Warbringer – A Glorious FutureMonday, 4th May 2020
When it comes to the second wave of thrash bands post-2001 when the Thrash of the Titans benefit happened in the Bay Area, it’s easy to position Warbringer near the top of the heap. Their work ethic and affinity for not just the old school thrash acts but also the bands willing to blend together a bit of the extreme, death, or traditional angles to their sound has made the band a formidable, creative and relentless machine. Surviving significant lineup changes, the current version of the band has been gaining momentum through their consistent output – the latest album Weapons of Tomorrow another diverse offering that showcases speed, intensity, and velocity on one side – with melodic runs, hooks, and traditional nuances for the other.
Hunkering down in his home with his wife finishing breakfast, we reached out to vocalist John Kevill who is never at a loss for words regarding the band. Prepare to learn more about the songwriting and outlook on this album, thoughts on the chemistry and live performances now, and extensive discussion on what younger bands need to think about to develop their own style plus the healthy state of the international metal scene overall.
Dead Rhetoric: Weapons of Tomorrow is the sixth Warbringer album. Where do you see this album slotting in the discography of the band, and where do you think you decided to push things differently with this set of songs?
John Kevill: I’d say it slots into the 2.0 version of Warbringer that began on the last record. The first four albums were very much written by the lead songwriting team of John Laux and myself. With Adam Carroll being there as always with his input. But now it’s myself, Adam, and Carlos Cruz as the team of songwriters, and that’s really the difference between those first four albums and these last two.
As far as it is sonically, I’d compare it pretty much to the last record. We needed to take the next step after that. Stylistically we are in the same ballpark, extreme thrash with some progressive touches. All of the epic, progressive, blackened and melodic stuff that was on the last record – instead of being so concentrated into side b of the record, it’s spread throughout. We’ve approached these adjectives in different ways on the new songs. It still fits in the vein of what Warbringer’s become- extreme thrash based but goes into black death on one end and prog and heavy on the other. Tries to play the whole winds of the thrash genre if you will.
Dead Rhetoric: You put out a single for “Firepower Kills”, and then heard feedback regarding the production of that song. So you went back and remixed the entire album, which delayed things a bit. Do you believe that was a smart decision?
Kevill: Yes. We feel the final mix was a lot better. We were able to take a second crack at it. We don’t want to give anybody anything they are not happy with. We weren’t perfectly happy with the first mix. It turns out different every time. The first mix was the same exact team that did Woe to the Vanquished, which we were really happy with. This time we sent it off to Zach Ohren who mixed our second album Waking into Nightmares. The first time we did a very hands-on approach, and the second time we did a very hands-off approach. The second time worked better. Overall I like the way the second version sounds better – I think there’s a lot more punch and more metallic roar to the sound, and I think that’s what was missing the first time around. I think we focused on getting all the instruments sounding very clear.
I learned a lot about mixing from this experience – and it’s quite a complex art. It’s a nebulous thing – you can’t just make it sound any way you like, you have to work with the tracks that are actually there and off of that. That frames the way it’s all going to go, and that makes it interesting. We also learned that we might not be the best people to handle that, actually. We are so connected to the art on the writing and conceptual level, there’s a whole learning experience. I think the final product benefited as a result.
Dead Rhetoric: There seems to be a balance between straightforward anthems and the occasional epic piece like “Defiance of Fate” and “Heart of Darkness”. Is one type of song more difficult to develop than the other for Warbringer – or has versatility been a trademark of the band for a little while now?
Kevill: I think it’s been a trademark for the band for a while. We opened it up on that last record with “When the Guns Fell Silent”. If we can write that, it doesn’t seem as daunting to write other kinds of songs. “Defiance of Fate” is probably the most out of the box kind of song on the record, and that one – Carlos had written the instrumental part of that by himself, and while he showed me other stuff that was intended to be for Warbringer, songs like “Heart of Darkness” and “Unraveling” – this one though, he didn’t know what he was going to do with it. I thought I could make it a Warbringer song – I sat on that one for four months. I wrote the whole second half of it, and then the first half of it while we were in the studio. Eventually it came to me, sometimes you have to sit and chew on certain things for a little while.
