Band To Watch: Torture

Band To Watch: Torture

To borrow a tired refrain from the early COVID era, we’re now living through ~unprecedented times~. A former US president was convicted of 34 felonies. AI is ruining the internet. And a one-man slam-metal band influenced by avant-garde classical and free jazz, whose War On Terror-themed music has no lyrics and is sung by a drummer strapped with a headset microphone, are now the hottest new band in hardcore.

In case you’ve missed the viral videos of their block-spanning merch lines, the delirious reactions to their barbarically violent mosh pits, or the most prominent frontperson in hardcore, Knocked Loose’s Bryan Garris, calling them his new favorite band, the group putting fists on everyone’s lips this spring are called Torture. Everything about their skyrocketing ascent is unparalleled.

For one, they’re a band operating within the hardcore scene who make slam-metal, a niche death metal subgenre that replaces speedy blast-beats with chuggy breakdowns (i.e. “slam” parts). Slam and hardcore have only occasionally rubbed shoulders over the former genre’s 30-year history, but Torture have shattered that barrier in just a few months’ time. Their 2023 album, Enduring Freedom — self-released last fall when Torture, now a four-piece, were still the solo project of savant multi-instrumentalist K.K. — started picking up a buzz among hardcore fans late last year. Between then and spring 2024, Torture went from a secret handshake among dialed-in moshers to an undeniable breakout act on the verge of a scene-wide takeover.

Torture have only played eight shows since their live debut in April 2024, and they’re already booked to co-headline a prominent Canadian hardcore festival later this fall. They’re still unsigned (they turned down an offer from one of the biggest labels in metal) and are committed to keeping everything DIY — because why wouldn’t they? Their week-long DIY tour drew hundreds of hyped-up fans each night, and the amount of merch they sold on those seven dates was, according to a source I shared the figures with who’s fluent in merch sales, more than what many established bands who tour full-time are able to achieve.

“This is my life’s dream, what’s happening to me right now,” a visibly thrilled K.K. tells Stereogum.

The 24-year-old, who prefers to use his initials for Torture-related endeavors, was born and raised in Chicago, and still lives there today. Contrary to his band’s grim music and the grave earnesty of his live presence, K.K. is polite and warm, and sips thoughtfully from a cup of tea between speaking. He concludes most of his sentences with a disarming giggle, and oozes a rare excitement about music, whether he’s talking about the Beach Boys, classical composers, or obscure free-death bands.

“I really believe everyone should be making art,” he says during a spiel about his political philosophy. “I’m agnostic, so I view art as sort of like my god. I worship art because it’s the truest representation of us that we can put into the physical world. I don’t need no heaven. I don’t need any of that. I want my art to live forever.”

We’re speaking two weeks after the end of Torture’s tour, which was so successful that K.K. was able to quit his job at a shoe store where he worked for five years. He’s now able to do music full-time — an achievement that goes beyond mere creative fulfillment.

“In other interviews, I’ve talked about my autism. It sucks a lot of the time,” he says, his happy tone sobering up. “I’m grateful that it gave me my musical ability, but working and being in the real world is just the worst.”

For as long as he can remember, he’s been envisioning his escape from the real world. He grew up watching Metallica and Rush concert videos with his dad, daydreaming about playing his own songs live one day. His childhood exposure to oddball metal bands like Dream Theater and Mr. Bungle translated into his high-school obsession with djent-metal bands like Periphery, Animals As Leaders, and TesseracT. One day, his current Torture bandmate Jake turned him on to Deicide, and from there, he rapidly went down the death-metal rabbit hole — and still hasn’t emerged.

As a listener and a player, music has always come naturally. After mastering the drums on the Rock Band video game, he received his first real kit at age 12. That day, he wowed his family by playing Avenged Sevenfold’s complex “Beast And The Harlot” just by visualizing the patterns he had memorized on Rock Band. He picked up guitar a couple years later and played in a few low-level bands and solo projects prior to Torture, which began in 2022. One of those was an unreleased endeavor where he tried to merge death metal with an avant-garde classical style called serialism.

“I tried for a while, but it became really daunting of a task to write,” K.K. says. “It would just take a really long time to even write 30 seconds of a piece.”

As he was feeling dispirited by not being able to get his serialist death metal band up and running, K.K. stumbled into pictures of the Abu Ghraib prison. He became fixated on learning about the facility where US soldiers infamously tortured, abused, and killed Iraqi detainees in 2003. As passionate about history and current events as he is music, K.K. was “extremely disgusted” by the heinous violence his country committed during the War On Terror years, and he felt the urge to process his anger through art. At the time, he was very into gorenoise — a harsh noise spinoff of goregrind (an even more extreme form of grindcore) that’s known for using crime scene photos of brutal murders as cover art — and began to form the vision for an explicitly political band that incorporated War On Terror imagery into the gorenoise framework. Still enamored by classical music, he was also influenced by how composer Krzysztof Penderecki weaved the horrors of war into his iconic 1961 piece “Threnody To The Victims Of Hiroshima.”

