Harmonicraft, the third full-length from Torche, is less interesting as an album than it is as an augur of some vague, underdefined cultural shift. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t satisfy on a purely musical level; quite the contrary: Harmonicraft is a short, sweet collection of pop-metal confectionery, irresistible if not unforgettable. Torche’s particular sound is rooted in sludge and doom sub-genres, but their chords move upward, skyward, on a grand scale. Harmonicraft is anything but bleak or doomy. Torche sound about as carefree as any metal act ever could. This is inspirational music for the young and buff, or the young and buff at heart: Jock Jams of a wholly different sort. A quick glance at the tracklisting is enough to infer the tone of the record. With titles like “Letting Go,” “Looking On,” and “Walk It Off,” Torche are explicitly aiming for uplift.
Although complex musically, the subject matter possesses the same depth as any Dave Grohl song. What little subtext is present could be accurately conveyed in three familiar words: it gets better. Perhaps I’m being a little callous or reductive here. Steve Brooks, the lead singer and guitarist of Torche, is one of a handful of openly gay front men in rock, a fact that might not seem pertinent to the quality of his music, but one that is when approached from a wider angle. Indie rock has its share of queer icons — frail, tragic songwriters, like Antony Hegarty and Mike Hadreas, flamboyant androgynes like Bradford Cox and Kevin Barnes, transgressive iconoclasts like Jamie Stewart — and so does metal — Rob Halford, forever the first and most leathery to come to mind — but few out musicians appear as gleeful and untroubled as Steve Brooks. He’s the kind of dude who mentions Absolutely Fabulous in one breath and David Lee Roth in the next without pausing to consider even the possibility of a disconnection between those two touchstones.
As glossy and conventional as these songs might be, there is a superliminal queerness to some of it. “Kiss me dudely now,” Brooks demands in the punny chorus of one of Harmonicraft’s more burly offerings. It is entirely possible that Brooks — and Torche’s other three members — actively reject the idea of sub-cultural dissonance, that music cannot be both traditionally masculine and identifiably queer. Whether conscious or not, this rejection is more than noble — it’s objectively correct. There’s nothing radical or subversive about Torche’s music. Much like 2008’s Meanderthal,Harmonicraft is sugary, weekend warrior music, equally suited for the skatepark, the gym, or some backyard barbecue. It exists to entertain and indulge us, to allow us a space in which to rock out, without being burdened by angst or anger.
Bright, polished, and precise from a technical standpoint, Harmonicraft is truth in advertising. It suffers only from its own tonal consistency, if anything. That itself is something of an achievement. This is a rejection of identity as destiny. There’s no blurring of the lines between what is semiotically categorized as hetero or homosexual; to the contrary, Harmonicraft exists to prove that such lines simply do not exist. It’s as dumb and shallow as any mainstream rock album, though definitely more fun. That it displays its queerness without hesitation or shame, but without making queerness its central subject, is no small feat. Then again, Torche rarely convey any sort of discernible thematic content, other than a pretty, pumped-up vacuousness. As it stands, it impresses through the largeness of its sound and the joy with which it is made. Even if there isn’t all that much to chew on or digest, Harmonicraft is nevertheless a treat.