EXODUS – Persona Non Grata

EXODUS – Persona Non Grata

The term "thrash metal" was coined in February 1984 by Kerrang! journalist Malcolm Dome in reference to Anthrax’s song "Metal Thrashing Mad". Prior to this, Metallica’s founding guitarist James Alan Hetfield had referred to Metallica’s sound as "power metal", so, although many credit Metalica’s and Megadeth’s founding guitarist, David Scott Mustaine, with birthing the genre it had actually been the oldest San Francisco Bay Area thrash metal act (1979), Exodus, which inspired Anthrax, Slayer, Metallica and, by extension, Megadeth, even though their legendary debut album, "Bonded By Blood"¹⁹⁸⁵ came out long after all of the above were well established. Although they went through three vocalists , Exodus is best known, and almost universally regarded at their best, with Steven "Zetro" Souza, with whom they recorded the most albums, including this year’s "Persona Non Grata" (out on November 19th), their 11th full length, which finds them in top form even if slightly below the level of the predecessor, "Blood In, Blood Out"²⁰¹⁴, as they mix ferocious uncompromising thrash with heavy metal radio-friendly (by their own admission) material akin to Megadeth’s "Countdown To Extintion"¹⁹⁹², Testament’s "The Ritual"¹⁹⁹² or Anthrax’s "Sound Of The White Noise"¹⁹⁹³, with a very good result, full of hooks, melodies, slightly progressive twists and turns and flawless musicianship.

Having given them their due, I must admit that, Exodus, for me a happy medium between Anthrax and Kreator, has always been a mixed bag and an aquired taste. From the manacing but humble independent casette demos "1982", "Die By His Hand"¹⁹⁸³ and "Rehearsal ’83" and the subsequent loss of their founding guitarist, the future super rock star, Kirk Lee Hammett, to Metallica (in replacement of the freshly fired Mustaine) through the crushing but run-of-the-mill attack of the overrated (and superfluously later remade) "Bonded By Blood" led by the charismatic Russian American vocalist, Pavel Nikolayevitch Balchishkov known to all as Paul Nicholas Baloff, the unremarkable "Pleasures Of The Flesh"¹⁹⁸⁷ (the innovative "Seeds Of Hate" a notable exception) (where Souza, formerly of The Legacy-later-turned-Testament, took over the mike) through the fan favorite "Fabulous Disaster"¹⁹⁸⁹ an obvious highlight of the Souza’s reign and the first album to catch my attention, the thrash collective really spread their creative wings for that, "Impact Is Imminent"¹⁹⁹⁰ and, especially, the more melodic and heavy metallish "Force Of Habit"¹⁹⁹² only to break up a year later. Reuniting twice, firstly for 2 years (1997-1998) and secondly in 2001, both times under the returning Baloff and continuing under the returning Souza for the interesting and promising "Tempo Of The Damned"²⁰⁰⁴ (the first of three tributes to Baloff who had suffered a deadly stroke in 2002), the subsequent Robert Dukes-sung trifecta ("Shovel Headed Kill Machine"²⁰⁰⁵, "The Atrocity Exhibition: Exhibit A"²⁰⁰⁷ and "Exhibit B: The Human Condition"²⁰¹⁰) plus the aforementioned unnecessary remake of the debut, "Let There Be Blood"²⁰⁰⁸ as the second Baloff tribute, mildly engaged me with moments of brilliance interwoven with overthought lyrical concepts which often didn’t justify the wildly inconsistent songwriting and especially that last one signified lack of fresh ideas which likely prompted Dukes to leave and Souza re-taking over for the shockingly ferocious and fantastic "Blood In, Blood Out", the third Baloff tribute (with Souza singing "Tonight we’re gonna fight like it’s 1985…rage and make Paul Baloff proud" in the title track) an album I regard as their best work to date, oh, probably deserving at least a 5.5/6 score.

Now, that you know "Persona Non Grata" did not beat its predecessor to the punch, consider the reason, an obvious one: founding guitarist Gary Holt (and the only Exodus member performing on all their albums), Tom Hunting (drums), Souza (vocals), Jack Gibson (bass) and Lee Altus (guitar) clearly did not want "Blood In, Blood Out 2" here but rather reached back into their past retrieving the different creative lights for a well-rounded and varied effort. As the result, the album is most akin to "Fabulous Disaster" and the very 80s-sounding "Elitist", the wham-bam-thank you, m’aam "The Beatings Will Continue (Until Morale Improves)" , the excellent extremely technical (think "Take No Prioners") "Fires Of Division" and the perfect thrashcore anthem "Slipping Into Madness" agree the most. At the same time, Exodus is aware of their Duke-led past and takes the highlights thereof to another level in "Prescribing Horror" and the fantastic opening title track which remind us of Holt’s tenure in Slayer (touring for Jeffrey John Hanneman who had died from alcohol-related cirrhosis in 2013) as well as Dukes Exodusian love of Pantera. "Blood In, Blood Out" is, too, represented by the melodic Judas Priestly "Clickbait" (so reminiscent of "Salt The Wound") and the country-flavored closer "Antiseed" but the biggest pleasant surprise is the anti-Christ-ian (unsurprisingly if you remember "The Atrocity Exhibition" or "Iconoclast") progressive groove thrasher "Lunatic-Liar-Lord" of which lyrical premise I may strongly disagree with but musically and vocally (Souza’s roaring death growls!) it is one of the finest songs Exodus has ever written and I hope they will use that as a blueprint for future songwriting. Of course, Holt/Lee guitar duels on the entire album require only popcorn and a soda so that you can comfortably sit down and marvel as they run circles around Megadeth’s "Rust In Peace" in technical, melodic and complexity aspect while founding drummer Hunting and bassist Gibson pierce your eardrums simultaneously with making you one with whatever you happen to sit or lie on and, for exhibit A, check out "R.E.M.F".

Having hopefully proven how pulverizing "Persona Non Grata" (Latin for "unwelcome person" a sort of opposite of anti-VIP) is I now am in the position to explain why it does not exceed its immediate predecessor: songwriting. Some of the songs could simply use more variety and hooks, the aforementioned ""R.E.M.F" (Rear Echelon M-Fs) one example, having sported the sexiest riff since Pantera’s "Vulgar Display Of Power"¹⁹⁹² but largely built around that one riff, and the aforementioned "The Beatings Will Continue (Until Morale Improves)" hookless and short, both reminiscent of the "Impact Is Imminent" days. Others, such as the impressively different and almost anti-Exodusian "The Years Of Death And Dying" or the Anthraxian "Elitist" are very good but could be better, with something about them not letting me score more than 5/6.

Overall, "Persona Non Grata" confirms that Exodus, along with Testament, Anthrax and Death Angel (and perhaps Megadeth if we are to believe the new album hype) are now stronger, more creative and catchier than before, a worthy, if slightly inferior companion to "Blood In, Blood Out". It’s an album from Exodus fans to any era Exodus fan, professionally and powerfully produced yet respecting the past while adorned with a brilliant cover seemingly inspired by Darren Aronofsky’s brilliant thriller horror motion picture "Mother!"²⁰¹⁷, and, for all the above reasons, it comes highly recommended by yours truly.