For current fans of “rock ‘n’ roll” (whatever the genre moniker even means now), there is very little to get excited about in terms of big, successful rock records. Sure, rhe Black Keys’ latest album cast a wide swath, but bargain bin post-grunge bands like Shinedown and Nickelback still hold down regular spots in the Billboard 200. Thank god the first quarter of 2012 has seen a wealth of unusually substantial indie rock records, like the angular, emotional Attack on Memory from Cloud Nothings, the thick, punk/metal riffing of Ceremony’s Zoo, and of course the snarling, proto-punk/classic rock hybrid of the Men’s Open Your Heart.
And for listeners hungry for the soaring guitar pyrotechnics and anthemic harmonies, Floridian underground metal veterans Torche have returned to the fold at a time when underground rock ‘n’ roll seems to be at its most vibrant. The group’s latest album, Harmonicraft, builds off the unexpectedly accessible, but still sludgy metal of 2010’s stopgap EP Songs For Singles and their 2008 breakthrough Meanderthal by not shying away from huge hooks or day-glo bursts of triumphant guitar riffage. The tuned-down Melvins-like squall from their earlier records is still present and accounted for, but Torche have managed to shove their guitar work into unexpected places that balance limber melodicism with punishing heft.
Couple the group’s guitar sound with Steve Brooks’ booming lead vocals, Rick Smith’s virtuoso drum performance, and Jonathan Nunez’ steady hand at bass, and Harmonicraft feels damn near tangible when its pouring out of speakers at full blast. The album contains its share of unrelenting, shit-kicking metal tracks (“Walk it Off,” “In Pieces”) and shimmering guitar duets that aim for the stratosphere (“Snakes Are Charmed,” “Sky Trails”) but its best moments come when both of those sonic approaches confront each other in the same song.
“Letting Go” is assaulting for sure (especially with Smith’s sturdy drum march as the song’s backbone), but the central guitar lick is subtly dynamic and empowering. When the first bridge/chorus hits and the guitars rear back to reveal a bright moment of finger tapping glory (while Brooks howls “I know I’ve/been kept here for long/letting go”) it’s feels appropriately revelatory and bombastic without sacrificing any metal intensity. “Kicking,” meanwhile, is the unquestioned apex of Harmonicraft. The track incorporates all of Torche’s strengths (gleaming, double-helix guitar work, impenetrable walls of metal riffage, and Brooks’ thick, melodic yawp) seamlessly into a towering, 2:30 slab of sun kissed heavy metal. The one-two punch of “Letting Go” (which only clocks in at 2:03) and “Kicking” showcase what Torche is capable of when the group doesn’t limit itself to one phase of their sonic evolution. By allowing all those styles and nods (the melodies, the metal, the Malmsteen-like guitar work, the galloping percussion, the Foo Fighters) to boil down into an intriguing blend of enraptured, heavy, rawk that inspires reflexive fist-pumping, the men of Torche flirt with the shameless guitar god idolatry of their revered influences.