Let’s start 2019 by negating a column! Well, that’s not entirely what we’re doing here, but stay with me. Last year, I wrote a piece about how Testament should be considered a Big 4 band. To me, their sound fit the vibe a bit more than Anthrax. Anthrax just really sticks out of the bunch in a weird way. Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer have a much more serious sound while Anthrax has played around with the lighter side of thrash metal and dipping their toes into crossover. So previous writings have assumed we have to stick with only 4 bands, and I chose Testament over Anthrax.
But what if we expanded it to five? Who says we have to stick with 4? Marketers, that’s who! And we all know they’re the worst! Plus 5 is a way better round number than 4. Everybody knows that. If you were going to expand it to the Big 5, there’s a different calculation involved. I think replacing Anthrax with Testament makes sense if you stay with 4, but any addition would usually make Anthrax an even stronger odd man out. To avoid that idea, and effectively end any discussion on this topic, you absolutely have to include Exodus.
Exodus is easily the most overlooked band of the thrash metal wave. Their sound is similar to Anthrax’s but they really do distinguish themselves in subtle ways. Anthrax was originally something of a Judas Priest clone that evolved into a lighter side crossover sound that has slowly gone to a more traditional heavy metal sound, albeit on the thrashier side of that. Exodus has embraced the lighter side of thrash metal, frequently opting for over the top crossover-style lyrics and content while also further establishing the guitar virtuosity known of the genre at the time. They’ve dabbled with darker tones over time, but even those tend to stick with a lighter side mentality.
Let’s review Exodus real quick. Formed in the Bay Area in the late 70s by Kirk Hammett and longtime drummer Tom Hunting, Exodus went through a number of early lineup changes until guitarist Gary Holt joined the group. Hammett left to join Metallica shortly before Exodus’ first release, 1984’s Bonded by Blood, but the band received rave reviews for its landmark sound. Some have even argued that had it been released upon its completion as intended, we’d probably be talking about it as being more influential than Kill ‘Em All. Regardless, the late 80s saw the band growing and growing with the release of Pleasures of the Flesh in 1987 along with longtime iconic Exodus vocalist Steve “Zetro” Souza.
Finally in 1989, the band really broke through with Fabulous Disaster featuring their biggest track, “The Toxic Waltz”. The song was consistently spun on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball and helped them get a tour with Anthrax and Helloween, massively growing their fanbase. The album also helped them score a huge record contract with Capitol Records.
The early 90s were less kind to Exodus. The music scene was pretty rapidly changing as grunge began taking over rock radio. 1990’s Impact Is Imminent might be their weakest outing, though they certainly made up for it with 1992’s Force of Habit. Habit really showed off that the band is more than just fast paced thrashing for the sake of it. They expanded their sound and songwriting with longer tracks. Both albums are worth your time for a deep dive but few would call them essential listening.
After the release of Habit, the band took a hiatus as a result of a changing music scene and behind-the-scenes issues. There was a brief tour with original vocalist Paul Baloff and a plan for reuniting with him until his untimely passing in 2002. Souza was brought back into the mix for 2004’s Tempo of the Damned. That release seemed as if the band had never really left. It’s the sound of the band we’d all come to love. There were some nods to the original thrash sound along with musical references to the expanded sound from Force of Habit.
Unfortunately, a feud erupted between Souza and the rest of the band resulting in Souza leaving the band during a tour. The band eventually recruited vocalist Rob Dukes which coincidentally happened at the same time that Exodus’ sound changed. It became much darker and heavier. Lyrically, the band also turned darker and focused on heavy issues like drug addiction, the Catholic Church pedophilia scandal, and a lot more on 2005’s Shovel Headed Kill Machine.
The following two originals albums, 2007’s The Atrocity Exhibition – Exhibit A and 2010’s Exhibit B: The Human Condition, continue the established Dukes-era darker and heavier tone while also attacking more social issues. Despite the departure from the previous established pseudo-crossover sound, there is some truly original and stunning work from Gary Holt. Holt really is the unsung guitar virtuoso of thrash metal. He’s always left out of those kinds of discussions, but he’s getting his due on this column. Obviously that makes up for it, right?
In 2008, the band also decided to re-record their debut album as Let There Be Blood. It was something of a pet project for the band that fell by the wayside after Baloff’s death. According to Holt, it was always their intention to re-record with modern technology as an homage to the original: “After many years in the planning and discussion stage, we have finally completed the re-recording of ‘Bonded By Blood’. We have decided to call it ‘Let There Be Blood’ and it is our way of paying homage to Paul Baloff by showing how relevant these songs we had written together still are. We aren’t trying to replace the original; that’s impossible anyway. We are just giving these songs the benefit of modern production. It’s something we talked about before Paul’s death and it’s always been important to us to do.” While reviewers did question the necessity for such a reproduction, fans ate it up.
After this time in the band, Rob Dukes was asked to leave and Souza was invited back into the fold. The return of Souza was hailed by longtime fans who longed for the days of that original sound with the noted voice of Exodus. 2014’s Blood In, Blood Out brought the sound back closer to that original sound and dialed back on the social commentary. The album also is a high watermark for sales and popularity of the band. Original guitarist Kirk Hammett even contributed guitar work to “Salt In the Wound” while Gary Holt was touring with Slayer after the death of Jeff Hanneman. Exodus is currently in the process of recording a follow up to Blood In.
Alright, Pete, but what’s this about a Big 5?
Yeah, I’m getting to it, geez.
As stated earlier, I have talked about Testament needing to be included in the Big 4. Given their sound, especially in the 80s, they simply fit better into the group of Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer. In that threesome, it made more sense to include them over Anthrax simply because Anthrax sounds so very different from the other 3. Especially in the 80s when this all first began. Let’s examine.
