of a week of abuse. Half the 700ish-capacity place is an open, general-admission floor; the back half is a series of movie theater-style seats on risers.

Unfortunately for opening act Fog, this is where most of the action, or rather, inaction is during its set. It's been a long week of standing, walking, running for cabs, and swilling free SoCo, Sparks, Dewar's, Budweiser Select, and other fine lifestyle rebranding spirits. Most of the attendees are fried, lurking in the dark and half-sleeping through Fog's technically apt but slightly navel-gazing set.

But there is a swift and noticeable exodus downstairs to the floor when the members of Torche amble onstage to set up their instruments. The crowd is an amazing mix – real metal people with carefully groomed Mohawk/rat-tail combos and black leather jackets, tattooed rock scenesters, old intellectual art weirdos, teenage mall rats. The group's self-titled first album was released on the indie imprint Robotic Empire, but constant, dogged touring both nationally and abroad has raised Torche's buzz factor significantly. The bandmate's forthcoming sophomore album, recorded recently during two weeks in Salem, Massachusetts, for the legendary Hydra Head records, will only increase their profile.

Oh, that, and their serious instrumental chops. The opening chord slices through the air, the dual-guitar attack so ear-bleedingly loud my throat involuntarily constricts. Previously I'd seen the band only at Miami venues like Studio A and Churchill's. But it's quickly clear that this is, or should be, a big-room band. At the Gramercy Theatre, the droning onslaught floats to the high ceilings. It's so thick and striated it's almost tangible, like a surrounding fog.

The low point is the sound mixing: For a good first half of the set, Brooks's vocals are nearly inaudible. But he doesn't seem to mind, wearing a toothy, squinty smile of concentration and seemingly utter elatedness. Finally his words pop back into the foreground during the group's minor hit "In Return." When the tune is done, he squints up into the engineer's dark aerie: "Could we get more drums in the monitors?"

"More drums everywhere!" someone in the crowd retorts. "More vocals!" someone else yells. "Better sound!" But things pick up afterward, with actual headbanging and air-guitar action going on in full force. Onstage the members of Torche are humble, without any stupid costumes, gimmicks, or in-between song patter. Their fans have latched onto this sort of everyrockman appeal — the band is all about the music and not about the bullshit.

And guitarist Juan Montoya, besides being probably the friendliest guy ever in heavy music, is also, pretty much, nothing short of an axe god. The number of unidentifiable sounds he elicits from just two guitars is encyclopedic. There are moments when a song begins with only feedback; then come stabs of strings and then a rumbling like the onset of an earthquake. At one point, he pushes out a vibrating hum by strumming a chord and then letting the instrument's neck slide by the frets down his open palm. Near the end of the final song, he thrusts his guitar into the front row, letting the clamoring hands claw at its buzzing strings. And for someone who has professed to not like singing, Brooks sure looks as if he's having an awfully good time throughout.

When the band leaves the stage amid a blaze of feedback, many people take a noticeable moment to recover, tugging their earlobes and shaking their heads like wet dogs. Two teenage boys in front of me let out victory shrieks. "I bet that first band is crying right now, asking, 'Why didn't we get that response?' Torche is so fucking awesome, dude!"

I second that emotion.

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