Listening to the colossal wallop of the Florida underground metal outfit Torche is a pleasure. Making that colossal wallop is equally as fulfilling, but as I discover upon ringing up guitarist and band co-founder Juan Montoya, there are some perils involved as well. "Can I call you right back?" Montoya asks over the crackly cell-phone connection. "It's kind of an emergency. We really need to find a music store."
Turns out Torche's drummer, Rick Smith, has been hitting his kit so hard on the band's current tour with Japanese rock titans Boris that he's been demolishing cymbals left and right. So, just a couple hours before the act's gig in Cleveland, Montoya and his bandmates — Smith, singer-guitarist Steve Brooks and bassist Jonathan Nuñez — are driving their van around the city, desperately hunting for a place to buy some new gear.
An hour later, Montoya calls back and all is well — the fresh cymbals are stashed in the van, and they're on the way to the venue. When I ask him if playing heavy enough to destroy gear on a nightly basis is a point of pride for the band, he laughs. "It's cool," he says, "but, you know, we can't afford to keep buying shit like Metallica can."
As proficient as Torche is when it comes to rattling spleens and knocking paint off walls, heaviness and destruction are far from all the band has to offer. Welding brute force to some seriously catchy, surprisingly bright melodies and even some pop-minded hooks, the act is setting itself apart from a metal underground that lately seems to be drawing its inspiration primarily from Sabbath, Motörhead and early Metallica. Not that the guys in Torche don't dig that stuff as well as bands way more extreme, but a collective love for the likes of Guided by Voices, Slint and even the Cocteau Twins has shaped the outfit's music into something especially intriguing.
You might not spy that vibe quite as much in the live setting, where the group emphasizes its more primal, ruthless side, but more esoteric influences are splattered all over the band's second full-length, Meanderthal. After the two-minute instrumental opener "Triumph of Venus," which smashes slashing math-rock guitars and rhythms against a huge, sludgy riff scraped directly from the bong, the act heads into the hard-charging "Grenades." Short — sub-three minutes — but thick with surging guitar buzz and bite, and guided by soaring, impassioned vocal harmonies, "Grenades" (like similarly constructed later tracks "Healer" and "Across the Shields") could easily have found a home on the first couple of albums by D.C. post-punk icons Jawbox, or maybe even a Tar or Quicksand disc. Elsewhere, the grinding "Sandstorm" indulges in muscular, Melvins-style skull-crushing as it moves from glacial to galloping, while the interlude "Little Champion" possesses the pop-punk bounce of All or the Descendents, and tracks like "Fat Waves" synthesize eardrum-shredding metal to My Bloody Valentine/Swervedriver-style shoegaze-drone atmospherics in an exhilarating manner not unlike that of current roadmates Boris. It's not really until the monstrous, cacophonous title track at disc's end that Torche drops into a tar pit of apocalyptic doom and despair.
"It doesn't have to be generic heavy music with a growl," Montoya asserts. "There's so much stuff beyond that that has a great sonic attack and is still edgy. I was always a kid who loved rock and roll, but I also loved pop. I loved it when my mom would drive me and my younger brother around and we'd listen to all these stations. I learned to appreciate everything — Steve Miller, Kraftwerk, Cyndi Lauper. If it's a good song, it's a good song. Hopefully we'll open up people's minds to a lot of good shit."
Meanderthal crackles with an energy, freshness and vitality that comes not only from its ideas and influences, but also from its brief yet intense creation: Helmed by Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou, the disc was written, recorded and mixed in less than two weeks.
"Usually the best recordings are done really fast," Montoya points out. "A good example of that is the Bleach record by Nirvana: They just went in there and ripped right through it, and it's super-amazing. Bands like Minor Threat, a lot of the SST bands like Black Flag — even Sonic Youth back in the day. They just went in there; they only had a budget to record for a week or so. They couldn't afford to eat, so they were starving and recording. A lot of magical moments were captured that way."