“It’s a really sad, emotional piece that’s extreme as fuck,” K.K. says. “It’s sort of what I wanted to do on my first three albums: maximum extremity, maximum emotion.”

On July 1, 2022, K.K. began recording the 37 songs that comprise Torture’s first album, War Crime: 37 Tracks – 37 Homicides. He improvised every drum beat, guitar stroke, and vocal gurgle on the project, and released the record three days later, pointedly, on July 4. His next dispatch, the 57-song(!) Exhibit B: Dehumanization Tactics, dropped a couple months later on Sept. 11, and the third installment, III – Thrill Kill: The ‘Kill Team’ Murders, arrived two months later on Veterans Day.

Those Torture albums — the first three in a “quadriptych” that concludes with Enduring Freedom — sound significantly different than K.K.’s 2023 breakout. The songs rarely crack the one-minute mark, and when they do, it’s usually because he buttresses the 20 seconds of free-form gorenoise with a relevant news bite. The song titles (“Prisoner Rape,” “Sensory Deprivation,” “Donald Rumsfeld,” etc.) and graphic cover art (collages of victims from Abu Ghraib and the US Middle Eastern military occupation that followed) do the conceptual lifting, while K.K.’s bursts of musical fury animate the vile subject matter. K.K. clarifies his biggest influences weren’t even necessarily metal bands, but free-jazz artists like John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. The way those musicians would “make their instruments sound human” was particularly captivating to him.

“Like they’re crying and screaming,” he says of the free-jazz pioneers’ squealing saxophones. “That’s what it really sounds like to me.”

Torture’s music has a similar effect. K.K.’s apoplectic snarls — wordless because no language could suitably convey his rage and sadness — evoke the agonized screams of the Abu Ghraib victims, while the artillery-fire drum blasts and hornet-buzz guitars imitate the soul-snuffing machinery the US employed to slay tens of thousands of civilians. Between the frantic, structureless compositions and the stop-start whiplash of the short songs’ crashing flow, the first three Torture albums zoom in on the visceral, corporeal violence of war. Enduring Freedom takes a more macro approach. K.K. calls it the “grand finale” to his War On Terror quadriptych,

Musically, the songs are longer, heavier, and more coherent. Jazz can still be heard in the algebraic drumming, and classical music informs its symphonic expanse, but the jerky upchucks of gorenoise are swapped in for the skull-denting chugs of slam-metal — a unique variant of slam, at that. The bands who pioneered slam-metal in the ’90s (Devourment, Internal Bleeding, Suffocation) still bear the thrashy riffs and headbanging speed of death metal, while modern practitioners like PeelingFlesh and .357 Homicide make a simpler, groovier form of slam that’s closer to its kissing cousin genre, deathcore. Torture’s music falls somewhere in the middle. K.K. views his work as the next step in the genre’s evolution after Cephalotripsy, a highly influential 2000s slam band who popularized the genre’s cartoonishly indecipherable vocal gurgles, and emphasized meat-grinding rhythms over the vaguest sense of guitar showmanship. However, even if they’re totally indiscernible, Cephalotripsy’s songs do have lyrics. Torture’s don’t, and every single riff on Enduring Freedom is a slam part. That’s a new level of extremity.

“I just like when the vocals are an instrument,” K.K. says. “In slam, the guitar is more of a percussion instrument. Taking something and using it as something that it wasn’t originally meant for [is] really cool to me.”

The ceaseless slamminess of Torture’s music is directly related to their crossover into hardcore, where the appetite for metallic mosh parts — the section in the song where fans spin-kick and arm-flail in-sync with the music’s rhythm — is greater than ever. The heaviness of hardcore has been gradually increasing since metal first blended with the genre back in the mid-1980s, but in the 2020s, it feels like the net weight of hardcore has cracked the scale. The biggest gateway band right now not named Turnstile are Knocked Loose, whose disgusting breakdowns and jagged riffs are setting a high standard of metal girth for new ears entering the traditionally punk-rooted scene. Sunami, who K.K. refers to as a “slammier” hardcore band, are another one of the genre’s 2020s titans, and up-and-comers like Volcano and Snuffed On Sight make pronounced fusions of slam and hardcore that’ve earned them huge buzzes in the underground. Moreover, contemporary death metal torch-bearers like Sanguisugabogg and Frozen Soul might even have more cache in hardcore than the metal world, and two of the biggest hardcore fests in the country were headlined by death metal bands this year, Obituary at Louisville’s LDB and Dying Fetus at Tampa’s FYA.

Torture’s rise in hardcore would’ve been inconceivable even five years back, but in 2024, the landscape was primed for a band like them to break through — and K.K. loves that Torture have been embraced by that crowd. “I love hardcore dancing because it’s its own art form,” K.K. enthuses. “Like, the art is affecting you in such a way that you don’t care about getting hurt or hurting other people. That is like the sickest thing to me. It’s beautiful.”

