Back in the 1980s, Exodus’s timing was never great. They played an extremely pivotal role in the development of thrash metal, helping create what came to be known as the “Bay Area” sound, yet they never caught lightning in a bottle the way Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer did in the middle of that decade. Founding guitarist Kirk Hammett abruptly left the band to join Metallica in 1983. Label issues forced their landmark debut Bonded By Blood to be released a year after its completion, and by the time it hit stores it had already been eclipsed by Metallica’s second album Ride the Lightning. Mercurial frontman Paul Baloff left the band, subsequent albums ranged from inconsistent (1987’s Pleasures of the Flesh) to spirited (1989’s fun Fabulous Disaster), and while they did manage to capitalize somewhat on the mainstream popularity of thrash between 1987 and 1990, that one big break never really happened.
In 2004, a dozen years after releasing their fifth album, a reunited Exodus found themselves creatively inspired once again, but it wasn’t until troublesome vocalist Steve Souza was replaced by the unknown Rob Dukes that the band started to truly create some momentum. With a new generation of bands specializing in traditional blue-collar thrash, Exodus suddenly found themselves a reborn career as a metal “legacy” act, attracting older fans to their shows, but most impressively, winning over younger audiences as well. Somehow, inexplicably, Dukes started to settle in as a strong frontman, his charismatic everyman persona a perfect fit for this band. Sure, he’s not the insane dude that Baloff was, but he can wind up a crowd as well as anyone in metal, and over the course of two albums, 2005’s Shovel Headed Kill Machine and 2007’s The Atrocity Exhibition…Exhibit A, he has proved to be a surprisingly strong vocalist, fitting neatly between the atonal howl of Baloff and the strange snarl of Souza. Exodus’s gradual transformation over the past five years is nothing short of impressive; their lineup is stable for the first time in ages, they are as good live now as they’ve ever been, and best of all that positive energy is starting to reflect in their new music.
In fact, their ninth full-length, the appropriately titled Exhibit B: The Human Condition, is by far the most ambitious piece of work the band has ever put together. Stylistically, nothing has changed at all, those crunching, palm-muted rhythms riffs as contagious as ever, but with 12 songs clocking in at a whopping 74 minutes, this is one bold statement. For many, the idea of Exodus playing eight and nine minute songs goes against what made this band so great in the first place. 20, 25 years ago, no thrash band pulled off the four to five minute song as well as these guys. In and out in no time, aggressive, and often insanely catchy, classics like “A Lesson in Violence”, “Bonded By Blood”, “Brain Dead”, and “The Toxic Waltz” played to the band’s strengths perfectly, and ideally, it would be nice to see guitarist/main songwriter Gary Holt settle back into that simple formula instead of tossing out epics left and right. However, as this album proves, the majority of the songs hold up very well with the older material, and despite being more drawn out than many of us could have expected, it still sounds like Exodus, which is all we ask.
The majority of the album’s strongest tracks are during its first half. “The Battle of Leonard and Charles” is built around a lithe rhythm riff by guitarist Lee Altus and is accentuated with those ever-reliable, “Creeping Death”-style gang shouts at the beginning of verse lines: “Sick! / Twisted rituals / Vile defiling of the enslaved.” Holt’s rousing “Beyond the Pale” is highlighted by the drumming of Tom Hunting, his double-time beats and fluid fills among the more distinct drum sounds in metal. Dukes is all over the lengthy “Class Dismissed (A Hate Primer)”, spitting out Holt’s Columbine-inspired lyrics with venom in one of his best vocal performances in his five years with the band, conveying authority and aggression like any good thrash frontman, yet smart enough to enunciate as well. “Downfall”, meanwhile, effectively shifts the focus on melody rather than the usual fist-bangin’ mania, producer Andy Sneap’s touch lending the track a strong Arch Enemy feel, that is, until the song launches into a massive breakdown that’s certain to ignite mosh pits.
Of course, when you have an album as long as this one is, odds are there will be one or two duds, and Exhibit B is no exception. “Burn Hollywood Burn” tackles a very tired metal subject and does nothing new, Holt bitching and moaning about LA’s vapidity like every other Bay Area metaler has done since time immemorial. At nine and a half minutes, “The Sun is My Destroyer” takes things a bit too far, the track starting out in compelling fashion, but eventually losing focus with movement after movement. Overall, though, the bulk of this album is excellent enough to excuse the odd mis-step. Like Overkill’s most recent album, it’s fantastic to see such a hard-working, veteran thrash band come through with a record as worthy of respect as this one. While the 2008 re-recording of Bonded By Blood came off as a band stubbornly living in the past, Exhibit B proves that there’s plenty of good new music in these guys yet.
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