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INTERVIEW: John Kevill – Warbringer

When the new wave of thrash metal exploded onto the world in the early 2000s, Californian thrashers WARBRINGER were at the forefront as the new wave took the metal world by storm. Now, thirteen years after their explosive entry, the landscape of metal has changed and the band are preparing to unleash their most ambitious record to date, Woe To The Vanquished. Numerous lineup changes haven’t deterred the band and this year sees the band’s momentum hitting a new level. We caught up with frontman and founding member John Kevill to lift the lid on the brand new album, including its themes and concepts, alongside extensively discussing the band’s expansive soundscape, the current state of thrash metal and why WARBRINGER refuse to be written off as another typical thrash metal band.

So your fifth studio album, Woe To The Vanquished, is set for release at the end of March. What can fans expect from the upcoming album?

John: Well, I believe it is the most highly evolved, aggressive and overall best WARBRINGER album to date. It is super aggressive, really crushing and based around the influences of classic thrash metal but pushing it forward with a lot of death, black and extreme metal influences as well. There’s also some traditional heavy/speed type of stuff as well, but it’s all put in a super aggressive package. We tried to have interesting songs with atypical structures beyond verse, chorus, verse, chorus, solo, verse, chorus. Each song is going to have it’s little moment and by the end of the record it moves off the aggressive machine gun to the face sound and gets to something that is more desolate and sad. That wraps it up really nicely!

It’s been four years since IV: Empire Collapse, how has the band progressed in that time?

John: Well I had to remake it twice in order to get between there and here. The band literally collapsed before the release of Empire Collapse and we did both the tours, to some extent, with makeshift lineups that myself and Adam Carroll had to put together. Then, we had another makeshift lineup in 2015 that bailed on us right before our tour with ENFORCER in 2016 which kind of led to the lineup we have now because Carlos Cruz rejoined and saved us from having to drop off the tour altogether because here we have a drummer who can play the material and knows the songs. And Jesse Sanchez joined too and did that tour with us. Afterwards, we got Chase Becker on guitar which completed the lineup, we did the tour with EXMORTUSConan on guitar to save our bacon pretty much. We barely pulled it off at all, we had a month to learn all the songs and retrain a whole new band to play as a professional touring band which is no small feat. So, the in between records was a whole ordeal and it took years of just getting the band to even exist! It took a couple of years to even do that, then after that, fast forward to February 2016 we come home from that tour and we start working on the record and it actually went really swiftly. Myself, Carlos and Adam formed the core song-writing team, as we were all long time members, and we just worked great together and cranked this thing out. I had a concept in the title all in mind and Carlos was really willing to work towards it and Adam was orchestrating and organising everything, Adam is just a riff factory! So by our powers combined we put our minds together and this album came out.

Already you have released the first single from the album, Silhouettes, how have you found the response for that single?

John: Pretty damn strong! People seem to like it and we’re coming out of a few years of isolation and question mark status because the last time anyone really heard too much of a peep out of us was in 2013. Since then, it’s been a couple of shifty lineup changes and we’ve done some live stuff, so at first people are like “wow WARBRINGER are back!” I think people are really impressed by it and I think a lot of people like the direction the song’s going, it’s really heavy and extreme, I think that’s what a lot of people want to hear out of us, especially after the last record which was a little bit less those things.

Was it a surprise at all when you dropped the new single? That people were so positive about it and remembered that WARBRINGER are still a band…

John: Well I mean it is obviously, but you can’t expect anything so it’s always nice to see when things go well. It has gotten a good response, its had good views and everything and everyone is happy with the campaign. People who are talking about the song overwhelmingly like it and that is just the tip of the iceberg for the record so I can’t wait for people to hear the whole record! It’s really nice to see that people remember and they still care, I think if people forgot I think putting out a strong single like that really helped them remember you know! We’re putting out the next single in a few weeks, Remain Violent, it will be cool to see what people think there because Silhouettes is a really extreme, winding, complicated and intense song whilst Remain Violent is a hooky anthem. We wanted to put out the extreme one first because we don’t want to give people the impression that we’re moving more like a Black album direction, that we do have a really catchy, stompy song with an anthemic chorus and we’re putting that out next, I’m excited about that too as I think that will really catch a lot of people’s ears!

