The world of music is a cut-throat industry that some survive through, some make a career with, and some just don’t last for any number of reasons. WarHorse certainly fall into the category as a band that was just a dot on the radar, but their few releases were strong and made quite a dent on the doom metal world, carving out a little niche for them to have a cult status or following. After signing with Southern Lord records, the band released one full-length album and one 7 inch single that are a monolith of sound, perfectly showcasing not only what they were capable of, but what they could have been had they stuck together. Unfortunately though, WarHorse wouldn’t last for a few reasons described later, which is an absolute shame. As for their cult status, do a quick Ebay search and see that copies of their vinyl releases often sell for upwards or $100, which founding bassist/singer Jerry Orne simply called “silly.”
My first experience with WarHorse came when I was driving down a highway on a roadtrip, jamming to a Southern Lord compilation disc entitled “Let There Be Doom” which featured the track “I Am Dying,” the 7-inch single released by the band in 2002 and ultimately becoming their last recorded effort. The track begins with a quiet, subtle bassline with light drumming and an equally gentle guitar compliment shortly thereafter. Once the song builds in volume and anticipation, the full-force of WarHorse nearly destroyed my speakers, prompting me to hit the volume knob in order to salvage them. “It’s ironic that you say that,” jokes Orne in his thick New England accent over the telephone. “My speakers were toast after we recorded that. If you listen closely, you hear some crackle when the bass comes in. Right after we recorded that, I had to replace those speakers.” With such a dense sound, I could only imagine the amount to money they had to put out to replace blown speakers, possibly on a continuous basis. “That was the joke, we were far too heavy for conventional gear,” continues Orne as he describes the band’s gear collection. “Mike’s [Hubbard – drums, ed.] drums had a John Bonham setup with a massive kick. He was using 16 inch crashes for hi-hats and this massive, like 28 inch kick drum, and his ride was a jazz ride that was ridiculous. Todd [Laskowski – guitars, ed.] stepped up when it was time to tour. He went out and bought two Marshall cabinets and I had my big old Peavey with two 18s and two 10s.”
WarHorse as a band hail from Worcester, Massachusetts and only consisted of three members; Jerry Orne on vocals and bass, Todd Laskowski on guitars, and Mike Hubbard on drums. The power trio idea is in full effect with this band, but at first listen, knowing absolutely nothing about them, I assumed they had more than three members, seeing how their music had so much going on in it. Classifying the band, however, isn’t the easiest task. Not that I’m intent on giving them a label, but a description is necessary. At first, you could call them just a doom band, but on a closer listen, you’ll notice much more going on in the mix than that. “Some of the stuff is very Alice in Chains influenced,” says guitarist Todd Laskowski, surprisingly. “Jerry Cantrell [AIC guitarist – ed.] is one of the heaviest riff masters on earth! So maybe Alice in Chains, Black Sabbath, and Commander Cody or some shit. A lot of people said ‘Oh, we heard you guys are like the second coming of Winter.’ Maybe. With a little Lynyrd Skynyrd mixed in.”
“We didn’t intend to, or set out to, make a doom band,” states Orne, regarding the band’s sound. “I thought we were a Sabbathy death metal band. We were trying to sound like Autopsy, Incantation, and Winter” before summing up the sound by saying “we were shooting for a Sleep/Sabbath type of death metal.”
Southern Lord founder and mainman Greg Anderson recalls first hearing WarHorse around 2000 and thinking “They sounded like a Sleep LP played on the wrong speed. They did what they did extremely well with a lot of passion. That is what really drew me to the band. The thing that set them apart in my eyes was, as Jerry Orne said, they incorporated death metal into their sound and they were darker and heavier than most bands of the time. In that time period, a lot of the so called doom bands were more into ripping off Kyuss, and WarHorse were more into sounding like Autopsy on Quaaludes and LSD!”
The chemistry that is WarHorse has first began in the mid 1990’s when guitarist Laskowski joined Desolate, with one Jerry Orne on bass. As a unit, Desolate released two demos by 1994, before calling it a day just a few years later. The band would gain a following while doing shows with the likes of Mortician, Suffocation, and Incantation in the New England area “when Killswitch Engage and Shadows Fall were 15 year old kids” says Todd. “It’s funny how all those guys are rockstars in a way. I literally remember watching them in the crowds as kids.” [Currently, Desolate are active and playing select shows in support of the “Sanity Obliterated” release, currently available on Pathos Productions . – ed.]
