This Is Not Spinal Tap

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."

Diehard fans of Floor, of course, have offered an equally hostile reaction to Torche's new sound. As Brooks notes: "It's funny because people will actually say, 'Floor was better than this band,' and I'm like, 'You're kidding, right?' And then even with Floor, people didn't like it when I started singing more."

In fact Torche has enjoyed much more success with fellow bands. The release of its debut provoked a stream of invites from other rockers to hit the road. Last year, the quartet crisscrossed Europe in support of the raucous group Baroness, from Savannah, Georgia.

The tour did plenty to increase the band's international profile but little to goose its sales — the debut record was still available abroad only as an import. Owing to buzz about the band's connections to Floor and Cavity, metal fans turned up in countries such as Germany and Spain. But often these audiences didn't know what to make of Torche.

"Europe was a little weird," Brooks concedes. "In a lot of places they liked heavy music, but they didn't like it that loud. This happened a lot in the southeast, in places like, say, Croatia. Then up in Sweden, they actually had a decibel law, so we had to turn down our amps so they weren't too loud. I mean, I think my amp was at like four, and the club actually got busted!"

Still, the European stint helped them score the billing with Jesu and enough interest that Torche will be re-released this year in Europe on Rock Action, a label run by the post-rock band Mogwai. To Trocard, the support of these other bands is a testament to Torche's broader appeal. "For example, the band Mogwai is at a total opposite end of the spectrum from Torche, sonically. They're not heavy. But they're huge fans."

An EP of new material, In Return, is also forthcoming on Robotic Empire. In the meantime, Brooks, who grew up in Miami, recently decamped for Tampa, despite the fact that Montoya remains near Fort Lauderdale and Nuñez and Smith in Miami. He remains undaunted by the logistics of keeping together a band with geographically scattered members. At Floor's peak, Brooks remembers regularly driving to Orlando for practice, as one member lived in Winter Haven; another drove down from Gainesville. "The truth is, even when we're all in Miami, we don't practice as often as we should," he admits.

With a break from the relentless touring of the past year and a half, the group is gearing up to write a second full-length in time to hit the studio in August. It's slated to be recorded by Kurt Ballou, a guitarist for the band Converge and an engineer renowned for his attention to detail. The disc will feature the first material written entirely by Torche's current lineup.

"The last record is a good record," Brooks says, "but it isn't really where we are right now. It sounds a little dated to me. Some things make me cringe, especially with me being the singer. This time we're going to make sure we're all happy."

In brief: Torche will continue creating bruising but nuanced compositions, flipping the bird to purists and naysayers, and blasting across subgenre lines as it pleases.

"Really, we like stuff like the Beatles, where you can't really pigeonhole them," Montoya says. "I want to leave it open like that, so whatever the evolution of our music, it's not going to be like, öOh, they changed their sound.' We do have a metal following, but it's cool because when we travel, it's not just metal people. It's people into artistic, heavy music."

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Arielle Castillo
Contact: Arielle Castillo