Oh definitely, so moving on towards the themes and messages contained on the album. What sort of topics is Woe To The Vanquished going to address?

John: Well a lot of it is history based because I am studying to be a history professor for sometime in the future, I’m like a third of the way there at the moment. But it is a lifelong passion, it’s why the band is called what it is, and some of the themes we’ve had in the past but I think I can write about it. I think I’m a better writer now so I was able to tackle the subject a lot better than I had before. So a lot of the record, the cover and the songs Shellfire and When The Guns Fell Silent are based around the First World War, which oddly enough just keeps becoming. As it passes out of living memory it completely becomes more and more relevant to our current political situation, I think anyway. So that is a lot of what drew me to write about that so much but also it has this great duality to it, where you have the gallantry of the soldiers who charge fearlessly into gunfire versus the callous politicians and generals who squander the lives of these brave men by the thousands and then do it again the next day, and how that can go on for so long. So I think there is a great duality of a human nature theme in that whole era and that is something I really tried to bring up but I don’t stick on just that because I don’t want to beat a subject to death. So the title track is from the Roman Empire days and it is just about how the strong trample the weak, take everything and the weak get nothing, their story is not even told so they pretty much never existed. The last line in that song is “your line dies with you” and it not just about the elimination, it’s not just about conquering a people, it’s about destroying their culture, their civilisation, their language and everything. Romanisation as it was, I think that is a really powerful and grim message and it echoes through time. So a lot of these kind of themes about darkness in human nature and fallen empires and civilisations, but then some other ones are different. Like Spectral Asylum is about creepy fantasy and Descending Blade is like a action movie-esque story about a sniper who the tables turn on. Some songs are really conceptual, especially the finishing song When The Guns Fell Silent, and others that are more traditional thrash fare, but I’d say it leans more towards the conceptual side.

You just mentioned then about When The Guns Fell Silent. Being an 11 minute epic, it’s not really something we see in thrash metal. Where did the decision to do a song of that length and of that scale originate from?

John: Well we just want to write songs that are different from songs we’ve written before and a lot of bands that inspire us, heavy metal in general, has a ton of great epic songs. IRON MAIDEN have a ton of them, that’s an obvious example, so we’ve always wanted to do that. I’ve been studying the First World War a lot and When The Guns Fell Silent is the end of the First World War which cool trivia, the song is exactly 11 minutes and 11 seconds, and the armistice of the First World War is creepily on 11am November 11th. So we got to tie that in because the song ended up being around 11 minutes and I was like “we have to make it 11:11, that’s too cool, we gotta do it!” So I’m really happy we got that little Easter egg in there, but yeah, I wanted to do a song about that. A song about that feeling and subject has to be huge and monolithic to properly suit what it is about anyway, so we wanted a sound for that. Conceptually, that’s what we were doing; a giant epic called When The Guns Fell Silent. I had the title before the music existed and just with a title like that you can’t write like a two minute song. So we knew we wanted to have a giant epic piece, I pulled out the narration that starts it as well, it’s from a British warrior poet called Siegfried Sassoon, I think he was a really interesting and cool guy and a great writer, I’m glad I was able to put some Sassoon in there. That’s me narrating it too, I’d been practising my narrating voice just as a hobby so I got to put that on the record which is fun. So that’s where the concept all came from, to have this literary, historical epic about the end of the First World War and not really about the dates or places, but more about the emotional desolation that follows, that’s the part the music captures, I focus on that in my writing. Musically though, we were thinking we want that monolithic sense of bigness and massiveness so the first we naturally turned to is the title track of …And Justice For All. Our musical compass when we were writing the song was two things; …And Justice For All, the title track and To Live Is To Die specifically, and BATHORY‘s Blood, Fire, Death the song. So from the Justice side we get the crunch and the monolithic towering sound and from the BATHORY side you get that ethereal ghostly fog. The mist of evil that hangs over everything. In the verse of When The Guns Fell Silent you really hear, I think we got something sound wise that is a fusion of these two things, you can really it in the verse where you have the chord melody line, those creepy black metal chords over the marching chug. I think we were trying to fuse the epic heavy thrash metal stuff with the epic black metal and that’s where the sound of that song comes from. I think it came out rather unique!

