Review Summary: The torch burns brighter than ever
I’m unsure whether there’s a specific term for what’s been happening to some big name sludge metal bands as of late. Namely, the fact that quite a few of them have been slowly drifting away from their more intensive metal sound and experimenting with pop hooks and a style closer to hard rock than metal. Mastodon’s Once More ‘Round the Sun (2014) is the most obvious example of this. While it still bore the trademark Mastodon style, it was a far more accessible album with obvious intentions of radio play. This isn’t a slight against the band or the album but it was a disappointment for fans of the group’s earlier work. There’s a reason “Blood and Thunder” is still one of Mastodon’s top tracks: it goes hard.
Torche seemed to be on that path too. In Return (2007) and the eponymous Torche (2007) were energetic, faster-than-average mid-tempo albums that reveled in distortion and a liberal use of solo guitar riffs. Steve Brooks opted for either distant shouting or a menacing brand of singing to complement the dense guitar hooks and Rick Smith’s pounding drums. But as the band continued, albums like Songs for Singles (2010) and Harmonicraft (2012) seemed to be embracing lighter harmonies and more upbeat, carefree melodies. It seemed like Torche were on the same path as similar acts like Intronaut and Mastodon in their shift towards more easygoing sludge metal. That is until Restarter, the group’s latest record, didn’t totally upend Torche’s previous musical progression in favor of a return to basics.
Combining the best of the band’s darker sound with the catchiness of later releases, Restarter is the band’s most unassuming and fun record to date. “Annihilation Affair” bursts forth with an immediate and crushing mix of repetitive cymbal crashes, low-end rhythm, a meaty bass line, and Brooks’ harmonized vocals combining into a high volume, high octane medley that ranks as one Torche’s most captivating songs to date.
“Bishop in Arms” borrows liberally from the band’s more recent output with its galloping drum line and intermittent guitar bursts, all underscored by a forward moving bass rhythm courtesy of Jonathan Nuñez. Throw in a surprisingly catchy chorus of “Hide the devil/Pin the tail/Paved a trail/All unbearable/” and “Bishop in Arms” satisfies fans of both old and new Torche.
There’s also plenty of tracks on Restarter that harken back to the plodding sludge of the band’s early records, “Undone” being one of the best examples of the band doing heavy for the sake of heavy. Opening with a crunchy bass chord, the song launches off with Brooks defiantly shouting over the noise “Burning city/Midsummer/Trade for any/Cool morning/Uncovered” followed by an excellent back and forth between Nuñez and Smith, creating a hard-hitting rhythmic bridge that ties together each phrase of the song. The shortest track at only 1:41, “Undone” not only stands as one of the heaviest tracks on Restarter but also as one of the sludgiest songs in the band’s whole discography.
There’s a healthy mix of slow, thick songs on Restarter like “Minions,” “Barrier Hammer,” and “No Servants” and faster paced, catchier tracks such as “Blasted” and “Loose Men.” There’s no filler either, every track moves the album along at just the right momentum with the lighter songs allowing the listener breathing room between the more punishing, brooding tracks like “No Servants” or “Minions.” Though the latter half of the album favors a deeper and more laborious tone, it all leads up to the near nine minute opus “Restarter.”
Most of the song builds itself on a heavily rhythm based bed, a high pitched guitar line riding above the noise, as a dissonant ambient screech slowly works its way in during the halfway mark. Brooks’ vocals only come in at two points throughout the track, which more or less means the song is carried along by the groove running throughout. By the last few minutes, the wall of sound has come down leaving only a simple percussive section, the shrieking ambient tone, and wobbling guitar octave. It’s a fantastically weighty end to a torrent of an album.
Torche have said in plenty of interviews that they play what they want to and rarely intend to cater to what they think audiences want. Because of that, they’ve been able to build a library of music that embraces the pummeling seriousness of the sludge metal genre while still experimenting with a brighter, melodious approach to song composition. For fans worried about a possible abandonment of Torche’s heavier side, Restarter reminds everyone why we fell in love with the band in the first place while still keeping their music fresh.