The new Torche album has won me over.
Torche started off as a reincarnation of the band Floor. Floor were a stoner-rock band from Florida, and the only constant member over their decade or so of existence, singer/guitarist Steve Brooks, is also the leader of Torche. Apparently when guitarist Juan Montoya (formerly of Cavity) joined Floor in 2004, Brooks decided that he brought something new to the band, and that they should change their name and get a fresh start. Thus, with the addition of a new rhythm section, Torche was born. And there was definitely more of a melodic sense to their first couple of records that differentiated them from anything Floor had done. However, it wasn't really enough to win me over. While I'd liked Floor, I'd never thought they were amazing or anything. Their brand of stoner-rock was one that was done quite well by several other bands that I heard long before I ever heard Floor (the aforementioned Cavity, Eyehategod, 16), and Floor didn't bring in anything new or original enough to stand alongside any of those bands in my estimation. If anything, I liked them slightly less than I liked Floor. On their first two albums, 2005's self-titled debut and 2007's "In Return", they added enough melody to the foundation created by Floor to stand out as something different than what had come before. However, instead of adding new dimension to the previous Floor sound, I felt like all Torche had really done by adding those melodic hints was water their sound down. Brooks's vocals were delivered in a clean tone more often, but you couldn't really say that he was doing all that much singing of any note. Generally, he just rode whatever root notes the chords of the songs were based around. This unexciting vocal style took away the power of the previous screamed vocals without adding anything new and worthwhile in its place, and just made me miss the screams on the Floor records. What's more, the melodic overtones of the riffing were still very subtle, and didn't so much add a new element of melody to Torche's brand of stoner-rock as take away some of the power that had existed in their previous incarnation as Floor, and replace it with... well, not much. On the whole, I felt like Torche, at least on their first two albums, were just a decent if not amazing stoner-rock group with a lot of their previous vitality sucked out.
All of that changed when I heard "Meanderthal". It snuck up on me--my friend Mambo, a Florida native and die-hard booster of all things hailing from his home state, played "Across The Shields" during his DJ set at a local bar. Sitting at a table with some friends, I found myself tapping my foot. In fact, I was really into the song, so much so that I had to ask Mambo what it was. Walking over to the DJ booth, I expected him to tell me that I was hearing a new track from one of the more metal-influenced emo bands of recent years... Thrice, maybe. Instead, he surprised me by saying, "This is the new Torche album." I was surprised, and the look on my face must have made that obvious, because he immediately said, "They've gotten really melodic on this new album. There are some songs that still sound like what they were doing before, but then other songs sound like... this." I immediately resolved to check it out.
And while I can't say that the whole album is perfect, I must admit that I like it a good deal more than I've liked anything else by Torche. It's funny, because the very elements of their sound that I thought watered them down before are the elements that I enjoy the most on "Meanderthal". It's like they just weren't taking them far enough before, and now that they've pushed the melodic vocals and riffing even more towards the forefront, they've created a sound I haven't heard before, one that I really do like. My previous comparison to Thrice might be a bit misleading; the only tracks by that band that really sound much of anything like the new Torche material are the heaviest tracks on "Vheissu" and "The Alchemy Index Volume I: Fire". The basis of all of these tracks, even the most melodic ones, are down-tuned, groovy biker-rock riffs that would probably work just as well if recontextualized by the likes of Eyehategod or, alternately, Motorhead. And there are still songs here that firmly ground themselves in stoner-rock: "Sandstorm" and "Amnesian" spring immediately to mind. In the context created by their first two albums, I probably wouldn't like these songs too much. However, on "Meanderthal", surrounded as they are by more melodic offerings like "Across The Shields" and "Grenades", along with gap-bridging power-metal interludes like "Triumph Of Venus" and "Little Champion", these songs work just as well for me as the more melodic ones do.
