In The Trenches with Warbringer
Long regarded as one of the flag-bearers of the newest generation of thrash metal bands, Warbringer has also had the distinction is being one of heavy music's most articulate bands; both in message and in music. Despite the kind of setbacks, like personnel changes, that are usually par for the course, it would seem as though Warbringer has hit their stride. The most recent offering, Weapons of Tomorrow, is the sixth studio effort and arguably, their most indicative. While the outside world has currently reduced most everything to white noise, Warbringer has managed to create a record that not only functions as an appropriate soundtrack for the current chaos, but also establishes the band's identity as more than just a rehashing of a familiar formula.
Frontman John Kevill is often-cited one of the most well-spoken voices in metal music. Hell, any genre for that matter. In entertaining some questions, Kevill addresses the method behind the music and how the band balances an appreciation of the past while forging their own identity as artists.
Among the reviews for WEAPONS OF TOMORROW, the consensus is that it’s Warbringer’s best work to date. How does it feel to be hitting your stride after 16 years as a band?
KEVILL - Pretty great! I think it makes a lot of sense- the band has steadily and tenaciously forged forward on its own path through a lot of obstacles. I feel that if we weren’t releasing our best work, or at least something very highly regarded, that we would not have a legitimate reason to keep existing. I try to view it as our duty to our fanbase to always surpass ourselves at being ourselves.
A lot has been written about the stretch of stability that Warbinger has enjoyed over the last couple of years. Was it the chemistry or the circumstances that changed and led to a more cohesive unit?
KEVILL - I think that a lot of the instability in Warbringer during its 2004-2013 era is due to really burning it at both ends on the road. 300 dates in 2009 alone, which is something that is, as far as I know, unheard of. We would often have to train new members (as people dropped out, starting with Ryan Bates in June 2008) extremely fast to then go on two consecutive tours or something inside of 2-3 weeks. In 2008, when Nic Ritter joined, he had to learn the whole set and play his first show with the band at Wacken 2008. These are some high pressure situations on stage. It felt like we were competitive athletes who were playing high stakes games after having just undergone limb replacement or something. This feeling within the band of being unable to maintain a stable band contributed to the collapse of the whole endeavor in 2013-2014. After that we were on life support for a bit, with only myself and Adam Carroll.
The second version of Warbringer comes out of that, when we were rejoined by Carlos Cruz, forming a strong core lineup with deep roots in the band’s history. Since then, we consciously avoided some of the mistakes in the early period, and have been able to make being in the band better for ourselves personally. We still tour hard when we do, but it isn’t back-to-back-to-back anymore.
There is an element of narrative that is prevalent in Warbringer’s music that other bands just don't have. Does it ever bum you out if that narrative goes over the listener’s head?
KEVILL - I have a whole theory about this. Basically, in order for me to do a “narrative” approach to a songs lyrics, it has to also first work as a song. So basically, it needs to be good and work whether you get into that element or not.
I think you can see this approach with the kind of word choice and rhyme structures I use, which is usually pretty direct. I do this to try to make my ideas as accessible to the listener as possible, since I think that is what a good writer does. I think that even if someone, for instance, just loves the riff or solo on their first listen, having additional layers in the song for them to get into on subsequent listens gives the music depth and longevity.
The band had this record done late last year. Given the extraordinary circumstances, was there any thought to maybe postponing the release or had it been marinating for too long already?
KEVILL - It’s a serious “FML” moment when we put out a record we are as proud of as this one and a global pandemic descends, ruling that we can’t tour.
We had already done singles from it, re-mixed and mastered the entire record pending release, and had been stretching the intended timeline of both ourselves and the label for a while. We already had an announced release date, and the record had been manufactured. We had to go ahead with it. All we can do now is hope that it is fresh in people’s minds and we get strong support when we are able to tour on the album.
A song like “Firepower Kills” is supposed to address 100 years of history as it pertains to weapons technology and development. How do you take such an ambitious premise and condense it down into a 4-minute thrash track?