The longstanding friendship and musical chemistry between Montoya and Brooks undoubtedly helped Torche hit its stride so quickly in the studio. Pals for more than fifteen years, the two grew up near Miami in a town populated by tourists and retirees. Their musical paths initially diverged in the early '90s: Brooks, heavily into death-metal bands like Entombed and Deicide, formed the similarly minded Floor; Montoya, meanwhile, slugged it out in the emo-leaning Ed Matus' Struggle (who at points sound like early Jimmy Eats World), opening on occasion for such acts as Fugazi and Shudder to Think. In time, Floor got slower and sludgier, which Montoya attributes to Brooks discovering the Melvins and realizing that heavy "isn't about playing as fast as you can and having this solid crunch, it's just all that minimal punch in their music, like that one chord that just rips through everything."
When Montoya's band called it a day early in the decade, he joined that later incarnation of Floor and formed another hardcore-influenced band called Cavity. But just as Floor was slated to head into the studio and then tour with high-profile Gainesville post-punks Hot Water Music, the group's drummer quit. So in 2004, the duo decided to start fresh with Torche, recruiting Smith and Nuñez (both of whom also play in the full-on grindcore band Shitstorm). The newly minted outfit issued its self-titled debut album in 2005 to a great deal of notice in underground hard-rock and metal circles; soon the unit was touring nationally, supporting the likes of Mogwai, Isis, Jesu and the Sword.
Meanderthal was greeted with much enthusiasm by both critics and fans when it arrived in April on well-respected Hydra Head Records (home to, among others, Big Business, Pelican and Boris), ensuring plenty more opportunities to get on bigger touring bills and possibly headline in the near future. Montoya says that all the attention coming Torche's way lately has been gratifying, but there are some mixed feelings as well. He bristles a bit at being termed an "overnight success" after spending fifteen-plus years in the trenches, and adds that it's only recently that his efforts have received much love in his home state.
"It's rewarding that people appreciate what you're doing, but we've been doing it for a while now, and where we came from, it wasn't really accepted," says Montoya. "I'd tour with Floor or with Cavity, and throughout Florida, people, you know, like promoters and stuff, they'd kinda shut us out. Maybe we were too loud for the club itself, and they'd cart us out early.
"A lot of 'em never really liked the music," he goes on. "We knew we liked it, and we were all like, 'The Melvins rule and the Melvins keep doin' it, so we'll do it, and if the people hate it, fuck 'em! Let the people hate us!' But the further away we got from there, there were more people who started appreciating it. Now that underground metal's gotten so popular, now I guess they appreciate it at home."
Although a triumphant homecoming would be nice, Montoya knows that probably won't happen. Regardless, he takes solace in the fact that Torche's profile increases by the day, especially as he and his bandmates put their live prowess on display from city to city. At the same time, Montoya is staying grounded both by the fact that as he talks on his phone, the cramped conditions of the band's van has forced one of his bandmates to prop his smelly feet near Montoya's head, and the fact that he's got another bandmate around to keep his flights of fancy in check.
"Steve is the more realistic one in the band," notes Montoya. "He's all about handling the ugly business stuff and making sure we don't get ripped off by anybody and just not getting, like, way excited about every little thing that happens. And I'm the one that's always like, 'We're gonna be the best! We're gonna rock out! Let's go to Japan by the end of the year!' I make all these crazy goals, and he's like, 'Dude, you're a daydreamer...' But man, all this shit is really, actually starting to happen."
Indeed. Torche will go to Japan for the first time in November. That will follow the rest of the U.S. tour with Boris and a European tour later this summer with Pelican. And then the band will cap off the year by performing at the All Tomorrow's Parties Nightmare Before Christmas festival in England at the personal behest of the Melvins and Mike Patton, who are curating the event.
Soon, Montoya enthuses, he might be able to quit his job at the music store where he's worked for five years — and Brooks might be able to quit his job at the pizza place. And maybe they'll be able to break and then buy as many damn cymbals as they want, too. After nearly two decades of dreams and setbacks and hard work, they've earned it.
"When I was like twelve," Montoya recalls, "I was like, 'Dude, when I'm eighteen, that's gonna be it! It's gonna be huge...and here I am in a van and I'm in my thirties. But it's totally enjoyable, it's great. The music business is filled with a lot of creeps and shady people who are trying to rip you off. When you're a kid, you don't realize that's a big part of rock and roll. But the playing itself and the music itself — that's what keeps you going, man. The personal accomplishments are good, and every day I'm finding new things that are satisfying about this. That's what makes it worthwhile."