My mom, probably just like yours, reminded me often that talking about religion and politics at the dinner table was inappropriate. I eventually took as much for granted. But it took a few upset stomachs and more than one bitten tongue to learn that, like theology and bureaucracy, music discussions are probably best left hidden behind a cloth napkin, too.
To wit, over some celebratory meal with pals last fall, a former roommate's then-romantic interest informed me, without qualification, that music wasn't science, that it didn't need to advance through experiments. Realizing that our respective foxholes had been dug so deep that the only possible conclusion was surrender or fisticuffs, I smiled sheepishly, loaded another bite of food onto my fork, and maybe bit down a little too hard. Sorry, buddy, but I'm sort of ecstatic that relationship didn't work out for you.
She should have tested her hypothesis against the careers of those folks I assume she took as canonical standards: Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Ani DiFranco, The Grateful Dead. All of them—and, for the most part, any band that still really matters in a have-to-hear-it way decades after its glory days—tried something different, be that plugging in and seeing visions or turning up and tuning out at an acid test. If the best music isn't made on a vast contextual continuum of trial-and-error and reinvention, we'd all be chilling hard to 16th century Roman Catholic liturgical music that avoided polyphony and dissonance in counterpoint. No, thanks, Palestrina: We'd like our music to stay the same.
Or she should have tried telling that to Torche, the Miami metal quartet that recently turned its second album, Meanderthal, into one of the year's triumphant masterworks. Though it's thick and brutal in that saturated Southern metal sense, Meanderthal feels and bounces at times like the most punishing but somehow buoyant pop-punk record you've ever heard. With Meanderthal, Torche joins the current crop of innovative heavy bands rising from the South, each of them taking historical reverence for divergent forms and funneling it into iconoclastic, brazen hard metallic shapes. Among these bands—all bright lights of bold fusion—are Harvey Milk, Baroness, Mastodon, Weedeater, U.S. Christmas and, to an extent, Virginia grindcore gods Pig Destroyer. Bless their new, weird science.
These aren't exactly new school punkers, either. Athens' Harvey Milk has been brutalizing forms and audiences since 1992, even taking an eight-year break between its third and fourth albums to—hell, I don't know—relish the fact that no one was even coming close to a record it had made when Kurt Cobain was still alive. Weedeater's "Dixie" Dave Collins has been kicking around the Southern metal circuit for the better part of two decades in bands like Buzzov-en and Wisconsin-bred sludge-stoners Bongzilla. And, though Torche has just two full-lengths to its name, its members have deep résumés long with street cred: Singer and guitarist Steve Brooks co-founded the pummeling hypo-sonics of Floor in 1992 with lead guitarist Juan Montoya, who also lent his piercing lines to the crusty core of Cavity. In the thick, humid air of viscous Southern metal, these bands are near hydrogen and oxygen.
But Torche was born of reincarnation, anyway: "One of the reasons Steve put Floor on hiatus was because someone who he was going out with for two years, someone he was very in love with, was involved in a car accident and lost his life," says Montoya. "He found out while we were on tour in Salt Lake City. ... Steve had to take the trip back [to Florida] by himself, and that must have been the shittiest experience ever."
Brooks took his time regrouping, but he eventually formed Torche with longtime wingman Montoya. The band's first album consisted largely of gargantuan, de-tuned epics. It was an angry affair, full of inner- and outer-flagellation, the sound of trying to trudge forward despite the circumstances. After two years of playing those songs on the road, Torche was ready to reshape itself.
"When we decided to make this record, Steve's like, 'Man, I'm fucking tired of sad music and hearing about sad music,'" Montoya remembers of the sessions for Meanderthal. "He said, 'Let's just make a rocking album.' There are some songs that are a little down and heavy, but the majority of it is really uplifting and full-on ragers."
As Torche rips through 13 anthems in 36 minutes, it's hard to imagine that mission being better accomplished: From the opening mathematical glory of "Triumph of Venus" to the quick-pulse, flicking-riff, big-harmony throb of "Across the Shields" and the drop-tuned cacophony of the closing title track, Torche sounds like it's distilling everything it's liked about listening and making music for three decades—from the plastic hooks of KISS and the bounce of Cheap Trick to the range of the Melvins and the audio destruction of those Southern metal beasts it calls friends—into one glorious session. Meanderthal is totally convincing, an impure but perfect emotional and aesthetic victory for combining elements and repurposing rock iconography.
I'd rather choke on my fork than not exclaim as much over dinner.
Torche plays with Boris and Clouds, two other bands bending the rules of loud, at Cat's Cradle Sunday, July 6, at 9:15 p.m. Tickets are $12-$14.