California’s power shred act Exmortus would have fit right in on Mike Varney‘s Shrapnel Records in the late 1980s, if not for the band’s double bass drum and extreme metal vocal styling. On 2016’s Ride Forth, the band proves there is beauty in all sorts of precision: the hyper-realist creates just as much art as the toddler who colors outside the lines.
The biggest selling point for Exmortus, besides balls-to-the-wall technique, is the vocals. The entire neoclassical metal subgenre has been infiltrated with tortured-cat castrato singers; “Conan‘s” vocals are low pitched, viciously growled, and don’t offend the ears in the slightest. Fans of death and black metal will be most able to appreciate this, as they’re already used to, or indoctrinated by, the vocal approach and have developed an ear for it. Other then the cognitive dissonance introduced by processing the unique, low, blurred growl texture of the vocal, the band’s entire presentation is clear, crisp, and sharp.
Drawing as much from early Metallica, Megadeth, and midterm Slayer as from “shred” luminaries like Impelliteri, Malmsteen, and Becker/Friedman‘s Cacophony, hallmarks of Exmortus’s sound include relentlessly heavy thrash riffs mated to ‘practiced for 12 hours a day for 5 years’ blistering runs and solos, ceaseless double-bass drumming, and a death metal styled guttural vocal. It’s a no-holds-barred show of substance and chops-buster tactic, of form and function. High speed and unabashedly flashy, the music has that rare capability to overwhelm the ear with a sonorous barrage, in the same way that the iridescence of a hologram can overwhelm the eye with beauty.
Production seems to bring neoclassical touches to the forefront in as many spots and flavors as possible; it’s a tip of the hat to the old masters of music. Dual harmony and synchronized riffs and motives by “Conan” and David Rivera permeate most tunes. Riffs and solos are very rhythmic (without much syncopation from the percussion department, although there is some in “Fire and Ice”) and respectful of divisions – that means there’s a lot of headbanging rhythm work and a lot of pleasing solos to enjoy. True stereo engineering on Ride Forth emphasizes clarity and bass guitar, which are both essentials of punchier, heavier metal. Michael Cosio seems to be reaching for the unbeatable, mix-cutting bass guitar tone from punk rock, which is very welcome to hear. Guitar tones are heavy, but relatively free of effects: a very moderate amount of gain, and a little reverb and compression, seem to be all that’s needed. It’s not the usual tone-tweaking adventure through the latest pedalboard offerings; the band has found a sound, and its sticking to it. The majority of the guitar flourish – harmonics, wailing bends, staccato runs, and so on, comes through well-chosen techniques, and that’s exemplary. Note-perfect, indulgent solos and fast, metronome-perfect double bass drum work by Mario Moreno throughout the album emphasize attention to finer detail – in this case, quantizing or gridding and practice, practice, practice. That these ‘road dogs’ have put in their proverbial 10000 hours is obvious, and shouldn’t be understated.
Pop music excels at subtly weaving contemporary cultural reference or influence into it’s songs, something metal can lack. Exmortus hasn’t neglected its forefathers one bit, and has cached a couple of “Easter eggs” for listeners. Once the vocal section kicks in, “Black Sails” has a very Reign In Blood era Slayer underpinning and rhythm during vocal verses. The bass guitar leads in a nice nod to Megadeth in “Appassionata”. The choruses of “Speed of the Strike” and “Hymn of Hate” have what sound like a vaguely familiar classical passages neatly woven into the metal riffage.
Where does Ride Forth fall short? Any critique really notes either artistic intent, or a future direction the band may lean. Most songs seem to stick to a fairly narrow formula, a contemporary reinterpretation of an idea and genre that had it’s heyday in the late 1980s. As with the thrash and punk revivals, there is no sin and no fault in extolling and elevating a genre and an art form; Exmortus could very well be on the cusp of a welcome shred revival, and thus end up torchbearers for a near-lost genre. To a cultivated fan or practiced ear, Ride Forth is great from start to finish. Critics will ask for more variety and sonic exploration. Some may say the disc sounds a little exercisey, but who wouldn’t want to put passion for an instrument on show? As with excellent predecessor Slave to the Sword, Exmortus’s lyrics and album art can be tropic, paying into the same “bank of metal” that they draw from. The inter and intrasong volume dynamic is ‘always on ten’, crucial for adding impact to extreme metal. It may do songs like their Beethoven cover – here re-titled “Appassionata” – a slight disservice though, as classical movements are peppered with dynamic shifts. Variety is the spice of life; this band offers a very full palette of note choice, but paints in one style with basic colors. To a fan of the genre, it’s great – perfect mood music for driving, working out, for motivation to practice, or to feel excited and upbeat.
Come on. You don’t “read” an adult magazine for “the articles”. The playing itself is the adventure. Exmortus doesn’t stray too far from a standard metal ‘tone’ or structure. They incorporate plenty of emotional (re)activity into both the lyrics and some of the song transitions; tunes are intense and have a relentless forward motion.
Exmortus is making a name for itself, for good reason. The band is intense, brutal, and fast. These guys put on a hell of a good live show. This is high energy guitar for fans who “get it”. The music is vibrant and full of life. Ride Forth is a perfect appetizer for fans of athletic guitar, a palate whetter and cleanser all in one. If this is a direction modern neoclassical shred metal – to differentiate it from the much more common and equally pervasive rock and jazz fusion – is headed, it’s going to be a scorching time to be a fan.
Speed of the Strike
For The Horde
Let Us Roam
Hymn Of Hate
Death To Tyrants
Fire and Ice
Jadran “Conan” Gonzalez – Vocals, Guitar
David Rivera – Guitar
Michael Cosio – Bass Guitar
Mario Moreno – Drums