Exmortus, California’s own technical thrash metallers, are a band who does everything I love in metal. They write fast songs, packed with frantic energy and rarely pushing the 5 minute mark. Their guitar work is tight, melodic, and classically influenced. Ride Forth, which drops on January 8th from Prosthetic Records, is an album that goes from zero to 90 in a split second and never drops in intensity as it pounds through nine tracks of palm-muted riffs, staccato licks, arpeggios galore, and non-stop double-kick ass kickery (For the Horde!).
Ride Forth will be remembered by the people who pick it up for its ridiculous guitar gymnastics. Exmortus is unapologetically influenced by Viennese classical music (or at least Yngwie Malmsteen)—going so far as to cover Beethoven’s magnificent “Appassionata” [piano version – Exmortus version] for one of the record’s highlights—and the whole album is laced with excellent neoclassical licks and solos. Guitarists “Conan” Gonzales (who doubles as the vocalist) and David Rivera are fretboard gymnasts of the highest caliber. Every song on here has memorable and exciting leads—pick a song and it’s got a solo that would make Yngwie say “See? More is more!”
The problem with Ride Forth, though, is that while the guitar work is cranked up to 11, the songs themselves are what feels like an odd combination of Thrash 101 riffs juxtaposed with immaculate guitar work. Some songs, like “Hymn of Hate,” balance baroque harmonies with technical prowess. More tracks, however, are like “Let Us Roam,” simplistic or no-frills, sharing more in common with Sodom than the neoclassical powerhouses these gentlemen play like.
And rather than feeling like a raw, whirlwind of thrash metal, Ride Forth is weirdly flat. While one sits and wishes for Fleshgod Apocalypse‘s Oracles, the songs on Ride Forth aren’t dynamic or inventive. When listened to from front to back, Ride Forth feels like it’s made of dozens of straight 4/4 time signatures with little variation or dynamics, and that makes the guitar wizardry seem rote at times. One could interpret this as simply being true to an old school thrash metal sound, but the technical prowess feels a bit like it promises more than it can deliver. This is made most clear by how engaging the cover of “Appassionata” (including a herculean performance for which bassist Mike Cosio deserves highest praise) is when compared to the composition on the other songs on the album. It’s not fair to hold them to Hr. Beethoven’s composition standards—he was, after all, one of history’s best composers—but the contrast with Exmortus‘ more Cro Magnon riffing is stark.
What worries me about the above critique, is that on a deep diving playback, each song seems to stand on its own when taken separately. Choose any one song except “For the Horde,” and I can point out why I like it. Make me listen to the three in a row and I lose the thread. This make me suspect that the record’s flatness has more to do with its overall sound. While Zach “Friend of the Blog” Ohren’s mix is clinically clean, perfectly balanced, and a technically proficient job—y’know, good!—this album clocks in at a solid DR 5, flattening out the peaks and valleys to a nice, symmetrical rectangle. Ride Forth has a precision reminiscent of the mid-2000s production trend that sounds nearly robotic, which is an odd choice. Rather than sounding like a marauding horde of axe-wielding madmen, the album’s clinical sound removes the trashy, edgy feel that this music needs! Of course, producers in metal aren’t writing a band’s songs, but it probably doesn’t help that Conan’s monotone rasp is high in the mix, or that the drums are lifeless, despite being fast and heavy.
The sum total of Ride Forth is an album with lots of the parts in place to be a fun and engaging metal record with an unapologetically Malmsteen meets Manowar and German thrash feel, but which doesn’t work quite right. And all of that is frustrating, because when these guys hit the right notes (“Hymn of Hate,” “Black Sails,” “Fire and Ice”) they are awesome: technical, classical, with an ear for melody, harmony, and unafraid to use musical forms still engaging after centuries. Look at the score, but don’t ignore Exmortus because of it. There’s a lot to like here.