Exodus: guardians of the thrash metal faith

Growing up as a thrash metal fan on the south coast of England in the late 1990s was a rather different experience to living through its beer-soaked genesis in the San Francisco Bay Area in the first half of the 1980s.

There was no scene emerging around me, no tape-trading culture, so my personal discovery of thrash inevitably led me from Metallica – a pioneering Bay Area thrash act who outgrew their roots to such an extent that I inherited them as a nipper without really knowing where they’d begun – into the rest of the feted Big Four: Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth.

All four bands have been active for 30 years, almost without any lengthy interruption, and all four remain so today. They’ve all followed their own paths; Slayer, Diabolus In Musica notwithstanding, have arguably been the only one who’ve stayed proximate to the core of thrash, while Metallica’s popularity, Anthrax’s open-minded experimentation and Dave Mustaine’s single-minded quest for success have resulted in more than a few missteps over the decades.

Metallica, in moving across the United States to hook up with Jonny Z in New York and progressing beyond thrash metal in a matter of just a few years, left behind a vibrant, lightning-fast scene brimming with West Coast bands who either made it to some extent, ballsed it up completely or simply missed the boat.

Amongst them you’ll find Exodus. Formed in Richmond, California, by drummer Tom Hunting, bass player Carlton Melson and guitarists Tim Agnello and Kirk Hammett, they predate Metallica on the Bay Area scene but weren’t nearly so quick off the mark in the studio.

To say that Exodus played their part in the personnel merry-go-round of the Big Four is to understate the impact of the two men who connect the band to Metallica and Slayer.

Hammett was Mustaine’s replacement in Metallica in 1983 and has been ever-present there ever since. Gary Holt, meanwhile, replaced Agnello having been Hammett’s guitar tech. He’s still the beating heart of Exodus today but he also misses runs of shows now and then.

Why? Because Holt is also Kerry King’s guitar-playing foil in Slayer, having stepped up to the plate in the aftermath of Jeff Hanneman’s illness (contracted from a spider bite in 2011) and his death from alcohol-related cirrhosis of the liver in May 2013.

But Exodus aren’t just roadhogs with a loyal hardcore of followers. They don’t just feed off the scraps swept from the tabletops of their more decorated peers. They’re not the husk left behind in Hammett’s wake, or merely Slayer’s mates, or a jobbing band on a scene that had its moment in a specific place at a particular time.

While it’s true that the Big Four doesn’t include them, it’s possible that Exodus might just be the greatest thrash metal band of all time.

That’s a debatable view, but, at the very least, they’ve been influential. Every now and then I’m asked what thrash metal actually is – it’s a hazard of incessantly talking about it to people who couldn’t care less. In some ways it’s easy enough to define: twin guitars, breakneck riffing, the bastard lovechild of punk rock and NWOBHM.

But it’s also jeans and trainers, beer and bruises, sweat and feedback. It’s an attitude as much as a sound but the sound is easy to explain because Exodus caught it in a bottle in the summer of 1984, shoved a flaming rag into the top of it and chucked it into a seething moshpit.

The Metal Hammer journalist Dom Lawson has posited that Exodus’ 1985 debut record Bonded By Blood exemplifies the core thrash metal sound more than any other; it could even be argued that the album’s opening track, also ‘Bonded By Blood’, is the song that does the job best of all.

Exodus were, are and almost always have been a pure thrash metal band. They stand tall among the originals now because of that fact and because Bonded By Blood – delayed release or not – was the definitive thrash album.

The singer on the first record was Paul Baloff, a larger-than-life and famously popular titan of the early thrash community.

He was fired by Exodus after Bonded By Blood and replaced by former Legacy vocalist Steve “Zetro” Souza, who performed on the next four albums as Exodus cemented their place at or near the top of the post-Big Four thrash world before splitting in 1993.

Baloff kept working and later joined both an abortive Exodus reunion in 1997 and a reformation in 2001 that was intended to be permanent.

He died from a stroke in early 2002, a tragic twist of fate that brought Zetro back into the fold for a brief spell and prompted Holt, now the only member to appear on every Exodus record, to pay tribute to his fallen frontman by saying that, “His flame burned bright – so bright in fact that in hindsight it was all but impossible to have burned forever.”

Zetro’s initial run in Exodus had been a mixed bag in terms of the critical response but much of the work stands up rather better with the benefit of hindsight than the original reviews would suggest.

Pleasures Of The Flesh featured a couple of Baloff writing credits (‘Brain Dead’ and ‘Seeds Of Hate’) and met with a mixed reaction, somewhat harshly. 1989’s Fabulous Disaster was a critical success. 1990’s Impact Is Imminent was not; it was hardly a triumph when it came to sales either.

Two years later, Zetro-fronted Exodus released Force Of Habit, the most creatively fascinating album of their career.

Slower, more varied and less audibly abrasive, Exodus’ fifth album features Rolling Stones and Elvis Costello covers and now sounds suspiciously like a conscious departure from thrash metal at a time when so many bands across the metal spectrum took a sidestep out of what might be interpreted as grunge-induced fear, or, more likely, the inspiration of Metallica’s Black Album, a true commercial behemoth.

