A chat with one of the UK sludge scene’s finest exports.
“As people, we tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world and ourselves. These stories have been built up from the moment we began to exist and maybe we trust them too much. But that is in part because we don’t have a choice not to,” says Jon Taylor, guitarist/vocalist of post-metal triumvirate Torpor, explaining the inspiration behind the evocative title of their second full-length Rhetoric Of The Image. Typical of the trio’s work, thought goes into every layer of their creative process, the themes behind it both personal and universal, as heavy as the sounds they create. “Thinking about which stories I have told myself and the themes that people universally might tell themselves,” Jon summarises.
For some fans, Rhetoric… may have seemed a long time coming. Forming in 2012, the seven years since the release of debut From Nothing Comes Everything has seen a lot of change in the Torpor camp, sonically and otherwise. While there is some expectation from the “industry” that a band produce a record every two to three years, for Torpor this wasn’t a consideration. Unsurprisingly for a band so closely aligned with the UK DIY underground, they do things at their own pace, as bassist Lauren Mason explains: “None of us were even aware that a ‘two-year album cycle’ was a thing, so that shows exactly how many fucks we give. We work on our music when we have the time and energy. We’ve all had competing projects and barriers over the last few years, such as academic studies, relocations, burnouts and demanding public service jobs, so the band hasn’t always been our priority.”
Honing the three longer-form tracks on the album in the practice space and on stages across the UK and Europe, Rhetoric… began to take form over time, the finishing version including two more ambient tracks that are a departure from their more familiar crushing sound. “We wrote and recorded the three full-band songs first, and Simon [Mason, drums/vocals/synth] wanted to include some synth-based pieces he had been writing, so he and I recorded these with our good friend Stephen Trepak [of Truthseeker Music] in his home studio,” Lauren explains. “It was a different way of composing for us, building the tracks up very spontaneously around improvised layers of synth, electric cello, keys, voice and percussion. It was also a chance for Simon and me to take the lead with writing, as Torpor songs are usually built around Jon’s guitar riffs.”
As with all departures from a tried and true sonic template, there was some trepidation about the new direction. “We were initially not sure if these pieces would sit comfortably within the album, but after Wayne Adams [Bear Bites Horse Studios] mixed them, they really pulled the album together and completed it,” Lauren explains. “I love records that have a strong flow, and work best as a continuous listening experience rather than just a collection of songs. I hope we have achieved that with this album.”
For Simon, the addition of more noise elements has been the culmination of a long-term fascination: “I’ve had an interest in including noise and synthesizers in our music for years. We used noise elements in of From Nothing Comes Everything. I basically draw inspiration from science-fiction soundtracks. I really enjoy the unconventional sounds, cinematics and the process of making harsh noises. It’s just another way of expressing myself other than sitting behind a drum kit and smashing away; although that’s always great fun!”
The soundscaping of the ambient tracks wasn’t the only element of experimentation that Torpor chose to embrace. The band also blended spoken-word poetry into the tracks, to great effect. “Poetry has been a parallel creative practice for me for many years now, and it’s natural to want to incorporate it into Torpor somehow,” says Lauren. “It wouldn’t work as well with the heavier songs for obvious dynamic reasons, but the synth tracks have the right atmosphere. I think these tracks give the album welcome breathing space, and pull the listener further into its introspective space.”
While these two more experimental tracks are proof enough that Torpor constantly tread new musical ground, the new album is seemingly a direct successor to their 2016 split with Bristolian post-sludge behemoths Sonance. But, do the band agree? “I feel like we are never going to sit in one sonic space for too long. The last two recordings are evidence of that, at least for me,” muses Simon. “We like dealing in levels of intensity; this record is perhaps a bit more controlled, but to my mind it’s just a breath-hold away from utter sonic despair.”
