Although it’s never been as popular as it was during the late 1980s, thrash metal never went away, as bands young and old continued to stay true to the formula of double-time speed, nimble, palm-muted riffs, and straightforward shredding. That said, over the last couple years thrash has undergone a modest little renaissance, as a new generation of musicians, many of whom weren’t even born when us oldsters were hunting down albums like Nuclear Assault’s Survive and Annihilator’s Alice in Hell, have embraced both the music and the aesthetic of the ‘80s thrash underground. The Virginia band Municipal Waste led the charge with 2007’s raucous The Art of Partying, metal labels quickly took notice, and the signing frenzy started. While labels like Metal Blade, Earache, and Nuclear Blast seemed to leave no stone unturned, the heavyweight imprint Century Media took another approach: instead of signing a whole slew of young neo-thrashers, why not snag one standout act that’s willing to tour extensively and groom them on a more grassroots level?
In Ventura, California’s Warbringer, the label got a good one, too. Like all their young peers, the band’s approach has never been very adventurous. Instead of following the lead of the forward-thinking ‘80s output of genre leaders Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax, the primary influence was on thrash’s underrated but equally crucial second tier, from Bay Area pioneers Exodus to Canada’s great Sacrifice, to German stalwarts Kreator and Destruction, with more emphasis on speed over ambitious song structures, snarling lead vocals over melody. Warbringer’s 2006 EP One By One, the Wicked Fall was a terrific, suitably raw slice of DIY retro-thrash, while last year’s debut full-length War Without End continued right where the EP left off, the band even tossing subtle nods to early-‘90s death metal throughout the record.
A lack of sincerity in Warbringer’s approach has never been an issue, as the band is very well schooled in the history of the sound (vocalist John Kevill draws inspiration from the vocal stylings of Sacrifice’s Rob Urbinati). But with Waking Into Nightmares arriving just over a year after the last record, which is a feat in its own right, the novelty tag is shed for good. In fact, it’s as good a thrash album as you’ll hear all year. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the new record was produced by Exodus guitarist Gary Holt, but it’s all about what the band brings to album number two. The formula may be the same as ever before, but that simplicity works tremendously in their favor. Warbringer now sound like a well-oiled, tour-hardened band, making the last album sound tepid in the process, and they also toss out the odd surprise or two for listeners.
Of all of metal’s formulaic sounds, retro-thrash remains one of the most viscerally satisfying. It’s all about instant gratification: speed, catchiness, shredding, not a second squandered. Waking Into Nightmares wastes no time getting things going. “Jackal” exuberantly echoes the “friendly violent fun” of Holt’s own band, “Living in a Whirlwind” boasts some phenomenal drumming by Nic Ritter (not to mention some brief death-style blastbeats), and the darker “Severed Reality” heads right into Kreator territory, Kevill leading the charge with his very effective vocals, displaying an all-too rare knack for growling and enunciating at the same time.
Midway through the album the band starts to truly raise the bar. “Abandoned by Time” is a terrific example of their new confidence, the deftness of the contagious riffing and the constant tempo shifts making the slight Slayer homage in the main riff forgivable. Meanwhile, “Prey For Death” is the catchiest thing Warbringer have ever done, actually daring to evoke Metallica’s Ride the Lightning, while the instrumental that follows, “Night Mare Anatomy”, goes one step further, creating a murky mood reminiscent of Lightning‘s classic “The Call of Ktulu”.
Thrash revivalists like Warbringer, Merciless Death, Exmortus, Toxic Holocaust, and Mantic Ritual might not bring anything new whatsoever to the table, but they bring a welcome level of vigor back to metal, not so much breaking new ground as attempting to recapture, or perhaps improve upon the energy of the thrash’s forebears. With their new album, though, Warbringer have started to separate from the pack, exhibiting more potential than many of us had expected from them in the past.