Hardcore dancing isn’t common in traditional slam circles, but Enduring Freedom’s chug-filled music is like the soundtrack that would play at a crowd-killing bootcamp: Every note coming out of their amps is ripe for swinging to, and the crowd responses on Torture’s first-ever tour this May were historically intense. The band’s show in Pittsburgh spawned the most violent pit I’ve ever seen, and that experience was shared by fellow scene vets who attended other dates on the East Coast run. Every day, footage from the previous night’s bewildering carnage spilled out online and heightened anticipation for the next show, making Torture’s presence in the scene unusually inescapable. Their merch booth — where the band sold T-shirts with unclassified Abu Ghraib reports printed on the back — was ravaged each night, and K.K.’s merch printer and designer, Hunter Winstead, estimates they sold over 700 shirts throughout the week-long run of DIY shows.

“It’s insane… just the growth — I’m very grateful,” K.K. says, nodding his head in amazement. He mentions the first-ever Torture show, which went down in late April just a couple weeks before the tour. “I still have this green wristband from that night.” He lifts the tattered bracelet on his arm up to the camera. “It just means so much to me and I don’t want to ever forget about it.”

Contrary to Torture’s bedroom roots, the band’s live performances have now become their defining attribute, but K.K. doesn’t want audiences to overlook the thematic side of Torture. Completing the War On Terror arc that began with K.K.’s gorenoise albums, Enduring Freedom captures the desensitized numbness the West was subjected to during the second G.W. Bush term, when anodyne refrains like “enhanced interrogation” and “support the troops” droned out of our TVs while the bodies piled high abroad. The cover art, which K.K. had been banking for a future slam album since Torture’s inception, is an era-appropriate caricature of American hypocrisy; an action shot of valiant troops boarding a chopper with the album’s title, flanked by sarcastic quotes, stenciled in an airbrushed camo font.

As a multimedia project, Enduring Freedom doesn’t just sound, but feels, like the US consent manufacturing apparatus brring at hyper-speed. Its bludgeoning, repetitive sound might be overbearingly extreme at first, but by a couple songs in, the album’s deluge of trudging guitars, jabbering drums, and frog-like burbles lull you into a trance that becomes strangely soothing. At least until you flick your lockscreen open and are reminded that the song you’re zoning out to is called “Blood On The Sand.” Enduring Freedom was self-released on Sept. 11, 2023, without any advanced promotion, ads, or press support, so it took a few months for listeners outside of the niche gorenoise community to stumble into it. By the time people in the metal and hardcore underground began passing the album around on social media, the US was over a month deep into their steadfast backing of Israel’s genocidal conflict with Palestine, and Torture’s anti-military theme took on a renewed prescience. K.K. hasn’t let that connection go unnoticed.

“My project is mainly about early 2000s Middle Eastern conflicts, but I felt I needed to use my platform to speak out about [Palestine],” he says. “It’s so important to me. Everyone in the world should be talking about Palestine.”

Several times throughout Torture’s sets, K.K. will pause to writhe in his drum stool and blurt out the number of civilians killed in Israel’s siege on Gaza over the last seven months. In one viral clip from Torture’s show in Philly, K.K. is practically on the verge of tears while talking about the ongoing violence in Palestine. He scoffs at the people who called his outpouring of emotion “cringe” in the comments. For him, there’s no room for cool-guy aloofness while our country is funding an ongoing genocide overseas. His passion for all anti-war efforts is deadly sincere; nothing about Torture’s violent artwork and merch designs are for empty aesthetic value. Even in our conversation, he’s almost moved to tears while referencing a soundbite in one of his songs that contains the desperate weeps of a Middle-Eastern woman whose house was destroyed by US bombs.

“That woman crying…every time I think about it, it just makes me so sad,” he says, his voice quivering. “It gives me this pain in my belly. It’s just so sad. It’s…so, so sad.”

Torture’s moral clarity is highly uncommon within the slam and brutal death-metal idioms. While there’ve certainly been prominent acts like Dying Fetus who’ve occasionally used anti-nationalist imagery and tackled anti-war themes, most slam bands put fantastical gore on their album covers that’s devoid of any real-world commentary. Moreover, gratuitously violent misogyny is a depressingly common lyrical trope within the genre. K.K. thinks such slasher movie clichés are boring and “obvious,” and he “wanted to break out of that mold” with Torture. He sees the acerbic sound of slam as the perfect medium to explore “extreme topics,” and wants to see more important subject matter funneled into the genre going forward.

“I hope there’s more slam without the weird misogyny,” he says.

If nowhere else, fans can get more of the good stuff from Torture. Enduring Freedom concludes the quadriptych, but the band are just getting started. K.K., who’ll be joined in the studio by his live bandmates going forward, wants Torture to be a “whole-ass history project” that grapples with war crimes dating back to World War I. He has tons of new riffs written, plenty of album concepts in mind, and teases that more music and more tours are coming down the pike. But for as excited as he is about the music, he can’t separate the sounds from the subject matter. So right now, he emphasizes, it’s “everyone’s eyes and ears” on Palestine.

“I get why you’d want to go to a show to forget about the world,” K.K. says, addressing those who might find his leftist speech exhausting. “But for a lot of people, they can’t forget about this stuff. The people in Palestine can’t forget because they have to live through it every day. How could I live in peace and be willfully ignorant to this stuff?”

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