Sucker For Punishment: Fight Like It's 1985

After parting ways with vocalist Steve “Zetro” Souza in 2004, Exodus took a huge risk in hiring the unknown Rob Dukes as the band’s new frontman, but it was a risk that paid off well. The confrontational, provocative Dukes injected the band with a level of manic energy not seen since the classic Paul Baloff days, and aided by some relentless touring and three very good studio albums Exodus was able to achieve a sort of creative rebirth, attracting a younger audience while at the same time winning over the old fans with this revamped lineup. Things seemed to be going so smoothly for the band that it came as a very big surprise that Dukes was fired during the recording of Exodus’s tenth album. Even more surprising, though, was the news that Souza was back in the fold and would commence recording the vocals for the new album immediately. Contrary to what people might assume about who was behind Souza’s hiring – many speculated that Exodus’s new manager Chuck Billy masterminded the whole thing – founding guitarist Gary Holt insists that Souza was simply the best option the band had, and everyone had no desire to go through the painstaking audition process to find a new voice.  So hatchets were buried, the slate was wiped clean, and both parties amicably and eagerly joined forces once again.

Although Dukes was a phenomenal frontman, perfectly suited for Exodus, there’s something about hearing Zetro at the helm once again that’s so pleasing, especially to any metal fan over the age of 40. It feels right. I managed to catch the reunited Exodus at their performance in Montreal this summer, and it was admittedly a great pleasure to hear that gravelly, nasal voice performing such songs as “The Toxic Waltz” and “Strike of the Beast”. Based on that alone, you had to think that Souza’s return on record would be just as impressive, or even more, and that’s indeed the case on Blood In, Blood Out (Nuclear Blast), which bursts with the fun and energy of Exodus circa 1985 yet at the same time exudes the breadth of the post-2000 incarnation of the band.

Presented in a robust but deliberately organic sound by producer Andy Sneap, the songs have bite and attack to them, drummer Tom Hunting punctuating each track with his precise and strong double-time beats. The riffs by Holt and Lee Altus sound as nimble as ever and Souza clearly relishes his return to the band, sounding strong and charismatic. However, this record is all about the strength of the songwriting, which is leaner than the band’s ambitious last few albums, tracks like “Salt the Wound”, “Blood In, “Blood Out”, and “My Last Nerve” keeping things simple and incessantly catchy. It’s exactly what anyone wants from these great thrash progenitors, a record that holds up well against the most beloved Exodus albums. I’d even go a little further and call this the best Exodus album since 1989’s Fabulous Disaster, not only a return to prime form, but a welcome return of a familiar face and voice.

Also out this week:

The Acacia Strain, Coma Witch (Rise): I’ve been getting this band’s albums for the past decade, and for the life of me I can’t remember how a single song of theirs goes. That’s one hell of a commitment to mediocrity, guys. This seventh album comes close to putting that streak to an end, though, as “Holy Walls of the Vatican” and “Cauterizer” are snappy enough metalcore tunes to keep listeners awake. Such is the state of mainstream American metal these days that that statement can be considered high praise.

Arabrot, I Modi (Fysisk Format): After mastermind Kjetil successfully beat cancer this year he wasted no time in recording a quick little follow-up to last year’s masterful Årabrot, and the resulting six-track EP is yet another assertion that Årabrot is one of the most original, vital, exciting noise bands working today.

Bethlehem, Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia (Prophecy): Don’t bands ever think before they settle on an album title? Seriously, naming your record “Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia” is the worst possible thing you could do to your marketability. Then again, gothic black metal sung exclusively in German isn’t exactly marketable to begin with. Once you get past that asinine title, however, you’ll discover a shockingly beautiful exercise in gothic metal aesthetics, full of bombast and melodrama. I have no idea what the fellow is singing about, but the cadence and coldness of the German language goes perfectly with the music, adding some welcome mystique in the process.

Blut Aus Nord, Memoria Vetusta III: Saturnian Poetry (Debemur Morti): Coming off the triumphant 777 trilogy that saw French musician Vindsval establish Blut Aus Nord as one of the most creative forces black metal has seen in the last decade or more, you had to wonder where he’d take the music next. After Sect(s), The Desanctification, and especially Cosmosophy expanded the project’s musical palette to thrilling effect, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Vindsval decided to get back to basics, but still, there’s a prevailing feeling on Saturnian Poetry that it’s a regression after several exciting years of progression. The third installment of the Memoria Vetusta series (whatever that is) that originally started in 1996, this album sticks to the black metal basics of tremolo picking, blastbeats, and screeched vocals, which compared to Blut Aus Nord’s recent work is hardly groundbreaking, nor exciting. Thankfully Vindsval is an adept enough songwriter to execute this rote, overdone style in a way that still feels authoritative and better than most black metal of today – the superb one-two punch of “Henosis” and “Metaphor of the Moon” an example – but there’s absolutely no way, in this writer’s opinion, that this record even comes close to the last three. When Vindsval goes forward, I’m with him. When he steps backward, he loses me.

Horrendous, Ecdysis (Dark Descent): I knew nothing about this Philly band before their second album landed in my inbox, but once I heard Ecdysis I was shocked by just how well these guys sneak the hookiest heavy metal riffs into their death metal. At times it’s extraordinary how mindful Horrendous is when it comes to the power of a good hook. When they happen upon one, they let it carry the song, instead of making it a mere fragment of 50 other riffs, melodies, and breakdowns. They find a groove, and stick to it, creating dynamic, engaging songs. Imagine that. I remain torn when it comes to the dry, Martin van Drunen-style vocal growls, as they feel like monochrome set against a Technicolor backdrop, but thankfully the instrumental arrangements more than make up for that shortcoming. Besides, “When the Walls Fell” is the best metal instrumental I’ve heard all year. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp. 