In due time, Orne would regroup and forge ahead forming WarHorse with Mike Hubbard on drums in 1996, and go through two separate line-ups with different guitarist/vocalists, releasing two demos and two EPs by 2000. By this point, guitarist Matt Smith would break his rank with the band, right before a string of road dates was set to start. “We were going to do our first mini-tour, about a week down to DC and back for the first Stoner Hands of Doom festival in Manassas, Virginia,” recalls Orne. “We booked a week, starting in Boston and NYC and work our way down. We were going to leave on a Sunday, and like that Friday, he frickin’ quit the band.” Left clueless on the particulars of Smith’s decision, Orne phones up his old Desolate bandmate Laskowski, who immediately jumped at the chance to get back into playing with Orne, however he certainly would have to step up his game. Laskowski had almost no time to become acquainted with WarHorse’s material in addition to learning how to be a lead guitarist. “I called up one of my buddies and he says ‘Get a delay pedal, maybe a phlanger,’” says Todd. “I was fuckin’ broke at the time, but I went and got both, plugged into my little practice amp and started doing these little spaced out leads. And Jerry and Mike were so happy!” With this new addition, Orne would agree to handle vocal duties, and fortunate for all parties involved, these changes proved successful and the band’s appearance at the Stoner Hands of Doom festival was a huge hit.
Following this, the band would reconvene to work on various demos for Southern Lord, who was showing their interest in WarHorse by this time. “I actually heard the ‘Priestess’ 12-inch they did first and was blown away by it. Ultra dense and thick,” says Southern Lord mainman Greg Anderson. However, that particular release didn’t feature Orne as the band’s vocalist, as this was recorded prior to the line-up shifts the band experienced, but Orne points out that Southern Lord “weren’t crazy about the vocals anyway.” Narrowing down Orne as the vocalist was the perfect move for the band, as his vocals perfectly fit the sound and vibe of WarHorse, or what Laskowski likens to “a god, or Conan.”
Finding their way to New Alliance Studios in Boston, Massachusetts, WarHorse teamed up with Andrew Schneider to craft what would become the monolith of sound “As Heaven Turns to Ash,” WarHorse’s only full-length album. “We wanted it heavy!” says Schneider of the recording process. “I remember the goal with these guys was to try to create and capture as much low end as a vinyl needle could possibly handle.” This recording partnership was quite successful and enjoyable for all parties involved, especially on the part of Orne, who describes Schneider as “just the best!” Being situated in Boston at the time, Schneider was well-known for his work with other area bands and his ability to capture their live sound perfectly for records, even if WarHorse’s low-end continuously wrecked equipment. “You’re doing something wrong if something doesn’t break, blow up, tear, or catch on fire,” Schneider says.
The result of these studio sessions is perhaps one of the strongest underground records ever dedicated to tape. “As Heaven Turns to Ash” is roughly one hour of crushingly heavy riffs, bone-chilling vocals, and creepy soundscapes; like a death metal record soaked in LSD. Through the course of this album, the listener is taken on a musical journey of some rather dark subject matter with bits of interludes sprinkled about to ease the tension on the brain. Rather than showcase musical virtuosity and complicated riffs, the WarHorse trio concentrates on a slow groove with a staggeringly heavy volume behind it. While laying down some of the most crushing musical measures ever heard, the band quickly shifts into quiet, eerie breaks, then blindsides the listener with a return to their wall of pure aural heaviness.
From the perspective of the album’s writers, it was relentless writing and practicing that helped this album take its ultimate shape. “One of the reasons it’s so strong, if I can say that without sounding cocky, is because that stuff was written, and re-written, and re-written. So we had time to live with it,” sums up Orne twelve years after its recording. “’Lysergic Communion’ I must have played 10 million times; drunk, sober, you name it, we did it. So we really had time to live with it and work on it.” From the producer’s angle, it was the band’s intense dedication and devotion to their craft that helped to make this release a success. “They just wanted to be loud and do their own thing, and they also believed what they were doing,” says Schneider. “No matter what Jerry was screaming about, he threw himself into it and there was no doubt he meant it. That 100% honest approach, devoid of sarcasm, is pretty rare and always fresh to see.”
Now that the album was complete, WarHorse would hit the road in March and April of 2001 in its support with England’s Electric Wizard on board. While this seems like a dream pairing of psychedelic stoner-doom, it was perhaps not the best touring situation for the band. The punishment their sound inflicted upon their equipment would cause malfunctions requiring them to, as Orne would describe it, “beg, borrow, and steal” from opening acts in order to perform their set. Electric Wizard however, showed up in the US with what Laskowski remembers as “their guitars and one set of drumsticks” prompting the Wizard to borrow WarHorse’s equipment for their own set. At the end of the day, WarHorse felt like nothing more than roadies when Laskowski would go on to state that Electric Wizard would finish their set, and leave the mess for WarHorse to clean up. Despite these frustrations, Orne recalls that the tour had “some definite highlights. We did Chicago at the Double Door, and there were people waiting for us on the sidewalk to help us unload our gear. The club holds like 750 to 1000 people and it was packed! It was great!”