Of course, if we're to talk about the album's highlights, it's those more melodic tracks that must be spotlighted. It's my firm belief that these songs, of which there are only 5 or 6 out of the 13 total tracks here, improve the quality of the entire album, even the tracks that aren't as melodic, simply by establishing a different context than the one that existed on their earlier records. The album starts out with the instrumental intro "Triumph Of Venus", which has the rolling, bombastic groove of a stoner-rock intro, but is much faster and features an absolutely triumphant lead riff that turns it into something almost Iron Maiden-like. From there, they slam immediately into "Grenades", which, while not the catchiest song on the album, is close to it, and definitely gets your head nodding immediately. The melodic verses and deftly sung vocals (which have come to feature enough melodic variety to more than justify themselves) might even be enough to fool one of your emo friends if you were to slip this track inbetween Thrice and Coheed and Cambria on your next mix for them--although the half-speed choruses might be enough to give away the game.
The album reverts to more conventional Torche territory on the next three songs, which alternate between the sort of speedy biker-core that bands like Coliseum are becoming known for ("Pirana" and "Speed of the Nail") and full-on stoner-rock to throw the longtime fans a bone ("Sandstorm"). But then comes the one-two punch of two of the album's best songs, together striking about as high a note as one could imagine. "Healer" follows in the footsteps set down by "Grenades", maintaining a little bit of stoner-rock groove even as a much more overt melodicism is introduced. But "Across The Shields", which is my pick for best song on the album, and which I fervently hope will dictate Torche's direction on future releases, brings us the most overt melody on the album. If anything, this is Torche's "Can I Play With Madness", the dropping of any pretense towards previously set standards of metal-ness in favor of an out and out pop single that has the heavy guitars and metal production of their previous work, but uses those elements to create something 100 times catchier than anything previously imagined. If I'm not careful, it's possible for me to let "Across The Shields" have the same effect for me on the rest of "Meanderthal" that "Can I Play With Madness" sometimes has for me on "Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son"; next to its overwhelming catchiness, the rest of the album just sounds dull and boring, and all I can stand to do is listen to that one song on repeat, over and over for at least an hour. Fortunately, this temptation hasn't taken me over too many times just yet, and I've played the rest of "Meanderthal" often enough that I've been able to learn to enjoy it as a whole.
"Across The Shields" is followed by "Sundown", which is the most interesting mix yet of Torche's stoner-rock past and melodic future. It's one of the slowest tracks here, plodding along at the sort of pace one would expect from a head-crushing doom metal song. However, instead of crushing heads, it's based entirely around a melodic chorus that moves it more into the territory of a ballad, if anything. The riffing is still heavy enough not to make it cloying, but it's definitely a slow, melodic track that, in its execution, offers yet another direction that Torche may choose to move forward in the future.
The second half of the album is far less melodically based than the first half, and is made up of longer, heavier songs than those that constitute the first side. "Without A Sound" is still more based in melody than stoner heaviness, although it's not quite as good as "Grenades" or "Healer". "Fat Waves" features a faster tempo and more melodic riffing at first, but soon it drops into a slower, heavier groove, which sets the stage for the longest song here, the penultimate "Amnesian". Torche fans who were more pleased with "In Return" than "Meanderthal" will probably consider this track a highlight of the album, as it will place them on familiar territory. However, I don't enjoy it nearly as much as I do most of the songs here, and at 6 and a half minutes in length, it does a lot to try my patience. The closing title track is more of the same, and is if anything even sludgier and less interesting than "Amnesian", which at least starts off decently before falling into the endlessly-repeated pounding loop that draws out the ending for way too long. The title track consists entirely of another one of those pounding loops, and following directly on the heels of "Amnesian", it's a bit more than I can take. If "Amnesian" had appeared earlier in the album, with more of the songs that I enjoy keeping the two most monotonous doom-metal tracks here separate, I would probably be far less inclined to turn this album off as it approaches the end. That said, it's still a very enjoyable album, certainly a good bit better than anything else Torche has done. And I definitely like it enough to consider myself a Torche fan going forward from this point. I just hope they pursue the new directions "Meanderthal" has opened up more thoroughly on their future releases.
Torche - Grenades
Torche - Across The Shields
Torche - Fat Waves