I overlooked Exhorder the first time around, and it’s too bad. ‘Slaughter in the Vatican’ is a great record, and as evidenced by their performance at this year’s Decibel Metal & Beer Fest, they are a live band to be reckoned with.
The urgent thrash of the first single “My Time,” effectively lights up the band’s third record. It quickly becomes clear that time has not slowed Exhorder down one iota as they rip through the brisk, crushing groove of an economical track that serves as a reminder of why the metal community gave a sh*t about this band in the first place. While the track rings true to their original calling card, bits and pieces of melodic death metal and other more recent sounds indicate that the past couple decades have not been lost on them.
The twisting riffs of “Asunder,” the first high point on a record that has several, finds longtime members vocalist Kyle Thomas and guitarist Vinnie LaBella sounding positively invigorated by a brand-new rhythm section and second guitarist. Time has been particularly kind to Thomas, whose expressive and confident vocals belie his age. Perhaps his time fronting doom-titans Trouble have helped sharpen the melodic aspects of his instrument.
“Hallowed Sound” and “Rumination” follow in the footsteps of “Asunder.” A representative of the record, these trimmed-of-the-fat tunes display a real depth of songcraft. The former, highlighted by the muscular and crystal-clear production of veteran producer Jens Bogren (Opeth, Amon Amarth), marries a mid-tempo chug to an anthemic chorus, before a death-metal inspired vocal turn paves the way for the sonic maelstrom of the lead break. This is “the hallowed sound of roots deep in the ground.” A tribute to the Louisiana scene that Exhorder helped birth, Thomas’s declaration of intent continues— “no hurricane can keep us down.”
“Beware the Wolf” and “Ripping Flesh” find the band embracing their roots a la their “this is thrash, motherf*ckers” approach—albeit more polished than the unbridled raw thrash of their debut. Fluid guitar lines and adeptly shredding solos via LaBella and newcomer Marzi Montazeri (Philip H. Anselmo & The Illegals) rub bloody elbows with Thomas’s Chuck Billy-esque vocals to great effect. Combined with the energetic drums of newcomer Sasha Horn (Forbidden) and a sonorous low-end courtesy of former member Jason VieBrooks (Heathen), these tracks proudly wave the middle finger at folks who pigeonholed Exhorder as a Pantera rip-off back in the day.
Elsewhere, the solid “Yesterday’s Bones” heaps spoonfuls of melodic harmonized guitars onto an atmospheric post-chorus before the noodley lead breaks find the band stretching out a bit. The undercooked acoustic outro, however, embodies what I would call the record’s one weakness—a hesitance on the band’s part to flex their creative muscles. Whether it be the creepy horror-movie synths that briefly show-up on frantic thrasher “All She Wrote,” the atmospheric psych of the intro to “Rumination,” or the interesting minor-key harmonies that show up in the measured doom of “The Arms of Man,” a lot of interesting ideas go unexplored to the detriment of the whole.
The sublime title-track and set-closer is born auspiciously enough via gentle arpeggiated guitars and soulful vocals, before slithering its way into a southern-fried dirge complete with bluesy harmonized guitars and a moody chorus. A clear outlier somewhat at odds with the safeness of the rest of the set, the track has more in common with Exhorders sludgy NOLA peers. That’s not to say that it’s a bad track, quite the contrary, it’s a standout. It serves as an unflinchingly honest expression of where the band members are in 2019. A band of this vintage should not be afraid to take a few chances and wander outside of their comfort zone, a move that I believe will pay off in spades on future releases.
On their first release in over 25 years, the recently re-reunited Exhorder have crafted a record that plays to their strengths. Expertly splitting the difference between thrash and swampy southern groove, ‘Mourn the Southern Skies’ heralds the band’s return with a vengeance.