Upon the tour’s completion, WarHorse would return home and lay low for a while. Time on the road and personality conflicts would have the trio somewhat at odds with one another as a result of what Orne refers to as “just making each other nuts.” After some time and a cooling off period, WarHorse would get an offer to tour Europe (once again with Electric Wizard) causing the three to sit down and reconcile and come to peace with one another. However, their first full-length album was nearly two years old at this point, and upon the request of Southern Lord, the band needed to put down some new material to tour in support of. The end result is the 7-inch single “I Am Dying,” which was recorded at New Alliance Studios with Andrew Schneider back at the helm. Sadly, this would wind up being the swansong of WarHorse.
The “I Am Dying” single only consists of two songs, but was a definite step forward in the band’s songwriting, and absolutely hints at what the band could have been capable of producing thereafter. Both songs still contain the trademark parts of WarHorse and their brutal sound, but certainly show a more mature approach to songwriting and song construction. Rather than suckerpunch the listener with a wall of doom, the band instead opts to build the song up, finally unleashing hell once the anticipation hits a high note. “I had the one main riff and the lyrics,” recalls Laskowski. “The lyrics are basically about dying in the desert of dehydration. ‘I am weak and I am dying’ is about looking up at the sun and just withering to death.” While this is certainly an intense and strong piece to highlight, it is perhaps the B-side track “Horizons Burn Red,” that is the obvious stand out. Orne’s hellish snarl singing of such apocalyptic things as “Tormented servants of the Lord, burning at the stake,” with spacey guitar solos, and the heavy rhythm laid down simply cannot be beat. “We had a vision,” declares Orne. “Mike and I would be tied in, and we wouldn’t have to look at each other. I knew what he was thinking and he knew what I was thinking.”
WarHorse would again join up with Electric Wizard for a European run of dates, and then returned to North America for a quick Canadian run. Once the band got back home to Massachusetts to work on their second full-length album, things started to go wrong. “Mike and I would bump heads about a lot of shit,” Laskowski remembers of those writing sessions. “The main rift though was when we were writing music, and Mike would come up with a riff and I’d say ‘oh it’s alright.’ If I wrote a riff, Mike would say the same thing back, and I would take it as a ‘fuck you’ because I said that about his riff. So we were not jamming on anything, just telling one another how much we don’t like their riffs.”
“It wasn’t pretty,” says Orne of those writing sessions. “We just started yelling at each other and then a song would get scrapped because someone didn’t like it, or like a riff.” After one argument too many, Hubbard would forfeit his drummer’s spot within the band and claim to be done with WarHorse, prompting Laskowski to give up his duties within the trio. With the desire to start a new group, Orne would get in touch with Terry Savastano of Grief (and currently of Martyrvore) to get some jamming and writing underway. In need of a drummer, he would call up none other than Hubbard, intending to create a new group with new songs. “When Mike came down, we all said ‘I guess we’re WarHorse.’” Orne remembers. “Terry learned a couple of old songs, and we had some new ones. We never recorded anything, but someone bootlegged a few shows.”
Unfortunately for WarHorse fans everywhere, this line-up would also face similar personality issues that boiled over when the group was planning a short tour with Place of Skulls. From Orne’s perspective, Savastano cast doubt on his ability to take time from work to fulfill the tour obligations, and Hubbard didn’t interpret these words quite well and wound up giving Savastano an ultimatum. “Terry was in Grief and Disrupt, and been around the world how many times, and he’s a lifer. So he felt really insulted and pushed Mike a bit and said ‘Fuck you, I quit. How about that?’ And that was it. I was still holding out, because we’d broken up 1000 times, but it was out of my hands.”
In the music world, bands come and go and have their popularity ups and downs, but in some regard having a cult/underground following is a lot stronger than having your name plastered everywhere constantly, but overall it’s a shame to see that such a strong and unique band wouldn’t last. From the fan’s perspective, they were on a clear upward trajectory in their songwriting and musical progression, and hearing Orne say that there was enough material written for roughly two full albums worth of songs only peaks curiosity. It has been nearly ten years since WarHorse disbanded and it certainly is nice to see that Laskowski and Orne look back on this time in their lives with a smile and have only good things to say about one another. Perhaps Orne can best sum it up when he sums up his WarHorse years by saying “I was 30 at the time and had been in Desolate for six years before that,” before declaring that “the fact that WarHorse existed was like a bonus for me.”
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