Inter Arma, The Cavern (Relapse): One of America’s most exciting bands has slapped together an interesting “EP” release, comprised of one long 45-minute track that veers exuberantly from black metal, to sludge, to progressive rock, to Americana, and back. So few underground American bands have the guts to combine as many styles as Inter Arma does, and although an album of shorter, more concise songs would be an easier listen than this sprawling epic, this is still a great glimpse of an exceedingly creative band hitting its stride.

The Melvins, Hold It In (Ipecac): Being a huge fan of everything Buzz Osbourne and Dale Crover did with the boys in Big Business rounding out the band, I’ve been wary of everything they’ve done since. Yet, typical of these sludge lords, they always come through with something weird and highly entertaining, whether as Melvins Lite, reuniting with old band members, or in this case, teaming up with Paul Leary and JD Pinkus from the Butthole Surfers. The fact that Hold it In is playful is no real surprise, but that it feels leaner than any Melvins record I have ever heard is. The emphasis is no longer on pure heaviness, instead on just creating good, fun rock ‘n’ roll, and on this album you can totally hear the influences of the first to KISS albums creeping into the Melvins’ music more than ever. It’s not without its weird moments – the 12-minute “House of Gasoline”, for instance – but the more laid-back fare like “You Can Make me Wait”, “Sesame Street Meat”, and “Piss Pisstopherson” dominate the proceedings, offering a glimpse at the lighter side of this great band. It might not be a classic album by any stretch, but it’s a very welcome addition to what’s become a wildly diverse discography.

Menace Ruine, Venus Armata (Profound Lore): Like Occultation, whose new album also comes out this week on Profound Lore, Montreal’s Menace Ruine offers a surreal perspective on heavy metal that focuses on a haunting female voice. What separates this project apart, though, is how it constantly keeps the listener at an arm’s length, retaining an air of mystery throughout. Geneviève Beaulieu sings classical-inspired melodies in a very arch voice, while multi-instrumentalist S. de la Moth creates a murky, haunting musical backdrop derived heavily from black metal, gothic post-punk, drone, and once again, neoclassical. The music’s impenetrability makes this a difficult album to enjoy, especially when compared to Occultation’s bewitching new album, but if you can get past the pretension and let yourself warm up to the music, it proves to be a worthwhile, delightfully gloomy experience. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.

Occultation, Silence In The Ancestral House (Profound Lore): The cryptic Brooklyn trio’s debut album Three & Seven caught my attention two years ago, enough for me to single them out as one of that year’s better new bands, but it still felt as if there was plenty to improve upon, plenty of promise to live up to. The follow-up does just that, thanks partially to producer Kurt Ballou – who always does his best work when stepping away from his hardcore production, which can get predictable – but primarily to the maturation of this band’s songwriting. The juxtaposition of Edward Miller’s classic heavy metal riffing and expressive solos with Viveca Butler’s Siouxsie-derived singing is spellbinding to hear, the two sides creating a very unique tension. It’s a terrific example of a metal band taking traditional sounds, thinking outside the old parameters, and showing enough creativity to create something that stands out. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.

October 31, Bury the Hatchet (Hells Headbangers): The inimitable King Fowley has brought back his October 31 project for its first album in nine years, and in what should be no surprise at all, it’s a deliriously fun rampage through horror-obsessed thrash metal. Loaded with weird tales, macabre music, and loads upon loads of palm mutes and d-beats, this is an old-school blast. Jeff Treppel premiered the album here yesterday, so be sure to give it a listen.

Revocation, Deathless (Metal Blade): The talent in Revocation is undeniable, and was so obvious when the Boston band started making serious waves five years ago. Dave Davidson is arguably the best metal lead guitarist of his generation, and he has a knack for combining melody and aggression better than most of his peers. Five albums in, though, Davidson and Revocation still have yet to create that one album, hell, that one song that can galvanize audiences and lift this band into the upper tiers of the genre like so many of us expected to happen. Instead, this new album serves up more technical exercises and milquetoast attempts at melody that might please Guitar Centre loiterers but make no effort to win over the casual listener. They’re so close, too. The reaction to this style of music should be immediate; no one should work this hard to find merit in the songs. This isn’t a prog record. Where’s this band’s “Laid to Rest”, “My Last Serenade”, “Blood and Thunder”? But no, we’re left with another album with plenty of chops but with lame attempts at hooks that feel more like lip service than inspiration. I was among the writers proclaiming Revocation would be the next big thing, but a half decade later it’s time to file this band among the long list of modern American metal bands that showed huge initial promise but always failed to produce anything but ordinary, wasting everybody’s time in the process.

Scar Symmetry, The Singularity (Phase 1 - Neohumanity) (Nuclear Blast): The Swedish band has always been made fun of for embracing pop-derived melodies and incorporating them into their brand of melodic death metal, and the fact that I cannot help but hear Winger in this new sixth album won’t exactly help things. But while Winger is commonly thought of as a typical “hair metal” band from the late-‘80s, they were actually anything but. Underneath the lasciviousness and power balladry was a band with incredible musical chops that had an uncanny knack for smartly combining pop music and progressive rock. With this new album – the first in an apparent trilogy – Scar Symmetry similarly finds an even balance between melody, dexterity, and yes, brutality. Because the music is so hook-oriented, so much more than anything the band has done in the past – which is saying something – it will be greeted with scorn by those who claim metal should only be ugly and not “trite”, but this band deserves praise for going all-in, and coming through with a flamboyant yet, oddly enough, subtly extraordinary album.

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