After their first album, Metallica really decided to open up their sound. Kill ‘Em All is a heavily punk-influenced sound with metal tossed in. Ride the Lightning embraced a more open palette, venturing even into more progressive songwriting with “Creeping Death” and “The Call of Ktulu”. Master of Puppets explored those thoughts even more with …And Justice For All being a magnum opus for heavier sounding progressive metal.
Slayer was always simply about embracing the darkness. Maybe an oversimplification of Slayer, but it’s not as though we don’t all realize that preachers in the 1980s helped promote the idea of the Satanic Panic by presenting Slayer as the harbinger of doom for civilized society. They promoted darker musical themes and an ominous aura while also sounding like the idea of pure evil chaos. There’s a hardcore punk sound there along with the metallic edge that made them seem so brutal and could even be described as the original death metal band by some. Probably didn’t help that one of their biggest songs in the decade was about Josef Mengele.
I would argue that Megadeth set the stage for technical thrash. Dave Mustaine writes some very complicated riffs that connect to other complicated riffs throughout the song and then, oh yeah, he writes extremely acrobatic guitar solos often combining multiple musical references from the easily accessible to the most arcane and esoteric scales in music theory. It taps into a part of your brain that needs that kind of engagement. The intellect required to listen to Megadeth is similar to that of a complicated board game: it’s fun to play in these complex arenas but you must pay attention.
I think we can all be in agreement that those three bands stay. There’s not really any argument, in my mind anyway, about replacing or removing any of those names. But as I’ve said before, Anthrax is the odd man out in terms of overall sound. It’s not a knock against them (not this time), but it’s simply a statement of fact. They incorporate more traditional heavy metal sounds in a then-modern presentation. They’ve also been known to be a bit more light-hearted or at least not quite embracing the darkness of everything. They have their moments of darker tones but it’s overall a bit lighter.
However, if you expanded it to a Big 5 and included Exodus, Anthrax doesn’t seem so odd anymore. Exodus has a sometimes equally lighter quality. They, too, have had their moments of darkness, but they’re most known for their pseudo-crossover sound. Perfect example: Exodus’ cover of “Low Rider”.
See? They can be fun! Just like Anthrax! They’re not so alone anymore! The real issue is that Exodus really only started getting big after the label Big 4 was placed on the known bands. However, their legacy is such that they deserve to be recognized. They don’t have the album sales that the others do, though they were popular enough to debut on top record sales lists for their earlier releases. But they certainly have the name recognition and the chops that can back it up.
You all can decide for yourselves, of course. There are always going to be bands like Exodus. Those bands that are really great but don’t get the credit they’re due on a mass scale. But if you’re a student of music history, particularly metal history, I command you to listen to Exodus. Go forth in the toxic waltz style and mosh!
Road Mutant – Back to the Green Zone
Death and thrash metal have a unique relationship. Essentially they came about and developed about the same time with thrash having just a wee bit of a head start. There are a lot of parallels between them both, and Road Mutant shows off those parallels and wonderfully straddles the line between crossover thrash and OSDM. It’s very raucous and fun and also brings up images of outrageous violence that both crossover bands and death metal bands bring about.
“March of the Road Mutants” is just such a song. It brings to mind Mad Max-style images of scavengers on battle motorcycles looking for their overlords to slay them. The violent guitars cutting through the mix with chainsaw edge distortion further develop this imagery. The crusty elements of Road Mutant is what makes it a real great grinding kind of death and crossover mix. Well worth any true thrashers’ time.
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Legion of the Damned – Slaves of the Shadow Realm
Legion of the Damned have been doing their thing for a little over a decade now. The Dutch death-thrashers have yet to deliver the kind of unavoidable record that might break them into the mainstream or even go down as a bona fide underground classic. Nevertheless, in a relatively short time they’ve put together a solid catalogue that more than holds its own against any b-tier genre band you want to put them up against. Their seventh album, Slaves of the Shadow Realm, marks the longest break between records of their career—coming a full five years after 2013’s Ravenous Plague. Their earlier releases came one after the other, sometimes even within the same year. Yet, just because they might be slowing down a bit in their older age doesn’t mean their output is any less potent.
Slaves of the Shadow Realm sees a slight departure to Legion of the Damned’s usual formula. The quartet have often flirted with death metal throughout their career, and often even made out with it in front of all their friends just to prove a point. Their latest offering, however, displays a far more blackened edge, bringing to mind Immortal as often as it does Kreator. “Slaves of the Southern Cross” bears particular resemblance to Sons of Northern Darkness, but their influence is felt throughout. The new blackened vibe gives the band a fresh approach with which to tackle their sound—belaying any fears they might have burnt themselves out early on—while the often-frantic pace and unwavering focus on the riff keep things rooted in the realms of thrash metal. If you’re looking for a halfway house between either genre (or you just need a good excuse to bang your head), Legion of the Damned have got you covered.
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Dust Bolt – Trapped In Chaos
Crossover and blackened thrash are all good, but sometimes you need just a straightforward record. Dust Bolt is just that kind of band, and Trapped In Chaos is just that kind of record. The German quartet work well within a fairly established sound. They’re a bit more Exodus than Metallica and are never too out of reach for the average listener. They play with some crossover and thrash and make themselves very accessible. Anybody could enjoy this record as they sit in a wonderful sweet spot of metal.
I’m particularly fond of “Shed My Skin,” a wild romp into the darker side of crossover thrash while not seeming too hardcore punk for metal fans. It combines a great harmonic riff and the absolutely necessary group shouts while also grinding out a classic chugging thrash-style verse riff. While the guitar solo here isn’t indicative of the work on the rest of the album, it’s pretty straightforward and fun and recalls a more 70s-style solo sound. If you need a straightforward metal record that’s more raucous than others, I highly recommend Trapped In Chaos.