Tormenter (sic) is a thrash band from El Monte, CA. Pulse of Terror is their debut for the indie EBM label, following 2008’s self-released Assault From Beyond the Grave. (Two songs, “No Anesthesia” and “Assault from Beyond the Grave,” appear on both discs.)
The music is pure ’80s mayhem; Tormenter can easily be slotted alongside Fueled by Fire, Bonded by Blood, Merciless Death, Hatchet, Havok, and many, many more. This is great for those who like the classic thrash/speed metal sound and don’t mind that it’s now being played by kids who weren’t even born when Metallica‘s Kill ‘Em All came out. Of course, because it’s self-consciously retro—or classicist, if you like—the neo-thrash bands are frequently condemned as empty and pointless. It’s easy to complain about any older musical style being reactivated by a younger generation, but the complaints are frequently fueled by the selective amnesia of people who went to ska shows in the late ’80s, rockabilly and garage punk shows in the ’90s, and have plenty of retro hard bop and neotraditionalist country (Dwight Yoakam, anyone?) in their iPods. Hell, the complaints come from people who are very likely going to spend way too much money on tickets to see the “Big Four” (Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer) on tour this year. Now that’s nostalgia.
The crucial question—the only question—is whether the music is well played. And Tormenter are a good band; Pulse of Terror is a good album. The weakest element of their sound is the vocals, but that’s frequently the case with metal bands; the power and force attainable through amplification, pedals, and skillful mixing can’t do much about a tuneless voice shouting breathlessly. And even at his worst, frontman Charlie Blitz isn’t completely awful—he’s got the same desperation Suicidal Tendencies‘ Mike Muir displayed on “Institutionalized.” The music, though, is strong. The songs are fast, and the guitar solos, by Jahir Funes and Vince Mejia, rise out of the riff-storm like a machine starting up, slow at first and then faster until they’re shrieking almost out of control, then they subside again. Each man has a unique style, too; one is nastier and more distorted than the other, sounding almost like an early ’80s hardcore punk player, which gives their trade-offs a nice Judas Priest-ish feel. Bassist Richard Orellana doesn’t get much to do—he’s given the spotlight on an intro or two, but for the most part he fills in a narrow frequency band below the guitars, almost inaudible. He doesn’t make himself obvious by incompetence, so that’s something. Drummer Thomas Bonilla has a dry, thumping sound, as though his drumheads are made of leather. He plays fast, but stops and starts in a way that sometimes feels erratic and other times feels like he’s deliberately trying to throw his bandmates off. The one thing I like most about his playing is that, while he hits the cymbals as often as any metal drummer (which is to say, much too often), they’re almost entirely out of the mix. Whoever produced this record made several very good decisions, and that was one of the best.
There’s very little that’s original about Tormenter’s music. They sound like the bands they admire: Metallica, Exodus, Slayer, Testament. But not everyone needs to be in constant pursuit of innovation. Styles develop because multiple artists or groups decide on a common language and then explore it, separately and together, refining it until it achieves its full potential. Thrash metal was perfected 25 years ago, but that’s no reason to stop playing it, and it doesn’t make modern-day practitioners soulless or somehow impure for keeping the music alive and putting their own spin on it. People still play the blues because it continues to speak to the human ear and heart. The same is true of thrash. The staccato, high-speed riffing, the jackhammer drums, the hoarse vocals, the fleet solos…these techniques have lost none of their power. The belief that one should cease to make art in a particular style because its moment of fashionability has passed is absurd; the endless pursuit of the New New Thing is as spirit-crushing a dead end as mindless, rote nostalgia. It’s still possible to make a great thrash record, just as it’s still possible to play the blues and say something new in the process. If you like thrash (old and new), listen to Tormenter. They’re good at what they do.