Album review: Wage War – Manic
Rising Florida metalcore crew Wage War try some new flavours on fourth full-length, Manic.
“Will I ever tour again? Am I ever going to feel like I’m in a band again? We might have to start this whole thing from scratch…” Those were the panicked thoughts of Briton Bond, frontman of metalcore quintet Wage War, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to place a stranglehold on the music industry. Stuck at home with little to do aside from muse over how his band would – like so many artists affected by the crisis – try and recover from a crippling blow, he pondered what could have been, as plans to build on the momentum brought about by the streaming success of Wage War’s third LP, 2019’s Pressure, were shelved.
His thoughts, however, soon turned to matters far closer to home
“I thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to be inside and not doing anything for a while, I’m going to try and work on myself,’” the vocalist begins, when asked how he coped with lockdown and isolation. “I’d been going through some personal things over the years, and I felt like it was time to deal with them.”
As he alludes to, Briton has seen darkness many times in his life, and has always channelled those experiences into Wage War in the hope his words will help others, but the pandemic threatened to pour cold water on the idea that he could ever do that again. After all, how can you turn your trauma into music if there’s no band, no tours and no industry to sustain it?
Briton and bandmates Cody Quistad (vocals/guitar), Seth Blake (guitar), Chris Gaylord (bass) and Stephen Kluesener (drums) stood on the precipice of an uncertain future, with everything they’d worked so hard to build over the past decade looking like it could crumble before their eyes.
“We were all thinking that we’d have to start from ground zero again,” Briton says. “I thought we’d be back to playing really small clubs – it looked like everything was going to shrink and we’d end up where we were several years ago. That was my biggest concern when it came to the pandemic, in terms of Wage War.”
But frustrations at the prospect of a backwards career step were just the start of the worries – both professional and personal – that would engulf the band. Briton’s fellow vocalist Cody had concerns over the financial impact that the pandemic would have on Wage War, telling Kerrang! how “none of us had Plan Bs,” while also stressing how he needed to “find centre again” after living with a hectic touring schedule for so long. For Briton, lockdown was a time spent working on his mental health, though he also had to contend with a heart-breaking personal loss when his grandmother passed away.
“I got a call from my mom being like, ‘Grandma's sick and you need to come – it’s now or never.’ It's crazy how things like that can happen so quickly, and it just shows how you can never know when something so devastating is coming.”
An experience that would ultimately inform the song Never Said Goodbye, Wage War drew on many of their lockdown experiences when crafting new album Manic. In order to make their fourth record, though, the band – particularly Briton – needed to hit reset. After acknowledging how his mental health was “the number one thing I needed to work on,” and despite getting to some “pretty dark places,” the frontman now considers his mental health to be the best it’s ever been after a lengthy period of reflection brought about by lockdown.
Work too needed to be done to re-establish the strength and unity that had always existed within Wage War’s ranks. Having been rocked by the disappointment of the Pressure campaign being cut short and with such little time spent together across much of 2020, Briton, Cody, Seth, Chris and Stephen took the opportunity – once COVID restrictions allowed – to embark on a series of cabin retreats in the mountains that surround Chattanooga, Tennessee. Reconnecting with both their band and one another, the five friends shared ideas and set to work on the most important record of their career.
“It was nice to just hang out and be bros again,” Briton recalls. “The impact of that – in terms of the energy it brought to the music we were working on and the happiness between us – was nothing short of huge.”
Fresh out of high school, Briton formed Wage War in Ocala, Florida in 2010 alongside Cody and Seth, with Chris and Stephen rounding-out the line-up three years later. A small city nicknamed the ‘Horse Capital Of The World’, Ocala provided a comparatively small foundation from which a budding metal band could emerge in comparison to Florida’s larger hubs of Jacksonville, Miami and Orlando. To give Wage War’s hometown its due, it’s the place that spawned modern metal heavyweights A Day To Remember, but as Briton explains, breaking out of a near non-existent scene was no easy task for his band or those that came before them.
“We’re from super big horse country,” Briton outlines. “A lot of the Kentucky Derby horses come from Ocala – it consists of a lot of pastures and is essentially like a country town. There's a few old bars and smaller clubs downtown, but we ended up playing in churches and even a few gyms when we were starting out. We’d try and get a gig anywhere we could play, and eventually we found that if we played, people would come out, because it was the only thing to do.”
Getting a leg-up from the ADTR boys – “[vocalist] Jeremy McKinnon got interested in what we were doing, and that led to label attention” – prominent alternative label Fearless Records signed the band and put out Wage War’s debut LP Blueprints in 2015. Their aggressive, breakthrough follow-up Deadweight came two years later, before Pressure promised to propel the band into metal’s elite until the pandemic placed a halt on their ascension.
Now, armed with their fourth and career-best album Manic, Wage War once more have their sights set on joining metal’s big leagues. And after the heartache that came with abandoning plans for Pressure, Briton and fellow vocalist Cody are determined that, this time, nothing will hold them back.
“I wish we could’ve done more on Pressure,” Briton admits. “That experience was so frustrating, but we’ve channelled that aggression into the songs on the new record.”
“In light of what happened, we wanted to get new music out as soon as possible,” Cody adds. “Manic was spawned from those frustrations, and all the inspiration we gained from the early success of the Pressure tour, as well as the knowledge that it had to be cut short.”
