It all started in the late '60s. Influenced by early American blues, first-wave rock 'n' roll and a disdain for limp hippies singing empty refrains of peace and love, bands like Blue Cheer, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath let loose with a subsonic assault. It was still the blues, only driven to extremes—dark, pounding, primal and electrified.
Through the years, many bands have shown an obsession with the low-end rumblings achieved by this unholy triumvirate. Somewhere along the line, these acolytes earned the tag “doom metal,” typified by plodding tempos, depressive and/or mystical themes and, most importantly, a desire to explore the deepest frequencies capable with an electric guitar.
For the majority of the '70s and '80s, this style remained out of vogue with all but a few fringe groups, such as Pentagram, St. Vitus and The Melvins. In the '90s, a new horde of bands—like Kyuss, Sleep, Electric Wizard and Earth (named after Sabbath's earliest incarnation)—plunged into the abyss. Aspects of “doom” even managed to infiltrate the mainstream with Soundgarden and Alice in Chains but, at least for true believers, the music stayed submerged in the underground.
These days, the genre has mutated into intriguing new forms with avant-garde occultists Sunn O))) and enigmatic Japanese trio Boris gaining accolades ranging from The New York Times to Pitchfork.
Although they're touring with Boris, doom's latest anti-heroes, Torche, aren't as fascinated with mystery as their compatriots. Instead, they inject glorious melodies into an environment typically filled with despair. But don't let the catchy songs fool you—this is as mind-numbingly heavy as rock music has ever been.
Speaking before a show in Houston, guitarist Juan Montoya sounds positively jovial, especially considering he's just hauled the band's amplifier stacks up a flight of stairs. Maybe it's because he's confident that the band's new album, Meanderthal, is one of the finest discs released this year.
“We recorded the album with Kurt Ballou from Converge, and we were just kind of lounging out around the studio and Kurt goes, ‘You guys meander a lot,'” Montoya says, by way of explaining the album title. “Then our bassist Jonathan [Nuñez] goes, ‘Yeah, we're meanderthals.' A couple of minutes passed and we went, ‘Hey, that's pretty cool.'”
The band's recent history is filled with such happy accidents: ideas so brilliantly simple that other bands may smack themselves for not thinking of them first.
For example, the album packaging is composed of hilarious character sketches that Montoya originally drew as a way to kill time on tour. It's a basic concept that expands into something else entirely by revealing the band's slightly demented view of life on the road.
“When you're in a van the entire day staring at each other's fat-ass heads, they start to look pretty strange,” Montoya chuckles.
But perhaps the most crucial accident is the band's discovery of some of the lowest guitar tones ever committed to record. First heard on “Charge of the Brown Recluse,” the opening track on their 2005 self-titled debut, the deafening reverberation was unearthed by guitarist/vocalist Steve Brooks purely by chance.
“Steve broke a string on one of his guitars and kept on riding the string,” Montoya recalls. “When he finally looked down, he realized what happened and said, ‘Man, that sounds like some end-of-the-world shit.'”
The low end is less pronounced on Meanderthal, but YouTube videos of Torche's live shows display just how effective their “apocalypse note” can be. Cameras lose focus, equipment rattles and crowds go absolutely insane.
“It's like white noise…. The whole club shakes,” Montoya says. “People have passed out at shows, girls' skirts blow up and, if you lean against the wall, the whole wall is vibrating.”
It's certainly a visceral experience, but unlike the heavy majority, Torche are actually playing songs. Memorable, melodic tunes you can sing along to while also liquefying your brain at the same time.
In referencing Guided by Voices and Dead Can Dance among the band's diverse influences, Montoya neatly (and perhaps unintentionally) sums up why Torche represents a new step in the evolution of all things heavy.
“We love heavy music,” he says, “but we definitely want to be able to branch off and work with different dynamics.” Torche plays Tuesday, June 24, with Boris and Clouds at The Casbah, 619-232-HELL. www.torchemusic.com.