Exmortus are a four-piece band from Whittier, CA, the former stomping grounds of Richard Cee’s Wild Rags Records. The band formed in 2002, concocting a battle plan replete with apparent objectives: to spread the shred, pound steel and brew, praise the mighty Crom, and crush the craniums of many. While most of those objectives might not be apparent to the novice listener, one thing is clear: these guys are disciples of intricate, well-performed, guitar-friendly music. Mike Varney and his Shrapnel Records would have eaten these guys right up if this was 1986… alas, it is 2014, and the guitar is a currently a feared instrument – most fans fearing it may solo. And solo. And solo. And solo some more. There is an elite sub-group of metal fans, however, who love glorious and fuzzy guitar: this review is written with that blessed minority in mind. Slave to the Sword is a disc possessing many good notes.
Beautifully mixed and mastered, Slave to the Sword is one raging slab of testosterone-fueled musical showmanship. Like the peacock’s tail, this disc exists for one reason and one reason only: it boasts. It is ostentatious in the best way possible. In this case, it struts or advertises of skill, of countless hours spent practicing with the nose inches from the fretboard (or kit), with arms and fingers flailing at a hundred miles an hour. It shows investment in art, creativity, calluses, and hundreds of misplaced picks. It is flashy and impressive (like it should be!), with no weak tune among the bunch. Having become familiarized with some of the ‘tricks’ of shred guitarists through the years, when listening to any tune ‘in detail’, more modes, arpeggios, picking tricks, and scalar runs then could possibly be crammed in to one song are heard and appreciated. Sometimes, it’s more fun to listen to a groove-based rock tune with vocals that will melt your heart, and sometimes, you just want to hear some guy (it’s almost always a guy!) set the stage, and his guitar, on fire, with terror death lick after terror death lick, each solo and tune crazier then it’s predecessor.
Vocals on Slave to the Sword are a harsh scream, much closer to say, death or “pagan” metal then to what would be expected (eg. a power metal type guy). The unpretentious, heavy, harsh vocal is abutted to what amounts to an insane band that wastes no time in fusion, jazz, pop, or rock territory. In Exmortus’s setup and context, a typical ‘power metal’ operatic wailer vocalist might be a sonic turn-off. Rhythm guitars touch on thrash, or “speed” metal at times, somewhat similar to what might be heard behind one of those crazy Slayer “guitar battles”. They do seem to hit a ludicrous blackmetal speed with the percussion at times, but spend most of the tune in a more listenable tempo. The guitar work respects the rhythm: it’s not just “play as fast as you can”. It’s “play as fast as you can, to the tempo.”
“Rising” sets the stage and battle arena with a neoclassically-inspired burst of speed… which hardly lets up through the next four tunes. By the time “Warrior of the Night” rolls in, it’s obvious that a lot of the instrumental spots are long, indulgent, and a wee bit noodly. This is a gem for a shred fan. It should be noted that all of the guitar leads are performed staccato, crisp, clear, and very well executed. “Battle-Born” is very punchy, speed- or thrash- derived, toothy, and entertaining. “Metal Is King” closes the disc. This heavy-hitter offers impressive guitar muscle, grating vocal, pounding drums and edification of heavy metal as a central lyrical theme.
Criticism: It’s got typical shred issues: songs are all one dynamic (“on 11”), all one mood (“hail and kill!”), the bass guitar is not very audible (this problem is shared with most speed and thrash metal), there’s very little ‘space’ or it’s very note-dense and doesn’t ‘stop’, and it might get a bit piercing or “ice-picky” in spots at higher volumes. Obviously, most of that critique isn’t really “flaws”, it’s more like ‘an experienced listener addressing points that might be good to work with for the next release’. This isn’t supposed to be a “diverse” or genre-spanning album – it does one thing (blazing metal!), and it does it very well. It won’t bust your chops as badly as say, Malmsteen or Gilbert will, but it’s a heck of a workout for any guitarist.
This is definitely a mood-altering, and sort of a mind-blowing album. One of the band’s fans summed Slave to the Sword up nicely: “This is fucking epic battle music.” Are you looking for heavy metal that doesn’t sound like the (male) singer’s caught his genitals in a vice? Don’t want to have to pick your way through instrumentals? Do you like confident, competent musicianship? This disc is tailor-made for you. Pick up Slave to the Sword or anything by Exmortus – be careful of the spelling, because there is an Exmortis, totally different! – you won’t be sorry.
Track Listing with Run times:
Rising — 03:45
Slave to the Sword — 05:02
Immortality Made Flesh — 05:37
Foe Hammer — 04:27
Warrior of the Night — 05:39
Ancient Violence — 04:26
From the Abyss — 05:41
Moonlight Sonata (Act 3) — 05:29
Battle-Born — 03:59
Metal Is King — 05:22
Conan – Vocals, Guitar
David Rivera – Guitar
Jovanni Perez – Bass Guitar
Mario Moreno – Drums