Weaponised riffs: Torchure and Sinister

It’s an agreed fact that genre saturation eventually leads to genre decline. It’s also an agreed fact that this happened to death metal by around 1993/4. But was this as simple as genre saturation, or simply saturation of subpar music? The risk – for the interested fan – is in simply sticking to the same milestones of ‘Blessed Are the Sick’ and ‘Left Hand Path’, without expanding one’s horizons to the more subtle treasures that this era yielded. Prima facie, most death metal is very similar. The same tempos, guitar tones, vocal tones and structures cropping up again and again. But scratch beneath the surface, and one will begin to spot a particular band’s hallmarks; their unique little contributions to the style. What’s more, these understated picks often come from lesser known scenes.

Germany’s Torchure managed a couple of LPs in the early 1990s, the first of these – ‘Beyond the Veil’ (1992) – is a fun little summation of various European styles of extreme metal at the time. This is somewhat darker and more atmospheric than your standard meat-and-two-veg riff fest. From the first number ‘In His Grip’ we are taken on a tour of Europe from Sweden, to Coventry, and even Martin Matzak’s vocals are reminiscent of Jarno Koskinen of Finland’s Belial. This is drawn together by some pretty standard build and climax structures. But as with many tried and tested tricks of the trade, they are popular because they work.

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After the understated opening – backed up with liberal use of keyboards, which utilise a charming early 90s horror-synth tone – bludgeoning thrash riffs will collide off darker melodic passages making for death metal that relies more on darkness, tension, and atmosphere than a thrilling breakneck ride through lightening fast interchanges. This is further backed up by dungeon synth interludes such as the closing to ‘Resort to Mortality’, which rather than arrest the momentum of death metal in full flow, serves rather to underpin these dark riffs with an additional creepy edge (if you buy into the early 90s cheese of it).

Torchure are certainly not afraid to indulge in slower tempos, but I am not sure if we could call it death doom in the same way as an Asphyx for instance. Although the definition of doom is up for grabs (just metal but slower innit?) the riffs on ‘Beyond the Veil’ remain busy and vibrant even if underpinned by slow and steady drums. There is not the usual empty spaces between the ringing chords that we would associate with anything generally regarded as ‘doom’. This would be closer to a dark, laid back take on death metal, akin to Necrophobic on sedatives. For that reason it is a pleasing marriage of atmosphere and riffcraft, and an underrated little treat for anyone interested in this era of metal.

Holland’s Sinister hardly need an introduction from myself; along with Pestilence, Asphyx, and Gorefest they make up the backbone of the Netherlands section of any serious death metallers record collection. Although less idiosyncratic than their fellow countrymen, their first clutch of releases did tap into – and improve upon – a much loved variant of death metal that most directly grew out of thrash. Their debut LP ‘Cross the Styx’ (1992) sits somewhere between the elegant pummelling of Vader and the complex yet brutal jigsaw that is Deicide’s ‘Legion’.

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Frantic riffs fly by at a rate too fast for the ear to fully digest. Just as we have become accustomed to one idea the music races on. Although none of the time signatures are particularly complex, the tempo changes many times within a track, and often before the listener is ready for it. This gives the music a brutal playfulness lacking in more intricate works. The sharp guitar tone, which is reminiscent of Asphyx circa ‘The Rack’, aids this. There are also some punk riffs thrown into the slower passage with a hint of a major key here and there. This further adds to the subversion-through-brutality that is Sinister at this time. Playing atonally before dropping a major chord within such hard and fast music lends a feeling of triumph to the cacophony.

For that reason Sinister act as a kind of bridge between the Morrisound and Sunlight schools of death metal. This is essentially the playful yet beefed up thrash of the Tampa sound with some more primitive and punky Swedish riffs chucked in for good measure. Atonality rules, aside from some of the lead guitar work scattered throughout the album; leant more impact by the fact that they are so sporadic amongst the abundance of powerchords. But musical ancestry aside, it’s the unadulterated energy and dynamism of this music that is its real calling card. It may be strong in the arm and thick in the head when compared to some releases of this era, but sometimes one simply cannot beat some well executed primal aggression for hitting the spot.

Based on today’s standards both these releases may come across a little bland. But they exemplify important and reliable ways of crafting death metal that is just a cut above the fodder. Torchure morphed death metal into a subtle beast of despondency and grace, much like early Amorphis they knew the value of atmosphere and its ability to bolster up well crafted tritonal riffs within the otherwise amorally violent world of death metal. Sinister, rather than subverting this energy and aggression, embraced it head on and enhanced its potentials for euphoria with the subtle blending of upbeat punk riffs within their otherwise brutal framework. So two strong recommendations from me this week, although if I have to pick one, which I will, it will be Torchure’s ‘Beyond the Veil’; which even by today’s standards has many secrets to unfold with each listen.

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