So would this be something you’d look to incorporate more in with future WARBRINGER albums?

John: Well to make a giant 11 minute song I think I would need the idea that justifies it. Here, I had it, I can’t promise that I will in the future, but it is one of my favourite songs I’ve ever done so yeah I’m likely look to do more conceptual story like stuff like that. I think we’re never going to be a band that past our first album, we were never satisfied with just writing a record that goes at one speed the whole time. We want to make interesting and diverse records and that is the influence of just classic heavy metal like IRON MAIDEN, JUDAS PRIEST and so forth. All these bands had interesting records where they have the fast song, the epic song, the mid-paced headbanger. All the different flavours were there and we want to have a wide range of flavours on our record as well. So this one was something really special that came together and we were planning for it to be a seven minute song actually, but when Adam, Chase and Carlos got together and wrote that middle instrumental section, it turned out to be 11 so we went with it! It turned out even bigger than we projected!

Do you think by having diverse albums you can really help drive, not just WARBRINGER, but the sound and scene of thrash metal forward?

John: I really hope so! From other thrash musicians who talk to me and young guys who starting bands themselves like I was at one point, I hear guys who say “we want to be pure EXODUS worshipers”, I literally heard some kids say that to me at one point. I’m like “hey guys you will never be as good of an EXODUS as EXODUS” because they are always going to be better with that. But, what do you like about what they do? What are your favourites parts about them and what are your least favourite parts? And how do you synthesise that with other favourite parts of things to make your own blend. I think that is what WARBRINGER is doing, we’re pretty analytical and critical thinkers when it comes to music and all the core writing dude; myself, Adam and Carlos have a pretty wide knowledge of metal in general. We’re naturally not just going to tunnel vision one end of the spectrum. Even thrash metal is a wide genre! You’ve got releases like Darkness Descends on one end then stuff like Punishment For Decadence or Rust In Peace on the other. It’s a wide genre and people often forget that. So even just drawing from different ends of the thrash metal genre, which I think a lot of bands really focus on one side of it, I think just by doing that you can create an interesting blend. We reach out further, we go into what we call the neighbouring genres of heavy metal; speed, black, power a little bit with the lead melodies though we don’t want to be too fluffy. Creative use of all the sounds and styles we know exist and all filtered through our own ideas and trying to use our own knowledge of music to create something that captures the sound that we imagine. I describe it like in Jurassic Park, where you have the regular Tyrannosaurus and then you have the super one, the cloaking hybrid, super predator thing. I try to envision WARBRINGER‘s music as being the lab grown, super predator version of thrash. It incorporates elements from all other things to make it an even more lethal animal, that’s how I view us. We can only do that approach and that’s a benefit of being a thrash band in the current age that no one talks about. We have the benefit of retroactively seeing everything that came before us, we stand on the shoulders of giants as it were. So we can do things like incorporate 90s black metal with 80s thrash, which you couldn’t have done in the 80s because 90s black metal didn’t yet exist! There’s a great benefit to being a listener in the present day because like I was talking about earlier with the stylistic fusion on When The Guns Fell Silent where we had these two different songs in mind. Now if you hadn’t heard that and I didn’t tell you that, you might not have had that thought, you might of thought something else altogether. You might say “oh it’s IMMORTAL meets IRON MAIDEN” but the point is that all music is created is synthesised by stuff they know themselves and listen to. With WARBRINGER you’re not getting a deliberate attempt to make one thing so much as a synthesis of everything we know and love that we think fits together, I’m not going to put any of my jazz influences in there! [laughs] But everything that fits is going to go in, we try to make a synthesis of everything we like that fits well together to make something original and interesting. We’ve been doing that since the beginning, so I think if you follow our records you will see a definite progression. Even on our first record which is our most 80s throwback record there is, you still see on At The Crack of Doom, the blasts on Total War, Beneath The Waves with the heavy metal influence, that we’re already starting to do that. I think that is one thing that has bothered me throughout our whole career is that I feel so many people write us off as a SLAYER clone or something. But every single song on every single record, I know the SLAYER playbook, I’ve studied it and I make this shit! I can tell you all kinds of stuff that we do and they don’t on any of their songs. To me, it’s like we are putting in a lot of effort, not just in being thrash, but being a new and original brand and I’m really hoping that this is the record where people really recognise that and five records in, we’re not some new flash in the pan anymore. We can be seen as a legitimate band that makes really legitimate records because that’s what I think we are.

