Miami-based rockers Torche don’t do anything so well as they seem to delight in contradiction. Even on their third full-length album, Harmonicraft, there’s a palpable joy that comes through in the band’s defiance of the expectations placed on them. On the most superficial level, Harmonicraft is released by Volcom, where the bulk of the band’s various splits, singles and EPs have arrived via Hydra Head, and in terms of function, though the 13 songs here seem to go punch for punch with the 13 songs on 2008’s Meanderthal and wind up just a minute longer in total – 37 as opposed to 36 on the prior outing – they do so with the pivotal inclusion of a new guitarist/vocalist. Torche, who recorded 2010’s Songs for Singles EP as the three-piece of bassist Jon Nuñez, drummer Rick Smith and vocalist/guitarist Steve Brooks, are joined here for the first time by guitarist/vocalist Andrew Elstner, who came aboard to fill the spot formerly occupied by Juan Montoya, currently of MonstrO. As Montoya had previously played with Brooks in seminal Floridian doomers Floor, who reunited for several shows in 2010 to celebrate a 10LP box set, his absence from Torche was significant despite the common perception that it’s Brooks doing the bulk of the writing, but Elstner fits smoothly into that role (especially vocally), and Harmonicraft shows no backward movement on the part of the band either in performance or creative scope. As ever for Torche, songwriting is paramount, and they continue to refine their blend of weighted underground metal tonality with classic pop structures, upbeat, catchy choruses and melodies. They’re a band known for offering a lot of substance in a short amount of time – indeed, several of Harmonicraft’s tracks hover below or around the two-minute mark, and that novelty has always been part of Torche’s contrarian nature as regards the tropes of doom – and these songs keep that pattern going, with a memorability factor that at points mirrors the strength of the hooks.
Sandwiched by near-manically upbeat opener “Letting Go” and the five-and-a-half-minute relative downer closer “Looking On,” the bulk of Harmonicraft settles into Torche’s creative sphere comfortably, with the band sounding confident in their presentation. The album was recorded by Nuñez and mixed by Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou (High on Fire, Black Cobra, etc.), and sounds crisp and clean, and cuts like “Kicking,” which follows the opener, and the playful later arrival “Kiss Me Dudely” offer landmarks of a quality no less forceful than prior Torche high points like “Grenades” from Meanderthal, “Tarpit Carnivore” from 2007’s In Return EP (though for my money, they’ve never been that heavy before or since) or “Mentor” from 2005’s self-titled debut. These tracks are Torche at their best, and on an album like Harmonicraft, which doesn’t follow a plotted narrative – at least to my knowledge – are essential in the overall effect on the listener. Other songs seem to serve to bolster their position, like the skater-punkish 86-second blast “Walk it Off” that ups the energy following “Kicking,” leading to the more mid-paced groove of “Reverse Inverted,” or likewise, the slower, more openly-riffed “Solitary Traveler,” on which Brooks’ vocals arrive from deeper in the mix and coated in sub-psychedelic echo. One hears shades of U2 sentimentality in the lead notes of mid-album cuts like “Snakes are Charmed,” but Torche’s tonal heft is maintained through Nuñez’ bass and underscored by Smith’s tom work. Particularly without Montoya’s involvement, it’s easy to read Torche at this point as being Brooks’ band – and maybe it is, I don’t know the realities of their songwriting process – but even if that’s the case, everyone here contributes. Following the more foreboding Melvins-style chug of “In Pieces,” “Snakes are Charmed” is one more shift Torche skillfully pull off on Harmonicraft, Smith’s frantic snare on the 1:18 “Sky Trials” acting as a palate cleanser before “Roaming”’s nod-worthy groove exemplifies the mixture of influence that has come to typify the band.
That said, the nature of a release like Harmonicraft – being song-based and structured for an album flow that highlights individual tracks – necessitates that some of this material winds up leaving a more lasting impression. “Roaming” more serves the album than it stands out on its own, however delightful the tempo play between it and the faster “Skin Moth” might be. And while “Skin Moth” has a monster hook, and even “Sky Trials” found room to work one in – Torche being masters of efficiency – neither stands up to “Kiss Me Dudely,” and with 11 minutes of the album’s 37 still to go, there’s a lot of space toward the end of Harmonicraft that seems to be a comedown, beginning with the moody “Solitary Traveler” and continuing through the instrumental title-track, which has a more winding guitar line and either electronic drums or added percussion to give a videogame-soundtrack feel. It’s an interesting – and again, unexpected and contrary – move from Torche, but seems out of balance with the rest of the record. Closer “Looking On” might be the deepest into the reaches of full-on doom that Torche have ever gone, as a slow riff-driven progression unwinds into feedback and periodic crashes that serve as an outro for the last few minutes of Harmonicraft. The album winds up uneven on a per-track basis, but stronger as a whole for some of the sonic turns and the increased focus on how the songs play one into the next, and if indeed that was Torche’s intent, it worked. Maybe that’s the real sign of progress in the band as it shows up on their third full-length: that they’re beginning to display a methodology that’s aware of the “album” as more than a collection of individual parts. There are arguments to be made on either side, but the important takeaway is that Harmonicraft is a worthwhile successor to Meanderthal without being as direct a sequel as its play-on-words title might indicate. The album engages Torche’s signature elements and could potentially drive them toward new creative ground to run alongside their new lineup, and if it seems to be somehow based on contradictory ideas, what could possibly be more Torche than that?
Tags: Florida, Miami, Torche, Volcom