Title: Woe to the Vanquished
Genre: Thrash Metal
Release Date: March 31, 2017
Length: 41 min.
Producers: Mike Plotnikoff
Personnel: John Kevill (lead vocals), Adam Carroll (guitars), Chase Becker (guitars), Jessie Sanchez (bass guitar), Carlos Cruz (drums)
Thrash fans have been experiencing a stellar 2017 so far. Mr. Malone and I have both mentioned before, here on ED, that we’re in the midst of a thrash revival, and, man, is it going strong. This year alone, we’ve seen quality albums from the likes of Power Trip, Sepultura (although that one isn’t full-blown thrash, but I’ll count it anyway), Kreator, Overkill, Havok, Lich King, and Municipal Waste. Back in March, another thrash outfit threw their hat into the ring: Warbringer.
Warbringer is a neo-thrash band that formed in 2004, and like I mentioned in my review of this year’s Conformicide from Havok, most neo-thrash bands have already petered out and prematurely gone the way of the buffalo. However, much like Havok, Warbringer is just getting started.
Warbringer isn’t super popular yet, per se, and I don’t think they’re even as well-known as some of the other neo-thrash survivors, but they have curated and maintained a fan base with a decent number of people really loving what they hear and keeping their ears open for new Warbringer tunes. Despite these things, and despite the fact that Warbringer had already released four albums before Woe to the Vanquished, they only started getting actually good on their last album, the oddly titled IV: Empires Collapse. That was the first time, in my opinion, that Warbringer truly started to forge a quality sound of their own.
Since then, Warbringer has seen some lineup changes and drama in an amount that often bodes badly for groups, the kind of drama that often rips bands apart. I wont get too much into all that, as ED is not a gossip blog. Suffice it to say, Warbringer has persisted. So what does this current lineup have to offer us?
Short answer? Personnel changes have done much to benefit Warbringer’s sound.
Warbringer is old-school thrash in both sound and philosophy. At various points, you’ll hear some Slayer, Kreator, Testament, Death Angel, and others. When the album begins, you know you’re in for awesome thrash, the best this neo-thrash band has ever given us, but you might also think you’ve heard all this before, no matter how well it’s done. Then, we really get into the thick of things: Kevill’s voice sounding like early Araya (especially those primal screams) with occasional touches of Rob Halford, the solid thrash lyricism and composition, the heavy and speedy drum work from Cruz, the foundation laying bass of newcomer Sanchez, and the emphasis on dual guitar work from Carroll and the other newcomer, Becker, that shreds ruthlessly and harmonizes often.
In lyrical content, the album reminds me, a bit, of Megadeth’s Dystopia from last year, in the way Dystopia‘s themes weren’t necessarily attacking current politics like Conformicide from this year was, but rather it’s more of a dire warning of the future to come if some policies continue. Except Warbringer is a lot less partisan than Mustaine, and also less heavy-handed. Well, they are the least partisan and heavy-handed a thrash act can be, that is. On a couple of instances, you see the band’s political leanings peaking through, such as in their criticism of police brutality on “Remain Violent,” a really well-done song by the way. But even then, they only criticize the act of gratuitous brutality by law enforcement, driving toward the same point that both sides of the spectrum – other cops included – have made. In no instance here do they truly dig in their heels on either side of controversy. They just address the issue.
This could come off as a weakness and an unwillingness to take sides, but here it actually turns out well, because even though they avoid some of the easy shocks that metal lyricism can go for, they are still talking about the same kind of much-covered stuff: war, dystopia, nuclear paranoia (a la Rust in Peace), but I think they attempt to do a better job of it, and, for the most part, they do. They also stay away from occult imagery. Not only are those things cliché, though they can be done well, they tend to be easy ways to shock and thrill. Instead, the guys in Warbringer choose to paint their pictures without those aids. And though it still comes across, sometimes, as slightly generic (perhaps it would be better to say overdone), they do a dang good job.