Oh definitely and I guess that is what you want really? Well, any musician, not to be just written off…

John: Yeah! It’s kind of tough for us as it’s a weird thing as the time where we came out there was a lot of thrash metal bands coming out and so many journalists seemed intent on writing the whole thing off. Sure enough, we had some young bands, most of whom were in their late teens or early 20s, making their first records and sure enough most of these records didn’t invent a new genre! But a lot of these bands and those first records that came out around the time of War Without End are pretty enjoyable! They were pretty fast and we’re not talking about symphonic goth bullshit, it’s actually metal at least right?! That’s good! And then all of these bands evolved and went in their own direction like MUNICIPAL WASTE has one sound, TOXIC HOLOCAUST have another. HAVOK has theirs, we have our whole evolution. Then you have stuff like VEKTOR which is really overtly unique and you totally can’t say that’s a knock off of anything! For the whole new wave of thrash it felt, from my perspective, it felt like there was this wide agenda of people wanting to discredit it all. So I took it like a gauntlet being thrown down and was like “well, we’re going to write the most creative shit we can so if you’re saying what you’re saying, you’re just an idiot!”

And really, just to close off, following the release of the album at the end of March, you’re coming back over to the UK in April with some performances with HAVOK. What can fans expect from these upcoming performances?

John: Oh dude, well complete and utter annihilation is the point! So these shows coming up first we have Heavy Scotland Festival and then a number of UK dates with EXMORTUS, GOROD, WARBRINGER and HAVOK, that’s just a killer tour! We have some neoclassical thrash/death/trad stuff in the form of EXMORTUS, great friends of ours from the same scene. GOROD I’m less familiar with because we didn’t grow up in the same scene as they’re from France, but technical death metal with really dizzying instrumentation. Us, we’re going to blow your head off and then HAVOK are playing a more Bay Area focused style of modern thrash metal that they do very well! I think it is a killer tour and I think if you are talking about thrash metal today, you shouldn’t be going to see like people who made great albums 30 years ago and now are going to stand there and not really headbang, not really wail and just play shit from a new album that’s just passable, if it’s passable people think it’s great, I’ll fucking call that out. If old bands with huge fanbases put out a new album and it doesn’t suck, people act like it is great. It can be really frustrating being part of a movement where there are multiple bands churning out great records that don’t get one tenth of the attention or credit. I’m almost kind of happy to see some of the old bands starting to die off because I think it is necessary for metal as a genre to rejuvenate itself because you can’t just have the same bands and the same records and the same names over and over again. That’s a dead genre. I’m not saying throw out the classic records either as that is the foundation of everything I do, I’m just saying what’s coming out today and the current scene, why not make some new classic records? Why not have some new classic bands? Obviously you can see where my bias is but this is what we are trying to do, we’re trying to make metal that is viable that you can look at and stands strong on its own merits and that is worth listening to.

Well brilliant, thank you so much for talking to Distorted Sound and best of luck with the album release and upcoming tour

John: Thank you so much, it was great talking to you!

Woe To The Vanquished is set for release on March 31st via Napalm Records.

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Distorted Sound Issue 24 COVER