Since 1992, which saw the release of The Law, Exhorder has been out of reach in the sense of new material. And each restart was foiled before any steam could build for a real reunion/reformation. But that hasn’t stopped their legendary status from staying intact and growing or the hopes of new material, one day. Now, that day has come and that new material is Mourn the Southern Skies. 27 years is a long time. Things change, fans change, technology’s changed and music consumption has changed drastically but the band’s basic penchant for biting thrash metal hasn’t changed a bit. Mellowed sure, but the basics are still there and it’s damn good to have them back.
It’s a fact that any mere mention of Exhorder causes a knowing grin amongst those that have any sort of basic knowledge of thrash metal. The band’s debut Slaughter In the Vatican is a stone cold classic of the genre. It’s a bulletproof album that had a higher proof than bootleg moonshine (not the watered down crap sold in stores today) and caused many a sore neck and probably accounts for at least some of hearing loss. Then, two years later, came The Law which let off the gas in favor of a more melodic and less thrash sound but still, the band was in fighting shape. And even though time would not be as kind to Law as their debut, it is a part of their legacy and another reason why so many bands would bite their style for years to follow. Simply put, off the strength of two albums, Exhorder is a household name in any abode that holds thrash in high esteem.
That was 1992 and now it’s 2019. That’s a long time for any band and yes, they’ve been through the ringer in terms of starts/stops and member changes but the core remains intact and it shows in the bared teeth gnashing of “Beware the Wolf” and the pedal-to-the-metal “Ripping Flesh.” The only thing distinguishing these tracks from anything off Slaughter is the slick guitar sound so the bones are definitely still alive and firing on all cylinders. The lyricism is as pissed off as ever, “My Time” throws f-bombs like grenades but well placed for ultimate impact and “Asunder” reads like a love gone horribly bad with the outcome somewhere around six feet under. The core of vocalist Kyle Thomas and guitarist Vinnie LaBella are better than ever as the former has found a wider range over the years and has zero trouble navigating all of metal’s extremes and even downright heavy clean singing and the latter does things with the guitar that I never thought I’d hear on an Exhorder album. Plus, they did a hell of job picking established musicians to round out this reformation. The quality and attention to detail here is top notch and pushes the album to larger-than-life stature.
But, the beauty of Exhorder past is the suggestion or hint of southern swagger in the form of groove — more so with The Law — yet here, instead of a suggestion, the album is loaded with it. “Yesterday’s Bones” saunters in with groove-a-plenty and modern day anymetal attitude. “The Arms of Man” is basically the same formula but with a doomier approach. Then there’s the epic length title track that wouldn’t be out of place on a Crowbar album except for the Exhorder stamp and some killer vocals. Now, don’t mistake this as saying these tracks aren’t wicked in their own right or aren’t extremely welcome because after this long, they certainly are. However, for a first look at this band in over two decades, it is a bit unexpected. And sure, go ahead and hit me with the ‘what did you want, a part 2?’ argument. Maybe, deep down somewhere, I did. Sue me. I mean, after this many years with the monster that was Slaughter, and even Law, tends to color expectations just a little. But hell, these are different times and Exhorder are older, mellower, and left their shits to give back in yesteryear. So, I’ll give them a partial pass for doing what they want even if it means dialing back the expected intensity.
Even with the chances they took with including way more groove and melodicism than expected, Mourn the Southern Skies is a great return for Exhorder and one that hopefully will lead to more in the near future in lieu of a twenty plus year gap. After all this time they still have thrash by the balls and can still unload a gut-punch better than any band they helped foster over the years or any of the RIYL bands that may or may not find themselves planted on a sticker for the physical release packaging. Oh, one last thing; I’ve already seen comment section mentions of the whole Pantera thing and let me put that to bed; Pantera still looked and sounded like they were headed to the Sunset Strip when Exhorder were slaying minds with their initial two demos. Cut. That. Shit. Out.