Album Swamp Vs. Desert
posted by April 2 at 19:05 PMon
Hydra Head Records
I’ve never gotten into Queens of the Stone Age. Seen ‘em live. Certainly heard more of their music than I ever cared to. Funny, because it seems like I’m in their target demographic of older folks who still want to listen to something heavy, but need a little more substance than just loud distorted guitars. But despite being touted as some sort of accessible pop variation of the stoner rock template, I’ve always thought they were just sort of uninspired. I want either more pop or more heaviness in their sound. Even better: they could be poppier AND heavier. Or they could just sound like Miami’s Torche.
Torche is what I always thought Queens of the Stone Age should sound like. Legions of stoned guitar aficionados cite Josh Homme’s desert rock band as some sort of crucial hybrid of Sabbath’s bluesy doom with the sounds of America’s early New York and Midwest punk pioneers. I, however, would argue that Torche is the first band since the pre-Nevermind grunge bands to blend those disparate approaches so successfully. Indeed, it’s a risky marriage that countless bands have attempted, and all too many have failed. Just look at the thousands of dumb metalcore outfits too inept to appropriately mix heavy riffs with pop vocals without awkwardly stumbling through bad transitions or coating their songs with sugary over-production. But four dudes from Florida have found that sweet spot. The riffs are still huge and mean, but they always provide a solid base for strong and memorable melodies. The geography of their home state seems to have worn off on their music: it’s simultaneously swampy and sunny, and occasionally besieges you like a hurricane.
Granted, it’s a formula singer/guitarist Steve Brooks has employed since his tenure in the Florida sludge band Floor. Even back in the ‘90s, he was using a little trick often referred to as “the bomb string” (or “the floppy string” and “the brown note”). By tuning the bottom string down to a non-pitch, and thereby slacking the tension to the point that the string simply flops around instead of resonating a note, Brooks has taken the heavy guitar sound to its ultimate conclusion. When plucked, it literally sounds like a bomb going off. It’s a secret weapon used sparingly. Whereas Torche’s self-titled debut came crashing out of the gate with the bomb string showcaser “Charge of the Brown Recluse,” they’ve held back this time around, teasing their old fans by waiting until the album-closing title track before hitting that gut-shaking frequency. And when that note starts the song, you can almost envision the hordes of Torche fans wetting themselves. Like Spielberg hiding the shark until the final reel of Jaws, part of the enjoyment of the experience is the tension resulting from the anticipation of that one moment.
Lest I paint Torche as a one-trick-pony, this album would be a complete ass-kicker even if they decided to abandon the brown note altogether. Meanderthal opens with “Triumph of Venus,” a busy high-energy instrumental tune that wouldn’t feel out of place alongside Mastodon’s Blood Mountain material, and launches straight into “Grenades,” a heavy mid-tempo tune that scales back the guitar dexterity to provide a foundation for a big rock anthem chorus. The remaining duration of the record finds the band walking the spectrum between their heavier inclinations and their pop sensibilities. Perhaps no other song on the album thoroughly demonstrates Torche’s range than “Amnesian.” Combining classic stoner rock riffs with psychedelic guitar solos and big vocal harmonies, the song serves as an appropriate centerpiece to the album by displaying the band’s full arsenal within one epic six-and-a-half minute track.
Let me state for the record that I certainly don’t want to bag on Josh Homme’s endeavors. The man aims to make respectable music. I’ll even concede that Kyuss was pretty awesome. But at the end of the day, for me personally, it simply doesn’t compare to the racket made by four dudes from the swamps of Florida.