KEVILL - Well, that’s just the trick, isn’t it? That’s what makes an interesting song interesting, at least on the lyrical front. I tried to do a thing with the verses where the first one is “past tense” (describing mowing down a line of people with a machine gun), and the second verse is “present/future tense” (continuing progression of the first thing, drones, labs, etc)
So I guess what I’m saying is it comes down to tying the lyrical idea and its development to the structure of the song and its musical development. When the two are fused together at every level, then the message comes off intuitively, because the music is welded to it. In each verse, the guitar is doing variants of the basic rhythmic pattern it is doing to reflect what the vocals are talking about. The whole thing wraps up with the all-encompassing album title slogan “We’ll build a brighter future with the Weapons of Tomorrow,” which to me felt like a really clean way to wrap the whole idea up in a single phrase.
The band regularly compared to the some of the pillars of the genre. Everyone from Megadeth to Testament to Annihilator and Exodus. How do those comparisons resonate with you?
KEVILL - On one hand, I love classic thrash, because that is why I started this band, so the comparison is really flattering. On the other, the entire “new wave of thrash” often gets completely written off as pale imitations of that list, sort of regardless of what they actually write sometimes. That was a frustration in our career that led to the really experimental “Empires Collapse” record, we wanted to do something that wasn’t possible to compare to any of that.
I think sometimes we just get compared to any random thrash metal band, even when it isn’t really an accurate comparison in my mind. I also think for a long time that we’ve been a kind of “extreme thrash” rather than a strictly traditional mold, and that this aspect is often ignored. So it’s a mixed thing for me. Do I love this music? Hell yes. But do I also strive to have our own unique identity? Also hell yes. I want the band to stand as its own entity.
Songs like “Defiance of Fate” and ‘Heart of Darkness” added some dynamics to an otherwise purely thrash record. How difficult is it to balance the core identity of the band with the need to be creative and explore something new?
KEVILL - Well, I think that theres a lot of dynamics within a pure thrash record, if it’s well done. Tracks 1-3 on “Weapons of Tomorrow” are all bangers, but they are based on different tempos/rhythms, different structures, and different lyrical delivery/ideas. We thought about the order and the pacing and progression leading up to “Defiance of Fate,” and then back to “Unraveling” is something we planned.
I think that indeed we are essentially walking some artistic tightrope between wrecking the listener with pure aggression and then trying to expand ourselves and challenge ourselves as musicians and writers.
I will point out that ever since “At the Crack of Doom” that black metal has been a part of our makeup, and a lot of early death metal as well has made its way into our sound throughout the years. These are new takes on elements which have always been with the band, so it is an organic evolution rather than something out of left field.
Considering Warbringer’s unique connection with the harrows of history, do you feel like our current state is another ugly chapter in human history? And does it get the wheels turning?
KEVILL - Oh, I think that much is plain. I think that basically we are seeing the unraveling of the world order that emerged at the end of the Cold War, and turning to the next major chapter. As to what that chapter may look like, I would be a very important person if I somehow knew. I don’t. No one does. All one has to work on to predict the future is the past, but the past is not the same as the future. It can only provide context, that’s all we have to work with.
I think the events and tensions of the last few years really came to a head in 2020, and the world crisis (and the response to it) sparked a genuine mass anger. People felt as if they were being squeezed already, and then this happened. And then the police overtly murdered a citizen (George Floyd), during such conditions. So, what will become of this? We shall see. But unrest is often a catalyst, or perhaps even a requirement, for institutional change.
Here’s a thought - thrash metal is again made relevant as an art form due to frightening changes in the world situation. I won’t run out of songs to write anytime soon.
How is the band adjusting to the current crisis? How are you staying connected with fans?
KEVILL - “This current crisis” or “in these uncertain/difficult times” are phrases I can’t even hear uttered by anyone without thinking of the many advertisements which use those phrases. I think that is telling of the entire situation right now.
The way I’d really like to connect with fans is by playing our new record live around the world. We pride ourselves on our live performance, and we can personally give our music to an audience by the sweat of our brow and the ache in our necks. We view this as a badge of honor.
So, it really sucks, from my perspective. I’ve done far more written, podcast, video interviews than ever done before. I’ve done web-casts and even wrote a “Science of Thrash” documentary about how we wrote and made the album in detail. I feel like if anyone ever had the urge to hear me tell my opinions on basically everything, that now is the time.
Ultimately though, none of this is any substitute for what the band is really about- wrecking the stage every night. I hope the biggest way we connect with fans is not through social media or any form of internet posting we may do to remain above surface during this, but rather through the songs on our records, and through our musical and lyrical ideas. I hope that is what really sticks with people.
Warbringer's WEAPONS OF TOMORROW is available here.