Release Date: April 24, 2012
Three albums in, Florida sludge-pop orgasm Torche are still the gold standard for cotton-candy-coated, cloud-bashing, do-the-Dü bubblegum metal. Their new unrelenting hook machine, Harmonicraft, runs the textures of subterranean doom through a posi-punk prism, resulting in the poppiest album from alternative metal’s poppiest band. Call it The Unforgettable Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw, a record by an ostensibly extreme band that would rather dismantle an atomic bomb than drop one, would rather approximate the ecstasy of a church than burn one.
And somehow they’ve upped their jubilation game without making too many sonic changes since 2005’s self-titled debut. For those listening closely, there are fewer of those gimmicky-yet-resourceful “bass bombs,” wherein everyone slaps their floppiest string to thunderous effect; there’s a little more Vernon Reid–style shreddage, which sounds like a happy modem warming up; and there’s a slight pop-punk edge, like the Obsessed signing their ’94 Columbia Records contract using Green Day’s blue hair dye. Harmonicraft is business as usual for a band in the business of bliss: the good-vibration harmonies of the Beach Boys, the bad-vibration sludge of the Melvins, melodies that set the controls for the sun of the heart. It’s important not because Torche have changed but because metal has changed so drastically around them.
There’s a poptimist streak running through the contemporary metal underground, rife with unapologetic hookery and Billboard-ready harmonies—as much a trend as, say, going industrial was in the mid-’90s. Everything is, to paraphrase the always ahead-of-the-curve Dillinger Escape Plan, going “black bubblegum.” London’s Rise Above Records boasts a roster of fist-banging retromaniacs, casting an evil-eyed glance back at a history that never existed. The heart-tugging Blue Öyster Kvlt harmonies of Sweden’s hooded enigma Ghost are a good ol’ Saturday morning cartoon creep-out, essentially a Scooby-Doo episode written by Roman Polanski, complete with goose-bumpy Beatles covers. Fellow early-’70s-metal fan-fiction devotees Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats are an equally mysterious Cambridge force with a love of album art that evokes library music, a washed-out/blown-out/smoked-out vibe like the doom-metal equivalent of chillwave, and chiming hooks that sound like the Strawberry Alarm Clock tolling a death knell at 6:66 p.m.
Despite their clear affinity for The Munsters, those bands are quickly becoming heavy metal cult heroes, their legends fueled by anonymity and the type of calculated scarcity (800 first-edition copies of colored vinyl for Ghost’s Opus Eponymous; 300 copies of purple vinyl for Uncle Acid’s Blood Lust) usually reserved for touring noise bands. Musically, their road has been paved somewhat bumpily by Kemado’s mid-2000s roster of acid-eaters, mystical shitheads, and muggles — winkingly dubbed “hipster metal,” it’s hard to remember that the shaggy choogle-pop of Danava, the Sword, and Saviours was once an instant argument-starter. But Ghost and Uncle Acid, with hooks cheerier and, truth be told, goofier than any of those bands, understand how to gnaw on heavy metal’s still-beating heart, coating their pop in a deeply satanic luster while gloriously, gleefully, ridiculously belting out stuff like “This chapel of ritual smells of dead human sacrifice” or “We breathe in black smoke from Satan’s fire” in crystalline harmony.
Not coincidentally, in the last 12 months, extreme-metal labels have been releasing hooks-heavy bubble-chug in droves, including the Thin Lizzy–gone-prog cooing of Hammers of Misfortune and the witchy classic rock of Olympia’s Christian Mistress. Boris’ sunny New Album is a WTF-worthy optimism cocktail of classic four-on-the-floor EDM, ripping Baywatch solos, cuddle-ready shoegaze, and beaming J-pop melodies. Victory Records is currently going “Gaga” for metalcore bands like Design the Skyline and the Bunny the Bear—teenager-marketed bands who inject catchy, Ke$ha-style trance breakdowns into their screeched typhoons. We’ll be having this conversation again when Baroness’s Yellow & Green drops in July.
One of the best of this whole gleaming batch is the trio Rising, who hail from a country (Denmark) that, it should be said, has hardly missed a Eurovision Song Contest since 1978. Their debut, To Solemn Ash, sounds like a good-times, top-down, beer-in-a-paper-bag FM hard-rock radio staple beamed into the future via Boston’s spaceship, forced to compete in our fancy modern world of Relapse Records, Monster Effects pedals, drop-A tunings, and Kurt Ballou productions. Vocalist Henrik W. Hald sounds like Lemmy gargling glass, and there isn’t a phlegm speck in his red-as-road-rash throat that isn’t paying royalties to what Mastodon or High on Fire accomplished with a much less accessible sound than this. The fact that this fire-breathing churn-growl works as pop music is nothing short of a fucking miracle: Three Danes are taking the distinctly American — more accurately, the distinctly regional American — genre of Southern sludge-metal (see also: Kylesa, Baroness) and volleying it back to us shinier and happier, with the tusks sanded down.
Like Torche’s Steve Brooks, Hald rarely delivers a line without a choir of harmonies lending a ladder to the sky — I’m guessing it’s no coincidence that these dudes and Bruce Springsteen are both drawn to the word rising. But the comparisons end there, as Torche pull off their cheery fits with none of Rising’s macho bluster, gothy underpinnings, or swampy freedom-rock soloing. While the hooks are similarly bright, the difference in mood is as pronounced as classic-rock escapism versus the new punk idealism. Brooks’ vocals on Harmonicraft wouldn’t be too out of place on an Arcade Fire or Frightened Rabbit album, more chest than throat, more triumph than agony.
The “triumph” part of Harmonicraft is purely speculative fiction, though, based on all those Big Country guitar lines and giddy pick slides and gonzo beach-blanket-bloodbath harmonies. (Not to mention its Brony-centric cover art of dragons having a cookie-and-candy binge and then puking rainbows.) In truth, the lyrics are almost wholly impenetrable, and Brooks politely declined our request for a lyric sheet. What you can make out (“You’re breaking up … in pieces,” “Lights off in the kingdom … I’m kicking”) is moody, and doesn’t exactly sit easily alongside the constant state of uplift that this thing batters you with over a lean 37 minutes (longer than Andrew W.K.’s I Get Wet, shorter than Hüsker Dü’s New Day Rising).
More uneasy thoughts appear in song titles like “Walk It Off” and “Solitary Traveler.” “Letting Go” has to be the happiest song ever recorded called “Letting Go,” complete with a Bo Diddley beat via “I Want Candy.” The album’s most windswept three minutes are called “Skin Moth.” (Single intelligible lyric: “Game over!”) So, yes, there’s probably some sort of inner lyrical turmoil lurking under the sunny façade (see Bono or Bob Mould), but time and time again, instead of opening up, Brooks gives us the sound of unfettered, unfiltered joy. hen it comes to ultimate climaxes, Anthrax have the “mosh part,” Skrillex has his “drops,” and Torche have the bridge of “Kicking,” when the Jawbreaker-in-10/4 chorus drops away into a half-time march, a cue for lighters and hugs and chanting whatever lyrics you hope Brooks is singing. (Best guess: “Staring at the sea / Changing my beliefs.”) This moment comes maybe three minutes into Harmonicraft. For Torche, dessert comes first and recess comes early and often. It’s metal bowel-busters and pop earworms distilled into a pure font of instant gratification, with lyrics left blank so we can project our own headbanger fantasies or Belieber daydreams. Never say die. Never say never.