Album Review: Torche - 'Restarter'

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With their new album, sludge-pop band Torche offers an alternate evolutionary path for the band.

Miami, Florida-based metal band Torche has always been an odd beast in a subgenre of odd beasts. Sludge metal initially started as a deliberately and overtly disgusting and dark counterpoint to the two prevailing modes of high-speed thrash metal and high-gloss traditional and pop metal.

It had a similar idea as thrash, integrating the then-new sounds of hardcore punk into the preexisting heavy metal sonic palette.

However, while thrash drew from the taught, virtuosic heavy metal of Judas Priest, Deep Purple, and Iron Maiden, sludge metal instead tapped into murkier, gloomier bands, like Britain's Pentagram and Witchfinder General and America's Saint Vitus.

This led to a messy, primal sound, overgrown with distortion, suddenly and rapidly decelerating tempos, and lyrics less focused on being poetic or anthemic than with blunt, brute portraiture.

But this wildness soon led to a flourishing of the genre. It's hoary edges enabled bands to interweave influences from psychedelia, krautrock, kosmiche music, and almost every strain of progressive, experimental, or avant-garde music under the sun, all without disrupting the inherent sonic core of the subgenre. It's from this wildness that we got bands like Mastodon, Kylesa, Baroness, and High on Fire, each famed for their own particular mixtures of a wide array of varying influences to flesh out and deepen their central core of sludge. Torche took a slightly different tack from their peers; they chose to follow up the pop influences of the once-disbanded, now-reunited band Floor, with whom Torche shares a guitarist.

Where the songs of their peers slowly blossomed in length, taking in greater influence from the worlds of psychedelia and progressive music and in turn creeping out in terms of length, Torche went the opposite direction, rarely exceeding the 3-minute with their mark. They were also one of the first groups of their class to foreground melodies so much; while their peers would eventually come to master melodicism and meld it more evenly throughout their heavy-as-hell compositions, Torche focused on short and sweet (if still exceedingly heavy) right from the word go.

Their progression into the melodic would accelerate throughout their career, earning them supporting spots on tours with much more clearly melodically-inclined groups such as Coheed and Cambria.

This is not to say that Torche ever lost their heaviness; their culminating apex of this style, 2012's Harmonicraft, while their most melodically-satisfying work to date, still featured crushing, heavy, and groovy riffs on a number of the songs.

The band signaled a change of pace with the release of the non-album single "Harmonislaught". Perhaps it was a trick of the eye (or ear, in this case); perhaps it wasn't necessarily the most heavy thing they'd done in years like a lot of people felt the song was when it dropped. But the band had been careful up until that point of releasing singles that felt a bit closer to the mission statement; the main single for Harmonicraft was the punky, poppy grinder "Kicking," a song that felt like it could have been dropped by Foo Fighters as one of their anthemic arena hard rock tunes.

By dropping "Harmonislaught" alone, they left a wild and heavy track unadorned, unfiltered by clusters of poppy hooks in other songs.

And it was the first time Torche had dropped a non-album single in, well, ever. It seemed to signal something.

The singles for Restarter seemed to confirm this direction. First they dropped "Annihilation Affair." While its main riff is only a touch doomier than Torche's standard fair, it didn't appear to be a radical step outside of their typical sound; that is, until the ultra-heavy feedback-soaked rumbling that closes out the last full minute of the track.

It's a move for a kind of deliberate noise-based heaviness that Torche hadn't pulled out since 2007's In Return.

This sensation of a changing of the tide to a heaviness much closer to their early material was furthered with the second single to drop before the record, "Barrier Hammer." Where the previous single featured a wash of heavy noise closing out the track, "Barrier Hammer" integrated a groove on their signature "bomb string" (the lowest string tuned so low it becomes slack, emitting more of a cacophonous rumble than a real note, like a bomb going off) as one of the primary riffs of the song.

While they've featured the usage of the "bomb string" as a guitar effect through their material for their entire career, treating it as the guitar equivalent of an effect symbol like a splash or auxiliary percussion, it hadn't taken such a central role in a song since "March of the Brown Recluse," the opening track of their debut album.

A great deal of energy built in the metal community behind these two tracks. Torche is a well-liked figure that has had some crossover success (though clearly not as much as Mastodon, who are as close to a modern-day Metallica as the metal world is going to get, for better or worse) and a signature sound that stuck with people and set them apart.

While it didn't sound like they were swapping out those signatures for anything generic, the songs did feel a bit deliberately regressive, effectively terminating the direction they had pursed on Meanderthal and Harmonicraft. They hinted to this by titling their new record Restarter; this move feels absolutely deliberate on the part of Torche.

And, most importantly, it works; they may have a knack for pop melodies and post-punk approaches to integrating them into a heavy sludge and doom metal basis, but Torche are and have always been a metal band.

Crafting this album, their heaviest save for their debut, also feels like a wise move considering how successful Harmonicraft was in regards to their pop sludge mixture.

And it's not to say that these songs are just retro throwback heaviness. Their usage of sheer screaming noise in a lot of these tracks is a modern touch, a move that more extreme sludge bands like Indian and Lord Mantis have been pushing forward. The title track is an 8-minute distorted Deep Purple-style burner and wouldn't sound out of place on an earlier Queens of the Stone Age record. And the middle stretch of the record still features the short, sweet, pop-infused sludge metal that they made their name on.

This isn't a radical departure and it isn't meant to be. It's a way for Torche to let themselves be as heavy and as spacey as they can be again.

The sheer hallucinatory power of distorted guitars and heavy grooves. It may not be their best album, but it's a solid addition to their canon, and a damn good heavy rock album.

Image (Torche's Bandcamp page.)