In that sense Exodus’ split was perfectly timed, removing any threat of further dilution as grunge gave way to nu-metal in the second half of the 1990s.

Tempo Of The Damned returned them to their thrash metal heartlands in 2004 with a line-up featuring Zetro, Holt, Hunting, bassist Jack Gibson for the first time and guitarist Rick Hunolt for the last.

Hunolt left the band along with Zetro (a split that came to expose tensions between the singer and Holt) and Hunting, who departed for the second time to tend to health problems.

In went former Slayer and Testament drummer Paul Bostaph, Heathen guitarist Lee Altus and Exodus crew member and new vocalist Rob Dukes; out came the brilliant 2005 album Shovel Headed Kill Machine.

Creatively, Exodus haven’t looked back since. The Atrocity Exhibition… Exhibit A in 2007 and 2010’s Exhibit B: The Human Condition were adored by critics and loom over the second half of the last decade as thrash metal monoliths.

Exodus never really abandoned their roots but on albums eight and nine they found a real sweet spot. Hunting returned to play on both albums and the musical quartet of the band had finally found some stability; Holt, Altus, Gibson and Hunting have been together since March 2007. Up front, though, there was yet another twist in the extraordinary story of Exodus.

“As a band, we all had to make a very difficult choice to part ways with Rob Dukes,” wrote Holt in a statement in the summer of 2015.

“We have nothing but love and admiration for him and the deepest gratitude for the hard work he has put in and the great work on some killer records. But at this time, Tom, Lee, Jack and myself thought a change was necessary and the unanimous choice going forward was to welcome back Steve Souza to the fold.”

And so it was that Exodus, without Holt due to his duties with Slayer as they prepared for the release of their new album, but with Zetro back, took to the stage at London’s Underworld in June 2015.

Despite Holt’s absence it felt like the band that performed over two nights represented, at least in spirit, an Exodus line-up the fans could welcome with open arms. Their relationship with Dukes hadn’t been harmonious and he wasn’t backwards in coming forwards with a response to fans – “fucking haters” no less, and stuck in the past in his estimation – who never warmed to him, to sugarcoat it somewhat.

Zetro’s open courting of the frontman job as far back as 2011 presumably didn’t go down too well with Dukes either, and who could blame him?

Nevertheless, Zetro’s return to the Underworld was a glorious moment and he milked it for everything it was worth. There’s something very satisfying about seeing a 51-year-old man practically giddy with excitement, and the band around him were all smiles too.

Hunting smashed away at the drums like a man possessed, Altus and Gibson grinned their way through a phenomenal Tuesday night performance and stand-in guitarist Kragen Lum deputised superbly for Holt, whose absence at Exodus shows offers a modern sense of community in a small scene gone global.

The band and fans understand why Holt has to be the man in Hanneman’s boots in Slayer and a tongue-in-cheek burst of ‘Raining Blood’ – and a mention of “that other thrash band” – paved the way for Lum and Exodus to put on a storming show unhindered.

While Metallica lurch from one creative curiosity to the next, Megadeth continue to lose their (read: ‘his’) way and Anthrax struggle for consistency, Slayer have been the Big Four band who’ve best clung to the thrash metal wagon. But look beneath the genre’s leading names and there are countless bands flying the flag.

In 2014 Exodus released Blood In, Blood Out, their tenth studio album and, in some ways, a completion of the circuit for a band hopefully now enjoying a period of genuine strength and stability.

Zetro’s back in front of a consistent instrumental line-up and the album also features contributions from both Hammett, an Exodus original, and Chuck Billy, the vocalist who replaced Zetro in Legacy, the band that became Testament.

Blood In, Blood Out was a winner from the off in London. ‘Salt The Wound’ – the track which features Hammett’s guitar solo – and ‘Body Harvest’ damn near blew the roof off the Underworld; these are modern thrash metal songs that have placed Exodus back at the forefront of their game and have slotted seamlessly into the live set, savagely devoured by a rabid floor that can let loose in the satisfied knowledge that this Exodus is Exodus.

Dukes and particularly Baloff performed on landmark records. Bassist Rob McKillop, drummer John Tempesta and especially Hunolt have thoroughly earned their places in the band’s history.

But in Hunting and Holt the spine of Exodus lives on loud and proud today. Zetro has laid down the vocals for seven of the ten albums and has been either in or notably out of the band for almost 30 years.

Gibson has been the Exodus bassist whenever there’s been an Exodus since 1997, and Heathen’s Odessa-born lead guitar giant Altus reached his ten-year anniversary with Exodus in 2015.

Though its constituent members have other noteworthy projects on the go the Exodus unit might just be tighter than ever. They’re out there fighting the bad fight in the name of thrash metal and they’re doing so by putting out records that eschew any thought of a retrograde move towards the 1980s sound.

Exodus are as vital a component of today’s thriving thrash scene as they were an influential cornerstone of the original one in California three decades and more ago. But to out-perform their own debut, to produce a record more archetypal of thrash metal than Bonded By Blood?

That’s beyond the reach even of today’s Exodus. Fortunately for them, it’s beyond the reach of everyone else as well.

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Chris Nee