Steve Brooks resurrects his pre-Torche band after over a decade out of the game – do they still have anything to offer in 2014?
The word ‘pop’ is an interesting one word Rorschach test for music fans – that little three letter word conjures entirely different expectations and reactions depending on the sensibilities and genre alliances of any given listener. Floor, like spiritual successors Torche, get called Stoner Pop or Sludge Pop or similar wherever they are written about, but I can’t imagine a fan of pop music coming to a record like Oblation and feeling anything like at home. To fans of metal and it’s various sub-genres ‘pop’ simply means, ‘clean vocals’ which means ‘anything that isn’t throat rending screaming.’ To some it also means ‘pussying out,’ because singing is inherently girly. Or something. I’m not sure of the logic but there are legions of people who sold all their Isis albums as soon as they threw in a few singing parts and probably set fire to their Mastodon records as soon as Crack the Skye came out. On Oblation Floor prove a couple of things that didn’t really need to be proven yet again: 1) you can sing all light and lovely and still have a bone shudderingly heavy record and 2) clean singing does not automatically equal pop hooks. There’s a lot going for Oblation but memorable choruses aren’t one of them. In fact come the end of the record you may well not remember a great deal about any of it.
A quick history lesson for the uninitiated: Floor were around in some form or another between around 1992 and 2003, during which time they recorded a bunch of singles, eps and splits and, eventually, one album. That self titled record has become something of a cult classic in the intervening years; whilst it’s marriage of crushing low end and high sung vocals failed to find much traction during their initial run, it has since converted a legion of stoner/doom/sludge fans looking for something with a bit more levity and joy than the usual genre fare. Post-break up guitarist and vocalist Steve Brooks took the Floor sound and ran with it in his subsequent outfit Torche, who found a somewhat surprising level of success with their superb Meanderthal album a few years back. In 2010 Floor started playing shows together again as a side project to Torche, and now we have a new album 12 years on from the first. Like many I got a little excited when I heard Floor were back, but then I got to thinking: what do Floor have that Torche don’t?
Well, one thing Torche have that Floor don’t is a bassist. Floor prefer to run with two guitarists tuned low enough to fracture rock instead, with a drummer completing their own warped version of a power trio. If you think this would allow for less nuance in their sound, well, you’d be right – throughout Oblation’s 14 tracks you could be forgiven for feeling like you’re being bludgeoned into submission at a steady mid-pace. However, I use the term ‘bludgeoned’ in the loveliest way possible – despite their wanton heaviosity and utilisation of a technique they call the ‘bomb string’ (a downtuning so low it sounds like a distant mortar battle) the real hallmark of their sound is how warm and inviting it is. Which is the other reason they get labelled ‘pop’ despite their low-down thuggish tendencies – for all their similiarities to stoner/doom/sludge bands they’ve got a much more welcoming, inclusive sort of sound. It’s like being hugged by a wooly mammoth. They might call a track War Party but the way the riff swings rather than slams indicates that the emphasis is on the ‘party’ part of that title.
As you might fear that lack of dynamism in their sound does lead to it all sounding like a much of a muchness after a while. It’ll take several listens of Oblation for individual songs to start standing out amongst the morass. Brook’s vocals may be clean but they’re sung in such a narrow tone you’ll find the lyrics hard to pick out after a while. And the album’s worst sin is tucking the few moments they do try and broaden their sound way back right at the end of the tracklisting; your brain may have switched off by the time you get to Homegoings and Transitions, despite the usual stately plod of a song being lifted by Melissa Friedman (partner of drummer Henry Wilson) lending her songwriting talents and vocals to liven up proceedings. Her voice harmonises beautifully with Brook’s, the first time on the record the vocals really stand out and demand centre stage. Then there’s Sign of Aeth which creeps in a little more mournfully than the earlier tracks, showing a more psychedelic bent than usual. Brooks lowers his register for once as well to deliver the record’s most downbeat vocal, suggesting perhaps Floor could end up being the yin to Torche’s unrelenting yang. He repeats the trick on closer Forever Still to reaffirm this idea – the contrast between the usual warm upbeat riffage and his despondent delivery again providing a slight change to the formula and delivering an album highlight in the process.
But for most of the record it’s still a sound very close to Torche’s. Faster tracks like Rocinante bounce along much like the best moments on Harmonicraft, whereas the slower chuggers like Love Comes Crushing would have fit neatly into In Return. Whilst it seems churlish to complain about songs as good as this not being original enough now that Floor and Torche co-exist it’s hard not to wonder if having both bands around in 2014 is a little redundant. Torche even used Floor’s trademark bombstring on a bunch of tracks, meaning it’s far from the novelty it once was. Indeed, whilst they’d dropped it by Harmonicraft they picked it up again and started sounding more like Floor on subsequent one-off singles Leather Feather and Harmonslaught, the most recent Torche releases. Whether these leanings towards his past are what triggered the decision to record with Floor again to cleanse his palette ahead of the next Torche record (due later this year) I don’t know. I guess we will find out when that album lands.
But for now it’s not clear what the demarcations between the two bands are, which begs the question who the record is really aimed at. One suspects that for these three guys just being able to get together and pick up where they left off is a kick for them in and of itself. Which is nice for them, but a bit confusing for the listener. For the uninitiated Floor’s self titled debut is probably a better start, or for an introduction to the larger world of Steve Brooks Torche’s Meanderthal (arguably his finest hour so far) would be a better entry point. But both beginners and long time fans alike would be forgiven for wondering what bringing Floor back really achieves– not quite regressive enough to capture Floor’s early sound or gleeful enough to keep up with latter day Torch, Oblation falls between two stools. But for lovers of the Brooks sound it’s another ever welcome chance to luxuriate in the monumental fuzz created by his bands and get lost in the rumbling chuggery and open hearted vocals. The law of diminishing returns is perhaps taking it’s toll on the potency of this slightly worn sound – but for now it’s still burning pretty damn bright.