Rise from the Ashes

It's 11:45 on a March evening, and Torche and I are standing on the third floor of an office building wedged between Miami International Airport's warehouses and a cargo truck-parking depot. It's cold and windy. Inside a modestly furnished office that doubles as Southern Noise studios, bass player Jonathan Nunez is putting the final touches on the upcoming debut album by Eulogy Recordings' Kids Like Us. Between takes the band members tell Torche's lead vocalist/guitarist Steve Brooks that they are huge Floor fans.

Nunez is partnered with Eulogy Recordings owner John Wylie in this recording studio venture; Southern Noise studio boasts a 36-track digital recording capacity and top-of-the-line equipment. Guitarist Juan Montoya, wearing a cozy leather jacket, is prepared for the cool occasion. Drummer Rick Smith's beard has bushed out heavier since his Tyranny of Shaw days, and he's developing the gut-and-stance only a drummer in a heavy-ass band is allowed to have.

"Whatever you do, do not pay attention to Juan," states a bemused Brooks. "All he wants to do is plug Panda Bite." Panda Bite is Montoya's long-running band, and he says he'll continue to lead it while he plays in Torche. Both Montoya and Brooks have been part of South Florida's underground music scene since the late Eighties, surviving stints in Cavity. Montoya played in cult favorite Ed Matus' Struggle before forming his own Panda Bite outfit. Brooks is best known as the creative force behind Floor, the heaviest band ever to crawl out of the swamps.

Floor came out in the early Nineties armed with the guitar bomb. After Brooks broke an E string during a practice session and left it flopping around during his aggressive playing, the resulting sound was described by then-bandmate Anthony Vialon as a bomb going off. Brooks then decided to add a second E string and play his guitar with detuned top strings. This resulted in Floor's incredibly abrasive sound, feedback-heavy and slow enough to induce cardiac arrest. Brooks's lyrics lent themselves well into the fray, surreal yet accessible, and communicated via gnarled screams when necessary and pristine melodiousness throughout.

September 1, 2003, while Brooks was on tour in Salt Lake City, a series of events unfolded that would change the course of his life. Driving back from Key Largo in the early morning, his boyfriend of three years was killed in a head-on collision after falling asleep at the wheel. Brooks flew back to Miami with this news to bear; his grief was expounded when he found out that five more lives were lost in the accident. "I had made a huge sacrifice to tour and play music," says Brooks, "and losing the love of my life in such a tragic way made everything...."

Floor came to a momentary end as Brooks fell into a depression while trying to piece his life back together. A couple of months later, he tried to restart Floor in order to escape his sense of loss, and asked Montoya to join the new group. The band then played on for a while, but by June 2004 Brooks and Montoya found themselves sitting on new material but no will to carry on. "I wanted a clean break from everything related to Floor," says Brooks.

Meanwhile Richmond, Virginia hardcore imprint Robotic Empire was pursuing Brooks for the right to release the next Floor album. Robotic Empire founder Andy Low was unbothered by the band's demise and offered to connect Brooks and Montoya with a drummer for the new project.

A rapid series of fortunate events ensued. Smith found himself with extra time after his grind outfit Tyranny of Shaw disbanded, so he joined the new ensemble. When the group's first bass player flaked out, Smith referred them to his pal Nunez, whose band Adore Miridia had also broken up. Nunez sums it up: "When I found out Rick was jamming with these guys, I said, öGet me in there!'"

Robotic Empire trusts Torche to be successful enough that the label is already offering promotional merch on its Website, www.roboticempire.com. In its February 2005 issue, Alternative Press magazine called Torche one of the 100 top bands to keep an eye on. "Mentor" -- a new tune posted on its myspace.com page, www.myspace.com/torche -- has gotten a good response, logging more than 1500 hits in just a few months. "Mentor" will be available as a limited-edition single.

Torche's full-length debut, which is scheduled for release April 29, will have ten songs, six of them written during Floor's final days. Some things haven't changed, such as Brooks's fascination with the smoke machine. "I love the idea of being separated [from the audience] by the smoke and having a light source and a guitar cut through it," he says. But he adds, "I don't want to be the guy who can't let go of his old band."

On the new tracks, Montoya's dexterity on guitar injects minute dashes of pop psychedelia, and Nunez delivers some chunky bass lines. Smith admits that joining the band has been an education for him. "Playing slower is making me develop more as a drummer, and in these past months I've been forced to learn a lot," he says.

Walking around the office building's parking lot, Brooks limps a bit. "We're at this show in Gainesville and there's a circle pit going and Steve decides to jump in and bangs up his knee. We old guys can't be doing that," chides Montoya. The thirtysomething Brooks and Montoya have a sizeable decade gap between themselves and the rhythm section, but the dichotomy for Torche stretches beyond age: light and heavy, clear and dark, fun and morose.

Armed with a good record deal and the band's collective experience, Brooks hopes to continue his road to recovery: "I just want to play music." Sometimes it's as simple as that.

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Abel Folgar