For a rock band, losing a member doesn’t necessarily have to be a crippling ordeal, but regardless of how amicable or antagonistic the split, the end result inevitably will leave a very different band than what it was before that member departed. For Torche, the exit of guitarist Juan Montoya left the band without one of the crucial elements of what made their 2008 album Meanderthal such a repeatedly rewarding, yet immediately satisfying confection of a heavy rock album. The Miami band made due as a trio for a while, issuing the slightly more simplified punk rock explosion Songs for Singles via Hydra Head in 2010. But without that extra layer of crunch, grounding each track with an earthy density, Torche, though still the devastatingly punchy band they always were, seemed to be missing something.
On third album Harmonicraft, the band’s first for Volcom, new guitarist Andrew Elstner has stepped aboard to fill in the gaps, and his presence not only makes a difference, that added layer results in some of the most wonderfully dense Torche material to date. The new album is more sonically akin to Meanderthal than its 20-minute follow-up, opting for massive, chunky pop songs with all the thunder of sludge or classic heavy metal. But Torche remains as ruthlessly efficient as always; of the 13 tracks on Harmonicraft, only one stretches beyond four minutes, and three don’t even make it to two. In spite of this, very little, if anything, feels unfinished, and missed opportunities are nowhere to be found.
Largely recognized as a rock band that embraces heavy metal aesthetics, rather than vice versa (frontman Steve Brooks has cited Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” as his all-time favorite song), Torche arrive at Harmonicraft with a truckload of hooks, and a more playful sensibility than most metal bands would care to indulge. Even the album’s cover, depicting a group of cuddly, blue goat creatures spouting rainbows, is emblematic of the group’s sense of humor and embrace of the absurd. But that mixture of bubblegum and brawn is a winning one, and pays off massive dividends in just the first song alone. “Letting Go,” a kind of sludgy variant on “I Want Candy,” skips and rumbles with a tom-heavy beat, and its thick syrup of guitars coats every corner of this two-minute doom-pop rocket. And off they go!
There’s not a whole lot of room for breathing or slowing down on Harmonicraft, which makes it significantly similar to how the band operates in a live setting. They don’t bullshit, make small talk or spend an excruciating amount of time tweaking their settings. They plug in, get to business, and leave barely a zig-zag’s breadth between songs. So it is with Harmonicraft. The massive, unshakable single “Kicking” does Foo Fighters better than Dave Grohl often does, and subtly slows to a crawl before transitioning into the punk barnburner “Walk It Off.” This segues into the swaggering, squealing slice of badass, “Reverse Inverted.” And this moves quickly into the chugging monster, “In Pieces.” For a band with less perfectly fleshed out songs, this might be a problem, but here, Torche is at the top of their game. The sky-high riffs and melodic heroism on “Snakes Are Charmed” is simply transcendent. And all 78 seconds of “Sky Trials” are absolutely killer, soaring between an opening cascade of lightning fretwork and a dense rush of mesmerizing power chords.
As much noise as Torche is perfectly capable of making as a trio, with the added guitar work from Elstner, the group sounds even more in their element. Harmonicraft, in its blazing 38-minute amusement park flume ride, leaves no room for anything other than pure, adrenaline-fueled rock `n’ roll fun, and that includes the cotton candy, the milkshakes, clown target practice and skee-ball. Torche crafts a mountain of sound on Harmonicraft, and it’s nothing but grins on the way down.
Stream: Torche – “Kicking”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.