Shovel Headed Kill Machine
xodus never made it as big as its '80s contemporaries in the "Big Four of Thrash"—Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica, and Slayer. This wasn't for lack of talent. The band's riffs were every bit as godlike as those of its colleagues, and its performances just as proficient. But Exodus never strayed outside the confines of thrash. With its visceral tritones and flatted seconds, the band's sound revolved more around the riff than the song. Exodus had little crossover appeal, and when thrash became passé, so did the band. Bad luck, lineup changes, and record company problems didn't help, either. But with the recent resurgence of metal, thrash is back, and Exodus may just be rewriting the history books with Shovel Headed Kill Machine.
The story of Exodus is worthy of a VH1 documentary. The band formed in 1982 with Paul Baloff on vocals, Tom Hunting on drums, and Gary Holt and Kirk Hammett on guitars. Hammett left the next year to replace Dave Mustaine in Metallica (Mustaine, of course, went on to form Megadeth). Rick Hunolt was Hammett's more than worthy successor, and Rob McKillop joined the band on bass. This lineup released the thrash classic Bonded by Blood in 1985, featuring some of the most awesomely dated, reverb-drenched '80s production ever. Baloff left the band and was replaced by Steve "Zetro" Souza, ex-singer of Legacy, which would become Testament. Souza's sneering vocals became an Exodus signature over Pleasures of the Flesh and Fabulous Disaster, the latter being arguably the band's finest hour. Signing to major label Capitol Records proved toxic for Exodus, as the band received little promotional support for the uneven Impact Is Imminent and Force of Habit. The rise of grunge and death metal rendered thrash obsolete, and Exodus disbanded in 1992.
The band members went their separate ways, most to tend to various drug habits. Baloff rejoined the band in 1997 for a one-off live show, released as Another Lesson in Violence, but otherwise Exodus lay dormant until 2001. After reforming to play the "Thrash of the Titans" cancer benefit, the band began working on new material. However, Baloff tragically passed away of a stroke in 2002. His death was a wake-up call to the other band members, particularly Holt, who cleaned up and began writing some of Exodus' best material to date. The result was 2004's Tempo of the Damned, which featured Souza back on vocals and new bassist Jack Gibson. The album was amazing, one of the year's best in metal. The band was tighter and fiercer than ever, and Souza gave the strongest vocal performance of his career. The clincher was Andy Sneap's clear, powerful production, which brought the band firmly into the 21st century.
More drama followed. Souza left Exodus just before a tour in fall 2004, resulting in a merry-go-round of replacement vocalists. Hunting left the band due to health reasons, and Hunolt retired from music to concentrate on family life. Holt soldiered on, recruiting Lee Altus (Heathen) on guitar, Paul Bostaph (Slayer, Testament) on drums, and his former guitar tech Rob Dukes on vocals. Could Exodus still be Exodus with only one remaining original member?
Judging from Shovel Headed Kill Machine, the answer is yes. Holt wrote practically all of this album, as well as Tempo of the Damned, so there's continuity in riffage. Altus contributes some fiery solos that should appease those dismayed by the breakup of the "H-Team" of Holt and Hunolt. In fact, the soloing is one of the best things about this album. While too many shredders today rely on stock scales and mechanical articulation, Holt and Altus deliver a master class in how to make solos kick ass. String bends, two-handed tapping, arpeggios, chromatic notes, and whammy bar dumps blaze through the leads with refreshing unpredictability. It's a good sign when an album's best song is its longest one, "Deathamphetamine," eight and a half minutes of gloriously brutal thrash, each riff better than the last.
With his trademark precision and some creative fills and accents, Bostaph is an able replacement for Hunting. So that leaves the vocals. For Exodus fans accustomed to Souza's sneer, Dukes' vocals might be tough to swallow. His voice has less character; it's a young man's midrange howl, but it, too, has some sneer to it. It's an interesting blend of old and new, and combined with the fact that Dukes has '80s thrash vocal articulation down cold, he could be the right guy to take Exodus into the future.