On the other hand, “Glorious End” which is a long, narrative type of song – all the lyrics and end verse verbatim that was all in my head a year before the song existed as I imagined. Some of it is a trial and error, worked through process.
Dead Rhetoric: Are there times where you have lyrics already there before the music comes into play?
Kevill: We are releasing something that addresses that question, a behind the album documentary – ‘the science of thrash’ to give it a fun name. One thing that’s on there is how the songs develop. We are a little unusual in that we will start from the lyrics sometimes. We’ll go from a story that I’ve developed. Carlos has gotten pretty good at this – both “Firepower Kills” and “Glorious End” did not start with the music. The lyrical concept was put in first and we built the songs around them. In “Firepower Kills” I wrote a good chunk of the riffs, including the main riff set by humming it. Carlos figured it out on guitar. We are willing to work on a lot of different angles – it’s going to be based on who develops it. Our process is pretty loose and freeform, basically. Each idea is treated as its own. We have a really good partnership in the band.
Dead Rhetoric: The cover art from Andreas Marschall is quite different, especially in terms of the color scheme. Tell us about the idea and development of this piece of work- do you believe it’s very indicative of what people know and expect from the band?
Kevill: The difference is Warbringer tends to be more of a red color, fiery type of band. The blue and silver color scheme was a deliberate contrast. I had that idea all the way back to the Woe of the Vanquished album as that had a very defined red and gold thing going on with the flags. I had this idea of thinking about Wellington and Napoleon squaring off doing battle at Waterloo. There’s a red army and blue army, but not getting into the Hanover troops who wouldn’t have been wearing those colors. I thought this would be a cool thing to do for these two albums, Woe is the red album and Weapons is the blue album – sort of two sides of the same coin. There’s an ideological link in the two records – you’ll notice in the background of Weapons some reddish, copper, war era monuments and guns in the background. It’s the weapons of the future emerging from the past of industrial war – that’s how I framed it to Andreas Marschall.
The actual design is his. I gave him some photos – the monument of solider, that’s a real monument in Belgium. I threw on some of that stuff too. What I wanted the cover to say is this frightening, technological future is coming from our past where we built the military industrial complex in the world wars – it never went anywhere and it’s sharper and meaner than ever. You thought that a machine gun that could chop down five hundred bodies in a minute was nasty, well look at what they have now – that was a hundred years ago, get with the times. That figure holding out his hand, that’s kind of like evil saying ‘join us in this glorious future!’ That kind of a thing. The whole front and the way that looks, that was all Andreas. The guy in the front comes from a World War II Italian fascist, Gino Boccasile – he drew a bunch of shit. In his SS uniform, pretty wild stuff – he did this art piece that is a German solider, smiling at you holding out your hand. It’s written in the context of Italian propaganda, make the Italian people try to see the Nazis as their friends. It’s really creepy to see evil, you don’t get a much more real world bad guy than the Wehrmacht, holding out his hand and smiling at you. That’s almost scarier than someone pointing a gun at you, in a way.
Dead Rhetoric: Can you describe the band chemistry at this point in Warbringer, as you’ve now had a few years together and it seems like the 2.0 version of the band is stronger than ever in terms of songwriting, musical performance, and energy?
Kevill: I’m glad you think so, I certainly had hoped to achieve that! I think it has settled into something that’s pretty calm and consistent. I haven’t talked to some of these guys in a good minute. We have a calm, easygoing thing where we can trust that everyone can do what they need to do. They are low-key. Carlos and I are handling a lot of the business stuff, with me handling a lot of the press and he’s handling a lot of the nuts and bolts with the label and business. We’ve got a good tag team going there. Off the road, we are distant, but Carlos and I talk once or twice a week. On the road, everyone is a family. There is a shared culture in the band, a certain ethos. Everybody brings their A game, and we are not going to give any less than 10 out of 10 on stage. Nobody challenges that. We all have the same goal and idea so it ends up being smooth. If your shared interests are all lined up, it’s going to be smooth and great. If not, enjoy the bumpy ride. (laughs).
