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Torture Squad is a band that refuses to stick to what they have done before. While most bands tend to become formulaic after some time, Torture Squad manages to surprise its fans release after release. Pandemonium was the first sign that Torture Squad was at least different from the rest of the contemporary death/thrash bands: even with a production that failed to give proper attention to the drums and made the vocals much less menacing than they were live, the band gathered quite a fanbase around the world with their creativity and aggression. Five years later, Hellbound was released and with its focus on weird drum patterns and its unique approach to thrash it surpassed everyone's expectations.
Two years and some months later, Æquilibrium and its terrible cover are finally in my Ipod, and the first surprise I had when I hit the “play” button was that the production is not only different from what Torture Squad has done until now, but also it is also different from anything that I have even seen. One would think that they would stick to the way things were mixed in Hellbound, but instead of trying to live up to that masterpiece they tried to improve stuff, and it worked. The production here is crystal-clear, and by crystal-clear I mean that they approached death/thrash with Dragonforce-like production. Said that way it sounds weird, and it really is, in a good way. Torture Squad tried to innovate and with this never-seen-before approach to the genre, they managed to create an identity for this album. The vocals, that were already great in Hellbound, are now godlike, being Vitor’s snarls crazier and more menacing than ever. Anyway, what could be better than Vitor Rodrigues screaming? Torture Squad has the answer: two Vitor Rodrigues screaming. In a lot of passages, mainly in the re-recording of “The Unholy Spell”, the vocals were layered (two shrieks at once, that is, not the shriek/growl dichotomy that Torture Squad has used in earlier recordings), which creates an intense and crazed atmosphere that many bands try to set but very few succeed at doing so.
Therefore, the production is great, but a nicely produced album is nothing without the music to back it up, right? Thankfully, this recording is filled with crazy structures, inspired and unconventional breakdowns and the best of all: riffs. This album overflows with tons of the most brilliant riffs that I have ever seen, and even if they are focused on death metal and progressive rock, influences range from 80's thrash to blues. Stuff never gets repetitive or boring (although in "Azazel" and "Holiday in Abu Ghraib” the riffs are quite generic), and as you progress through the album, you realize that it has absolutely no fillers. Hellbound also had no fillers (although I did not exactly like The Fall of Man as much as the other songs) but hey, they had five years to write it. Æquilibrium shows that Torture Squad has reached a level of competence in songwriting unrivaled by most contemporary bands. From the weird chord progression that introduces us to “Generation Dead” to the last riffs of “The Spirit Never Dies”, you will find nothing overused, and almost nothing that is not where it should be.
But wait, it gets better: Torture Squad was apparently thinking that the explosion of riffs was not enough, so they re-recorded The Unholy Spell, their forgotten masterpiece from pre-Pandemonium era. Seriously, I thought that everyone had forgotten about it, but the band decided to bring it back with the aforementioned crystal-clear production and layered vocals. The result was one of the best tracks that Torture Squad has ever recorded along with masterpieces such as “Chaos Corporation” and “Hellbound”.
Along with the re-recording of “The Unholy Spell”, “174”, “The Spirit Never Dies” and "Raise Your Horns" are my favorite tracks from the almighty recording. “The Spirit Never Dies” is a death oriented, mid paced song that occasionally flirts with blues and has some of the catchiest riffs that Torture Squad has ever written, while 174 is a very fast song with unpredictable breakdowns that opens with a riff that easily conquers its place among the best passages of the death/thrash genre. What is most impressive about 174 is that the band was brave enough to use this riff once and then forget about it until 2:38, when it is brought back, this time followed by the vocals. "Raise Your Horns" is a perfectly balanced amalgam of thrash, progressive and death that also works as a display of technique. Its terrible lyrics, which deal with, well, thrashing, unfortunately prevent it from being a thrash-till-death anthem similar to Violator's "Addicted to Mosh", but at the end of the track it is impossible not to smile.
After the epic masterpiece that was Hellbound, Torture Squad had a hell of a challenge in making work of that quality again, and for the most part, I think they managed to do so. Rather than cloning Hellbound, Torture Squad made an album that is different from its predecessor, but lives up to it. The progressive approach to death metal and the relatively weak attention given to thrash might turn some old fans off, but this rivals Hellbound as the best album Torture Squad has ever recorded, and should be in every list of best death/thrash recordings. “Azazel” and “Holiday in Abu Ghraib” are the weakest tracks here, with generic riffs and lyrics, but even those tracks are far from being bad. Aside from that, there is little to complain about this full-length, although I missed the presence of instrumental tracks (while “MMXII” and “The Four Winds” are great, creative tracks, “Last Tunes Blues” is barely a song, with less than one minute long). This band has contributed enough to the metal community, seriously. If they don’t start to suck quickly several headbangers might suffer from the exploding head syndrome, which will at least make the band sell less than they should.