Wage War are a band who’ve always wanted to push the boundaries of the metalcore scene they call home, and Manic feels like the culmination of a career spent trying to break those barriers down. Working hard to break out from a local scene that offered little in the way of exciting opportunities, the five-piece have amassed a devoted global following. Briton is keen to stress, however, that rather than trying to gain new fans by any means necessary, progression and fulfilment for Wage War comes from “doing the things that we love with our music… and trying new and different approaches to songwriting,” all the while pushing a heartfelt message that encourages their fans to “never give up”.
That manifesto felt more vital than ever as the band set to work on Manic in an environment characterised by loss, loneliness and mania. Determined to craft an album that simultaneously touched on their pandemic experiences and more universal themes, and one that, musically, pushed the envelope while staying true to themselves, Briton and co. holed themselves away in the mountains and emerged with 11 tracks of anthemic and urgent metalcore.
A record with a pertinent and timely overarching message – “Be there for each other, love each other, because you never know what’s going to happen,” Briton says – Wage War’s fourth album arrives at a time when music that instils a sense of hope, unity and love couldn’t feel more important.
With several tracks that, according to Cody, are inspired by “peak pandemic loneliness” and the “emotional rollercoaster of isolation where you feel like you’re going insane,” Manic’s story is one that will ring true to anyone who lived through 2020’s hellscape, but Wage War’s fourth LP also dabbles in broader themes. Briton’s views on the current mental health crisis, for instance, were the powerful motivator behind the call to unity that is thrilling recent single Circle The Drain, a song which sounds all the more devastating when you consider the struggles its creators fought against when bringing it to life.
“Mental health is at an all-time low,” Briton says of Circle The Drain’s meaning. “We need to stick together, or it's just going to be this continuous circle of pain and suffering that we all experience. It would be nice to have a light at the end of the tunnel in that regard, and I feel like there hasn't been that in the world for the last couple of years. It's very important for us as humans to come together and be better to each other, because a lot of people are struggling. We need to be good to each other – that’s the bottom line. We can't keep repeating the same mistakes.”
Similarly, Cody wanted Manic to chronicle mental fragility, both in light of and separate from the pandemic, describing how he took inspiration from the “search for answers” that can cloud our minds when we’re alone, particularly when crafting Manic’s title-track. Conversely, the album also contains some more aggressive, in-your-face metal offerings that long-time fans of Wage War will love. The pummelling High Horse is a fine example, as Briton swings back at the haters who have attacked the band online with no regards for the consequences (‘Incompetence is a killer when the mouth that speaks is ignorant / I'll see you choke on your words, self-righteous hypocrites / You wanna see a war? / I'm here to settle scores / Sick the hounds / Cut you down from your high horse’).
As for the music, Wage War take the opportunity to expand on the metalcore sound that’s always been at the centre of their world. There’s a hip-hop influence to a number of tracks, as well as a notable industrial element, but the band worked hard to ensure these new dalliances didn’t sound derivative or, as Cody puts it, “like a discount version of another artist.”
“We're not going to abandon our roots,” Briton adds. “Some people will probably hear more singing and these new elements and think we’re trying to sound like Nickelback, but to me, the songs that do that, like Godspeed, have more of a Rob Zombie feel. Yeah, there’s a bunch of clean singing, but it’s still packed with driving metal. It was a big goal of mine to keep Manic real and keep it metal, but bring in some of those more industrial elements and pay tribute to those bands like Rammstein that we love.”
That approach pays dividends throughout Manic, a record that remains unquestionably part of the metalcore scene, but one too that contains songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on rock radio alongside your more meat-and-potatoes heavy bands. More impressive, though, is the maturity and intelligence on display. Whether it’s a call for compassion in the face of mental trauma (Circle The Drain), an ode to all who lost someone during the pandemic (Never Said Goodbye) or a furious attack on toxic relationships (Teeth), Wage War have used Manic to tell the kind of relatable and affecting stories which – at a time when the world is just starting to reconnect – feel all the more necessary.
An album that continually calls for us to hold the things we love close, Manic is the product of a period when Wage War nearly lost everything. But now that they’ve emerged from the darkness, the quintet are imbued with passion, vigour and a sense of hope that feels impossible to dispel.
“There's real hope to be found when you listen to a song that, sure, might not have all the answers, but has clearly been made by someone going through the exact same thing that you are, and that's where I believe Manic really shines through,” Cody concludes. “That's where the hope kicks in. The knowledge that one person or group of people can get through something brings even more people together. In the end, we're all just trying to get through life, and that’s why hope is so important.
Briton, reflecting on the most intense and mentally taxing period of his life, agrees.
“You're not walking alone through all this. Sometimes, there's not a perfect answer to fix everything in our lives, and sometimes you’ve got to fail to figure out where you're going. There's some days where I wake up and I'm just like, ‘I don't even want to get on stage.’ But you’ve just got to keep trying to fight through it. That's a big thing I want our fans and listeners of this album to know: just don't give up, because you might be in the trenches, you might be getting your butt kicked, but it will end and there will be a time that you look back and think, ‘Yeah, that time sucked, but it allowed me to grow.’ That's what Manic is about – it's that journey of going through a lot of really bad stuff, but knowing that you can deal with it and you don’t have to deal with it alone. There’s always a way to make a better tomorrow.”
Wage War’s album Manic is out now via Fearless Records.
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Rising Florida metalcore crew Wage War try some new flavours on fourth full-length, Manic.
Listen to Wage War's new single Circle The Drain, taken from their upcoming fourth album Manic.
Watch the video for Wage War's colossal new single High Horse.
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