For instance, this album contains Warbringer’s best composition in their thirteen year history in the album closer “When the Guns Fell Silent.” For certain, this is their most mature song yet, and the kind of song most people probably thought they couldn’t pull off: an eleven minute number with varying volumes and tempos that slowly builds its weight and story throughout its length to a satisfying conclusion. It is not just a long song for length’s sake, either. It begins with quiet acoustic guitar, marinates, and then builds, and it presents us with a strong story and message. This song was a respect-worthy risk for Warbringer, since they’ve never attempted something like this, and they could have easily fallen on their faces. With the way the album builds to this song, that would have been bad indeed. Like “Jaguar God” from this year’s Emperor of Sand by Mastodon or “Exist” from last year’s The Stage by Avenged Sevenfold, “When the Guns Fell Silent” is a fantastic showcase of the band’s potential. Things like this make the album much better than it could have been, and much better than the past four Warbringer albums.
Even the seven songs before “When the Guns Fell Silent” are excellent. The first few present the guys as studied students of early thrash who perform their recitations well. “Silhouettes” paints a disturbing picture of nuclear war and has a torrential pace with a flurry of riffs. It’s a great intro to the band’s sound. “Shellfire” is a looming and horrifyingly effective description of the middle of war. I also like that it has a sort of melodic midsection, with some acoustic guitars in the mix, where everything slows down and the instrumentalists get to throw their weight around a bit, after which the song hops back into action, the temporary pause in shelling over, and the music sells this shelling idea. “Spectral Asylum” and “Divinity of Flesh” are exciting and palate-readying sneak peaks at the talent on the next track, “When the Guns Fell Silent,” and they ease us into the more complex structure of that closer, versus the relatively simple preceding compositions. Also, “Divinity of Flesh” is, strangely, simultaneously both optimistic and pessimistic, and a very fitting song for the last half of the album.
Warbringer stuffs a lot of decent thrash songwriting in here with moments of greatness and without the cheese that this metal subgenre so often contains, however delicious that cheese might be. The band has a lot of range now, too, and they’re displaying it impressively. Kevill is showing himself to be a contender in the current heavy metal vocalist realm. But I think what I love most about the band is how Carroll and Becker pace frantically up and down their fretboards and join together in a nice harmony, complementing their fierce riffage, and their solos truly impress me.
Though Woe to the Vanquished is a pretty masterful album, it is not a perfect one. For one thing, “Woe to the Vanquished” and “Descending Blade,” though fine, can’t fully overcome a feeling of thrash-by-the-numbers. There isn’t any filler per se, though, and there better not be with only eight tracks. And “Descending Blade” does have some cracking, though erratic, imagery. Also, the flow of the album as a whole work is somewhat negatively effected by the lopsidedly long final number. On top of that, the production is too loud, and sometimes individuality gets lost in the fray. Sanchez’s bass, especially, is pushed too far back in the mix, which is a shame, because when he does shine through, he has a nice, Trujillo-like groove. I should rather say that the bass is mixed inconsistently, because sometimes it does come close to the forefront, while at others times being trampled on by the mix. Then, there’s my concern that, at many moments on the album, and specifically on the song “Shellfire,” some of the songs sound much like what Warbringer has attempted in the past, just a big improvement. Beyond these things, the lyricism is occasionally inconsistent and the drums can be too bash-bash-bashy for me.
Overall, Woe to the Vanquished is an impressive piece of work from Warbringer and definitely their best album, by far. It has a blistering pace, along with some nice meditation and a little atmosphere. Personnel changes might have rocked Warbringer’s boat for a bit, but the band has come out the other side better for it. Woe to the Vanquished is another quality release from 2017 for metal fans to add to their collection.
I’m going to give Warbringer’s Woe to the Vanquished an 84%.
Seriously, if you love thrash, support these guys, because I can see them becoming some of the best, in time. Woe to the Vanquished has become one of my favorite thrash albums of the past few years, despite the problems I have with it that lower my score. I still haven’t heard too much, either, of it in the metal music media I follow, but it deserves to be recognized!