AT WAR, one of the first metal bands to be considered “war metal,” is back with its latest release, Infidel. It’s a major middle finger toward al-Qaeda and the like. Its raw, dirty brutality is an honest attempt at a comeback, and AT WAR is not just riding on the laurels of the retro thrash scene. The Virginia Beach trio had been on a 15-plus-year sabbatical, then started playing again in 2006 at the beginning of the thrash metal resurgence.
In 1983, AT WAR was an up-and-coming speed/thrash metal band. But they virtually disappeared after their sophomore release Retaliatory Strike in 1988. The renewed interest in the band and the reviews for Infidel couldn’t please vocalist/bassist Paul Arnold more.
What made At War re-form?
It actually started in 2006. Shawn (Helsel) and I remained friends through all this. We were in contact with each other all the time. We had all taken different paths and were occupied by things of a more personal nature. We started getting a little amount of contact from people to play out or to record something new. We started talking about it and things just fell together, and Shawn had a place to rehearse. We started rehearsing and people started hearing that we were actually rehearsing, and we started getting invited to do festivals and other things. It just kind of snowballed from there.
Was it because of the renewed interest in thrash?
I’m absolutely sure that was it. But we weren’t really aware of (the resurgence) until we started rehearsing again. We just wanted to do it again. And then we found out that there were these young thrash bands getting back together in the Bay area and other places. Then we started figuring out when we put up a MySpace page that it was out again and we just went apeshit!
What led to the band’s sabbatical, and what did all the members of At War do musically during the break?
I think it was around ‘92 or ‘93 that we played our last show. The whole music scene was changing around that time. Grunge was the flavor of the month, and it seemed like overnight the interest in extreme metal’s bottom fell out. At the same time we were up for a renewed contract with New Renaissance and a new album. They were trying to cut the budget while we were trying to get more money to do a better record. We thought we put in our time and that we deserved it. We just lost contact with them and decided that if we weren’t going to do it right, then we weren’t going to do it. And we attempted half-heartedly to find another label and we started drifting away from the band. I had a young daughter and we’d been out for months prior to that and I wasn’t around much, so I needed some time off. Musically, we didn’t do a whole lot. Shawn had formed a band that I sang for … just a local band. Dave our drummer took off with a cover band. That’s kind of where things drifted the most. We never officially called it quits or said “OK that’s it, let’s break up.”
In the ’80s you were an up-and-coming band but never really got much recognition. Do you feel that with the release of Infidel you will start to get the respect you deserve?
We did get a pretty healthy level of respect and had a pretty wide fan base. Some people think that we’re a new band. In fact, to a lot of people we are. Having the Internet … people thought we were a new band until they started looking into us and found out we’ve been inactive mostly. But then there were the old-school people who knew about us who heard we put out this new record. I think things could have been done differently in the ’80s and we could have gotten a lot more respect and notoriety. Things could have been different, but we’re not going for self-pity.
Infidel has an old-school vibe mixed with punk. But it also has that German thrash influence. Was it a conscience effort to remain true to your original sound?
Keep in mind, for 15 years, I wasn’t involved in the music scene. I was heavily into bowhunting and wildlife photography. I wasn’t in the music scene at all. The way things were recorded or the way things were musically in general, we were completely unaware of. It’s like we crawled out from under a rock in a time machine. We wanted to record an album. For us, it wasn’t about being rock stars, we just wanted to do something for ourselves. If this was the last album we ever to do, I wanted to make sure we didn’t cut any corners and that we didn’t bullshit around and did everything that we know how to do. We only did what we knew to do when we started writing songs. A lot of bands in the late ’80s and early ’90s, everyone was searching around for new things to do with metal. We even fell into that a little bit with some of the stuff we had written for the third album, which never got released. First and foremost, we’re going to play songs that we like. If we love them, then that’s all that matters. When it came to recording the album, our first choice was Alex (Perialas) because we love what he did with “Retaliatory Strike.” We trusted him. We weren’t trying to come up with a retro-sounding album. We used the techniques that worked great back then, and we’re really happy with the way it came out.
How pleased are you with the reviews of “Infidel” and the renewed interest in the band?
I’m very pleased. I’d say 90% of the reviews I’ve seen have been overwhelmingly positive. No matter what you do, there’s always going to be haters out there, for whatever reason. We’re going to expect that. But it’s been so little. Most people who listen to the album hear it the same way we do. Great songs, great-sounding record, doesn’t have a lot of in-the-box type of recording methods that most bands are so used to these days because it’s all they know. And when they hear it, they ask themselves, “Why does this album sound different?” It’s real musicians, playing real instruments, in a real studio. It’s not a bunch of stuff that’s manufactured. What you’re hearing is the “real deal.”
The warfare theme is still dominant on Infidel, but do consider yourself war metal?
I’ve been asked that a lot. Back in ‘84 when we first signed up with ASCAP, we had named our publishing company War Metal Music. I’m not going to take any credit for the moniker, but I think we were probably the first people to actually use it. As far as the genre, I never thought of it being that way, and I didn’t even know there was a war metal genre until two or three years ago. For us, the war theme kind of came into play as a result of our upbringing. The reason we love metal is because of the aggression. And what’s more aggressive than war? Shawn, Dave (Stone) and I are all huge WWII movie buffs, and when I was a baby the Vietnam War was going on. Plus the fact we all hunt, we all have guns and wear camouflage. It all kind of fell into place. It kind of worked its way into the theme of the band. The reason the band is called At War is not because of war itself, it’s really a state of mind. We were at war with … we were sick and tired of people who bitch, whine and moan about things and don’t do anything about it. If you’ve got a problem, get out there and attack the problem, declare war on the problem. At war with whatever problems you have in life.
The cover art of “Infidel” as well as the song “Want You Dead” are strong statements. You seem to stand behind everything you do. You aren’t trying to be diplomatic are you?
Absolutely not. The song “Want You Dead,” it’s not purporting a political viewpoint, it’s purporting a fact. If anyone reads the facts about Islamic extremism, for me I’m just speaking the truth. Extremists want anybody that’s not them to be dead. And that’s a fact. The song is not trying to persuade, it’s just speaking the truth. And anyone who wants to say otherwise, it’s just not true. That’s all the song is saying. It’s just saying that people need to wake up and realize you cannot negotiate with people who think this way. It’s a religious mindset to them. They feel that the only society is one without you in it. If you’re not with them, you’re against them. That’s what’s caused all the turmoil in the last 10 years … that type of thinking.
Any closing comments?
I want to thank all the fans and you, Kelley, for this interview. And everyone who’s been supporting all forms of extreme metal over the years. When we played in Europe, Germany especially, along with Japan and Mexico for that matter, the thing that strikes me the most is how different it is in the States compared to there. In the States, metal seems to be so fragmented in your little groups. If you’re a death-metal guy, it’s got to be death metal or it sucks. If you’re a thrash guy, it’s got to be thrash metal or it sucks, and so on. If you go to European festivals, you feel support from every form of metal there is, be it NWOBHM or math metal, you name it. The crowd down front, cheering people on. I’d like to see more of that as a country. I think the fragmentation makes it harder in the entire metal industry in this country for bands and music to become more prolific. The last thing we need is to have in-fighting within metal. We need to support the whole thing. That’s what I’d like to see.