At times in the past when the band was a lot tougher to be in, were those times alright? It usually came down to some disagreement about how should the show be, how should the set be, how should the album be? How should we conduct ourselves off the stage, how should we spend time in between all of that? But now it’s like, have your fun – but if anyone is fucking around to the point where it affects the band performance, everyone is not happy. I think that’s part of what keeps it such a functional and smooth unit. We are able to do 54 shows in 54 dates- and there weren’t any fights among the band. Without a day off for that one, and everyone got along the entire time.
Dead Rhetoric: Where at this point would you assess the career of Warbringer? Do you believe that there is a chance that you could move up the ranks and take the band to mid-size arena level acceptance in North America, Europe, and beyond – and if so, what sort of circumstances/ opportunities would have to be in place to get there?
Kevill: I’ve gotta believe, don’t I Matt? I have a vested interest in believing. I always feel that Warbringer has been one of the more prominent bands of newer thrash metal. There is a lot to say for that. A lot of people that I meet that are looking up to the position that we are in, and are trying to start their own bands and try to get there. I appreciate that we’ve come a long way. At the same time, this isn’t something I can sustain my life on doing this alone, and I’ve always felt that on one hand we’ve been prominent, on the other hand we’ve been sidelined. I feel like the band’s never quite gotten its due, and that has me having a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. That’s part of the reason why I still have some fight in me.
I have mixed feelings. I want to push for greater success, the fire that burns to make records like this one and the last one. Amon Amarth are currently a bigger band, and they weren’t an overnight success. They just put out album after album after album, and eventually their brand sticks and they become an institution. I think in metal that can work more where you can build a legacy totally based on consistency. Warbringer is starting to turn that corner – from being commonly seen as some kind of retro-act to a real thrash metal institution in our own right.
Personally, I’d like to think our recent output can go toe to toe or better with the recent output of you name the band – legends of the genre, match or beat the records they’ve put out lately. Of course, that’s my subjective opinion – I am the most biased source in the world when talking about Warbringer.
Dead Rhetoric: With Warbringer, you’ve always embraced the thrash genre – but also the aspects of traditional and extreme music. That’s where the difference lies compared to the older bands, who were influenced more by punk and NWOBHM…
Kevill: I think that’s a fair assessment. Maybe we can reach that point if we are able to play the long game and survive and be the last band standing of classic thrash metal. Slayer just retired, when you get the list of these bands that are now pushing their 50’s, they are not going to be around another two decades. Warbringer eventually, the new waves of bands will have a mission to fulfill in the world where there still needs to be thrash metal. We’ll be the only guys left with a legacy and a career in expertise doing it. If we ever break through, then that may be how. Just by standing and weathering the years for a while. We are right on the cusp of the underground, where we are a little too well-known to be properly in the underground. Which isn’t always a comfortable spot for a band to be in. You lose out on both – not big enough to get on all the mainstream festivals that you would like to, but not hip underground enough to get into that scene as well. An uncomfortable middle point, and we got promoted well on our first couple of records that made us not so underground anymore. On the other hand, we never really blew up to be embraced by the mainstream. We still haven’t played a number of festivals – Bloodstock, Download, they don’t care to look at us. It’s a weird thing, I don’t know how to assess that. I’ve seen ourselves as a successor to underground extreme metal – Epidemic of Violence and Blood Fire Death are albums I consider as benchmarks, and they aren’t big selling records.
We are more straight up extreme thrash then any of the bands that got up to arena level, maybe with the exception of Slayer. We have songs like “Shellfire” on the last record and “Unraveling” on this one where we are doing 260 BPM. Not easy listening. Because of that influence, compared to some of our peers like Havok, we are more off into the wilds I guess. Further from the traditional, Bay Area thrash sound because of what we are based around.
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