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You probably knew a kid like Steve Brooks in school. He was the rugrat in the Kiss T-shirt flipping the devil horns and flashing heavy metal attitude. He was in training for stoner-pop bruisers Torche from a tender age.
"I had an early cousin who got me into Kiss in the late '70s. I was 4 or 5. I have pictures of me on Christmas wearing a Gene Simmons iron-on shirt," Brooks recalls from his Atlanta home. "I was a total metalhead throughout the '80s. I was pretty much the only kid in elementary school and junior high that was into metal. "
Brooks, now in his late 30s, spent a dozen years after graduating high school chasing the dream in Miami stoner/doom metal outfit Floor before it collapsed for the final time. Torche started shortly thereafter. As with Floor, the intent was to fuse heavy, driving hard rock with tuneful aspects of alternative acts like Hüsker Dü, Pixies, and Dinosaur Jr.
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"[Floor] started off doing really, noisy sort of Melvins-meets-Godflesh-meets-Butthole Surfers. We'd go back and forth from complete noise to more melodic heavy stuff," says Brooks. "We were concentrating on simple, really heavy, but kinda catchy stuff. Where Torche is like: I just want to be a rock band. Combine all the different things I wanted to do . . . really abrasive and really harmless stuff. I like that balance."
Their self-titled 2005 debut for Robotic Empire Records didn't get much traction, but their 2008 follow-up, Meanderthal (Hydrahead), sparked a blog wildfire and landed atop many of the year's "Best of" lists. But as the band started to take off, cracks in the band's interpersonal relations went from hairline to fractures. Founding guitarist and onetime Floor bandmate Juan Montoya left at the end of 2008. "If someone's not on the same page, there are problems," says Brooks. "We're lucky we're still a band."
Torche forged on as a three-piece, releasing an EP and a couple of split albums over the ensuing three years. It's still a similar churning spirograph of noisy, catchy riffage, but the attack's more modulated and restrained. (The album bore a sticker with a quote from drummer Rick Smith: "It's a bunch of radio-rock bullshit.") That restraint translates into a far tighter focus on Torche's new third album, Harmonicraft. It's the first recording to feature second guitarist Andrew Elstner (Riddle of Steel), who's been Brooks' choice since Montoya's departure.
"He's pretty much the only guy that I wanted with us," Brooks said. "He's got a great voice. Both of us work well together. He's got a great personality, and that's really important. But the timing wasn't right. He had other things going for him personally in St. Louis, so for a couple years we were a three-piece. Then early last year, things weren't working out in St. Louis anymore and he said, I think it's time."
They spent much of last year in bassist Jonathan Nunez's basement recording a worthy successor to Meanderthal. Their period as trio seeded greater concision, judging from Harmonicraft. Nearly half of the 13 tracks don't crack three minutes, and half of those don't even break two. Still loud and crunchy, they're a lot quicker getting to the point. They get thick and ponderous on the 51/2 minute "Looking On," but even the nearly four-minute tracks, like "Reverse Inverted," which opens with a psych-guitar freakout, get down to business quickly.
Torche has spent nearly half its life going from its second full-length to the third. They feel Harmonicraft was worth the wait and are excited to stand trial before their fans.
"We've been through the worst, as far as getting to know and fighting with each other," Brooks says. "Andrew has brought some fresh blood and inspiration. We're getting along better than ever and having a great time. It's finally the way I had always hoped it would be. I consider it a rebirth as a band."
The great thing about rebirths: You get to avoid that messy growing-up part. Sometimes "new" really is a euphemism for "improved."