Torture Squad is a band I've occasionally run into through my auditory excursions, usually with the same result. The band will drop an album every few years, develop buzz in a few circles, I'll check out their latest output and find myself quite underwhelmed. This was less the case with the past few efforts, Pandemonium and Hellbound, which showed slightly more promise than I had expected from exposure to the band's late 90s output, and by now the Brazilians are seasoned veterans with 20 years behind (a dozen productive). I can only assume that expectations must be running high for this effort, but I'm not sure if they've been met.
Through Aequilibrium, the band's sixth career full-length, they stick to what they know best: pure riff centrism focused around slower and mid-paced tempos, a gloss of melody and two vocal styles. One that sounds like an abomination of Kreator's Mille Petrozza, Rotting Christ's Takis Solis, and another that represents a horde of nondescript, faceless growlers covering the guttural spectrum. Their material walks the line between the thrash and death genres, with the actual riffing more in the former camp, and the vocals often hinging on the latter, though they throw things in reverse every now and then with a more brutal guitar line or angrier thrash vox. Very often, they'll use both the vocal tones simultaneously, which may contribute some depth to the simplicity of the songwriting, but I don't feel that its much of a benefit.
Musically, I can't say I expected all that much. I've never found the band to quite match the hype that surrounds it, and I fear this is yet another case. They're extremely tight and competent, and I laud their tendency to write simpler rhythms rooted in both the 80s originators and 90s death/thrash obscurities like Protector, Merciless or Assorted Heap, though I'd argue that Torture Squad generate more velocity (if not quality). Strangely enough, the band does not seem to carry much of the Brazilian influence one might expect. The dark tones of early Sepultura, Mutilator, Chakal and Vulcano are rather absent, and Aequilibrium is a compact modernization of the genre which truly relies on its guitars to carry it forward. That's not to say the rhythm section is absent, because there are some great bass and drum fills here and the vital energy runs through all players.
With so much riding on the riffs, it then becomes critical that they be raging and memorable enough to snag the ear on each drive-by, and this is where the album falters. Few thrash acts out there will offer the diversity, the 'complete package' of Torture Squad, and its obvious that the band spent time and effort to compose each of the 8 new originals (I'm not counting the "Last Tunes Blues", a worthless outro before the bonus track). There are capable leads running throughout, often placed into jammy sequences in the middle of tracks like "174" and "Storms", but the actual thrash riffs, as dynamic and polished as they present themselves, are almost unanimously forgettable, whether the primal fundamentals of "Storms" and "Black Sun", or the more death-oriented fare like the sequence initiating "Azazel".
All of Aequilibrium's compositions weave their way through a number of thrifty tempos and the band never seems to run out of ideas, unlike the lions share of modern or 'revival' thrash bands who beat the same drum until violently ejected from the hall, but they just never stick, and though I felt like this might change the more I listened through, I arrived at the same conclusion on the 3rd and 4th listens as the first. The album is too tame to produce the 'feral' energies that I derive the most enjoyment from in this genre, nor is it progressive enough to enthrall through sheer fluid proficiency. The lyrics range from acceptable and cliche-ridden ("Generation Dead" or "Azazel") to just plain weak, as found in the awkward "Raise Your Horns", a silly self-referential track loaded with cliches of growing up a thrasher, failing where a "Thrash 'Till Death" by Destruction was more blunt and successful.
Certainly these Brazilians have a number of positive qualities to them, which makes it all the more frustrating that this effort just doesn't seem to take off. At best, its an inoffensive piece of average thrash metal with a death influence largely delivered in one of the vocal formats. Modern, written and mixed to adequate standards, but lacking both the wild abandon and superb songwriting characteristics that festoon the genre's legends (which usually excel in one or both of these departments). The addition of a new studio take on "The Unholy Spell" from the 2001 album of the same title is welcome here, but I'm positive I'd rather be listening to the past two efforts than this, as they featured a more enduring medium of bone crunching entertainment.