Notwithstanding the great instrumental work, perhaps the best reason to buy this album is for its mixdown. This thing sounds f**king huge. Andy Sneap's mixes all sound the same (see the latest albums by Nevermore, Arch Enemy, Trivium, and Killswitch Engage), and it's debatable whether or not a mixing engineer should impose the same sound on every project. But Sneap's sound is clean and big, if a bit rounded, and it's easy to see why he's the most in-demand mixing engineer in metal at the moment. In this case, he really outdoes himself. The guitars are massive, the drums are punchy, and the bass tone is one of the warmest and fullest ever heard on a metal album. Someone let this guy remix Metallica's …And Justice for All!
Shovel Headed Kill Machine proves that Tempo of the Damned was no fluke. Holt has managed to preserve the core Exodus sound, yet position the band for the future, more than can be said for any of his '80s thrash colleagues. Anthrax and Testament are riding the nostalgia gravy train with reformed original lineups. Megadeth and Slayer are touring behind hits from last century. And as for Metallica… let's not get started on that. Exodus is the only '80s thrash group still making vital, relevant music today. With Tempo of the Damned, Exodus reclaimed the thrash crown; with Shovel Headed Kill Machine, the band retains it.
Call it multimedia: over its career, Exodus has had a knack for assaulting not only eardrums but also eyeballs. Every Exodus album cover is fuggin' ugly, even for metal. That's no mean feat considering that the band has released ten albums over its 23 years. It almost takes planning to have artwork this consistently bad. While colleagues like Anthrax and Testament dropped their goofiness over time for respectable artwork, Exodus never let up with the poor layout, cheesy fonts, and only-funny-while-high concepts. Shovel Headed Kill Machine has an endearingly silly cover and virtually unreadable liner notes, but it's by no means the worst offender in the Exodus catalogue. Here are the top five Exodus albums to carry in a brown paper bag:
5. Tempo of the Damned, 2004
Last year, Exodus made a comeback so true to form, they had album artwork straight out of the '80s. This one features a horned old guy playing organ, while below him the "legions of the musically possessed" in the lyrics are "unleashing all the rage they've repressed" (one of them is even crowd-surfing). With its cheap Halloween store painting style, this is one of those album covers that make you ashamed to be seen buying it. No wonder the record label hid this cover under a tasteful black slipcase.
4. Pleasures of the Flesh, 1987
More skulls and candles! For full effect, both the front and back covers are shown here. Our heroes are sitting at a bar (the Punchline in San Francisco), with skulls in front of them. Next to a sign that says "Cannibal Bar & Grill" stands a "native" with bone jewelry and a spear. Here's a hint, guys: tiger skin is never a good design element. There's a rare picture disc of this album that depicts cartoon versions of the band straight-up indulging in said pleasures of the flesh.
3. Impact Is Imminent, 1990
This one's a real headscratcher. The band is sitting in a convertible that has obviously been pasted onto some Bay Area freeway. Judging from the lane markers, the car is not moving, while behind it looms what looks like a giant pinball. This cover violates two cardinal rules of metal artwork: (1) unless you are Rob Halford, Kiss, or a black metaller, do not appear on your own cover; (2) if you must appear on your own cover, for the love of all that's unholy—DON'T SMILE.
2. Fabulous Disaster, 1989
It's amazing the record label approved this artwork, from the "let's put the guys in a shed and have them watch TV" concept to the eye-watering neon green and purple logo. Rick Hunolt is holding a remote control that has bunny ears! The rest of the guys are pointing and exclaiming at the TV. Perhaps they're up in arms over the back cover image of burning high-tops. "Nooo, not the high-tops!" For those too young to remember, the de rigueur uniform for '80s thrash metallers was ball-busting tight black jeans and white high-tops. At Bay Area metal shows, you'll still see the one guy stuck in '86 with the mullet, tight jeans, white high-tops, and denim jacket with Kreator back patches.
1. Bonded by Blood (original cover), 1985
This one speaks for itself.