Saddle up, buttercups. Today we ride into glorious battle with Whittier technical thrash/death/speed warriors Exmortus leading the charge. Ride forth, slaves to the sword!
Exmortus may be one of the most critically acclaimed modern thrash bands. They’ve been one of Sirius XM’s most requested metal bands, and LA Weekly named them the best metal band of 2014. The band has even gained ground in atypical locales; they’ve been featured a number of times at Bloody Disgusting and make the rounds for nominations at big events like the Revolver Golden Gods awards. However, it isn’t through sheer luck that the band has pushed so far into the fray. Instead, Exmortus’ success has been born on the back of an endless touring cycle wherein the band brought their unique version of thrash, heavy with cross-influences and mass appeal, to punters all over the globe. Now, on the eve of the release of their fourth full-length studio album, let’s raise our mighty goblets of metal to the thrash warriors’ proud heritage.
Exmortus were co-founded in southern California by a teenaged guitarist by the name of Jadran “Conan” Gonzalez with the ambition of implementing a classical heavy metal approach within a more modern thrash sound. Conan added his cousin Mario Moreno on drums after his intitial quartet dropped their first demo, and the pair, along with a revolving door of musicians, would issue two more demos and two EPs before solidifying the lineup. In 2007, the quartet of Conan, Moreno, Balmore (vocals/guitar), and Daniel Duarte (bass) signed with Heavy Artillery Records. Their debut full-length, In hatred’s Flames, surfaced in 2008 to critical acclaim. Reviewers praised the combination of speed metal riffs with a caustic thrash assault. In fact, the cross-pollination of elements is largely what enabled Exmortus to stand out from the glut of rethrash bands copying Slayer at that time. Balmore’s gritty vocal approach and the rougher production invoked a heritage more akin to Teutonic thrash greats like Kreator, creating an interesting juxtaposition against Conan’s more speed-metal leanings as a guitarist. If the young band’s debut has any fault, it’s the slightly inconsistent production.
Before the band’s second full-length, however, Balmore departed Exmortus, thrusting Conan into full-time vocal and guitar duties. The band recruited Sean Redline on secondary axe and released Beyond the Fall of Time on Heavy Artillery Records in 2011. Unfortunately, this record found the group in a bit of a sophomore slump as they sought to find a new sonic direction without Balmore’s grittier, death-like vocals. Beyond featured cleaner production and concise riffs, but even the Savatage-esque speed metal stylings could not enable the record to garner the approval of its predecessor. Still, the album displays killer riffs and allows listeners to take a peek at the songwriting greatness to come.
The years between Beyond the Fall of Time and the band’s third full-length record saw even further changes occurring in camp Exmortus. Daniel Duarte and Sean Redline were replaced with Cladoaldo Bibiano on bass and David Rivera on guitars and vocals, and Exmortus departed old label Heavy Artillery and joined the ranks of Prosthetic Records. The internal changes and passage of time allowed the group to overcome the slight hiccup of Beyond and enabled them to cement their own distinct voice. When you listen to Slave to the Sword, Exmortus’ third record and Prosthetic debut, you’ll hear a more confident band than the one that wrote Beyond the Fall of Time. The neoclassical elements, including Yngwie Malmsteen-esque guitar harmonies and shredding leads are brought fully to the forefront of the band’s sound, bolstered by insanely catchy riffs and short, direct song structures. Slave to the Sword managed to capture the fun and vigorous approach to thrash metal the band honed with a relentless touring cycle, earning them critical acclaim and winning new legions of sword-brandishing fans across the globe. Just listen to “Foe Hammer” to hear the band’s confident, unique voice in full force. Crunchy audible bass, precision drumming, technical riffs, and classical, headbangable shred all accent Conan’s snarled growls about the power of metal. This song rules.
This week, Exmortus release their most bombastic and over-the-top effort yet. Ride Forth sees the band cranking every element that sets them apart up to 11. The neoclassical shredding is even more absurd, bolstered by a full, dynamic production job that allows every note to pierce through the fog of war like a deadly arrow. Conan and Rivera’s symbiotic guitar interplay has produced some of the band’s most pummeling, full-throttle riffs ever, and there are absolutely no moments on the album when you won’t find yourself headbanging. Dive-bombs, chromatic scales, twin solos, and unique riffs abound. Moreno’s precise drumming sounds even mightier, stampeding through the battlefield like an Iron Maiden gallop before stopping on a dime to allow new bassist Mike Cosio to launch a deadly hammer blow with his crunchy bass. In perfect lock-step with all these elements is Conan’s deadly snarl; at times the vocalist seems to be evoking the emotive growls of melodic death metal bands, lending even more weight and gravity to the harmonies on the album. When Conan sneers, “Whip! Crack! Bones will burn black!” you’ll be powerless to resist raising your battle-axe and riding forth into glorious combat.
It’s difficult to talk about Exmortus without acknowledging their similarities to other bands. Ride Forth sounds like the culmination of what so many other metal acts have attempted to achieve. If you asked Skeletonwitch or 3 Inches of Blood to shred more and add more technicality to their sound, you’d get close to what Exmortus achieves on this record. If you asked Arsis to play speed metal riffs and to trim the fat from the song-writing, you might end up with Ride Forth. If you asked Yngwie to write a thrash metal album with Allegaeon by way of NWOBHM, you might be able to approximate the elements that make Exmortus appealing. As it stands, though, Exmortus remain a unique synthesis of the old-school and new. If you want to invoke a period in metal when bands unabashedly wrote stadium anthems designed to get an entire crowd headbanging while still reveling in a rough extremity that sounds modern without losing audio quality, Exmortus is the band you seek and Ride Forth the record you crave.
You can hear four tracks from Ride Forth, set to release on January 8th via Prosthetic Records, on Bandcamp right now. You can also join the horde at one of the band’s tour stops in the coming weeks.