Jon takes a more philosophical view of the personal and musical changes that the album may reflect: “I’ve had lots of changes and experiences in my life over the last five years or so, and to me it just all reflects that. I always feel that words never do justice to feelings and experiences and it reminds me of what Freud said, ‘If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.’ Things find a way of coming out. So, it’s a continuation rather than anything completely new, and this is what sets everything apart from the first album. I don’t feel the connection to those songs because it was a completely different experience for me.”
One thing that definitely hasn’t changed is Torpor’s sense of community, of working with those who share vision and beliefs, of scene supporting scene. This permeates Rhetoric… literally from cover to cover: “Jack [Burley, who designed the cover and packaging for the album] has been a friend and collaborator for many years now, we are big fans of his music and design-work with Earthmass, and he created such a beautiful package for the CD version of From Nothing Comes Everything. He was our first choice for this album,” says Lauren. “We always have a better experience working with friends rather than designers we don’t know personally – the flow of ideas is so much easier and more exciting!”
This sense of community and friendship was carried over into selecting those behind the desk as well as those behind the artwork. “We worked with Wayne Adams again for the recording of the full band tracks. We know and trust him, as we’ve done a few sessions at Bear Bites Horse over the years,” explains Simon, although necessity meant that the ambient tracks required a different approach. “There would have been a long wait before we could get additional dates booked with Wayne to record the other tracks, and Stephen Trepak was really enthusiastic about my ideas, so we spent two weekends recording in his home studio and then sent them to Wayne for editing and mixing. We wanted the record to be mastered by James Plotkin because, well, he’s just fantastic!”
It’s a well-known trope, but one that strikes true – did Torpor find Rhetoric… a case of the “difficult second album”? Was there ever any sense of pressures, external and internal, felt during the writing process? “I would say a little from category A and a little from category B, C, D ad infinitum” acknowledges Simon, with Jon agreeing. “There was a lot of pressure in terms of the personal desire to get it done. I wasn’t really happy with any of my ideas for a long time, so there was a lot of intense self-scrutiny. Although, that has tended to be the case for a long time!”
To borrow Simon’s own phrasing, moments of the record teeter on the brink of “total sonic despair”, although as ever with Torpor’s work they effortlessly balance crushing, bleak density with raging, roiling catharsis. One has to wonder what the main inspirations behind it were – are the trio soundtracking an Earth sliding inexorably toward the end of days?
“You only need to step outside for five minutes to see the effects of austerity; the hack and slash budget cuts, the disdain Government has for our country’s citizens, causing social degradation and an unfurling of our society into polarity,” says Simon. “Working for the public sector has really made things crystal clear on how profit seems to be the only factor that is cared about. My inspiration has come from how today’s world has affected my psychological state and how I am trying to break free from it.”
While Simon drew intensely from life, Lauren aligns her inspirations with art: “I was doing a Masters in poetry during the writing of the album, so most of my inspirations were literary and visual artists. ‘Two Heads On Gold’ takes its title from a painting by Jean Michel Basquiat. The only music I could listen to at the time was drone or minimalism, everything else interfered with the rhythms of my writing! None of it is probably identifiable, but it was definitely part of my imaginative landscape. Pauline Oliveros, for example, was an influence in terms of thinking about the importance of listening and dynamics in music, and how one type of sound, like feedback, can be so varied and interesting if you give it space.”
Jon’s influence, meanwhile, was more internal than external: “For my playing and the lyrical content, it’s all very introspective and almost reverse engineered. I prefer to act spontaneously and then try and think about where it came from afterwards. In a relatable sense, I think that there are lots of harmful cultural injunctions that need to be thought about and reconsidered if people are to able to more congruent and less pressured. But, even in this way, I think trying to universalise everything isn’t always useful either.”
It’s interesting that his answer includes so many words that can be used to summarise the wealth of feelings that Rhetoric… evokes and contains: introspection, harm, consideration, pressure and, above all, it’s universally heavy.
Rhetoric Of The Image is out now. Read our review here.
Words: Jay Hampshire