If you track the history of California’s Exmortus, the trajectory of their development sees them skimming through their early years as over-achieving thrashers with an expressed love of classical music transposed by guitarists Jadran “Conan” Gonzalez and David Rivera (who’s only been in the ranks for four or so of the band’s thirteen year history) into shredding solos a la Yngwie Malmsteen were he amped up on trucker speed instead of self-importance. Each album has seen the band inject more and more classical, bringing it more to the fore in terms of influential prominence, tempos and outright thievery.
This has culminated in latest album, Ride Forth, in which the Whittier-based quartet incorporate so much familiar classical material, baroque blazing and aristocratic shredding that if it you subtracted Gonzalez’s raspy vocals, took out the double bass drumming and halved or eliminated the distortion, the connections between it and metal would be borderline and tenuous. Which isn’t really an issue; if you acoustic-ized anything it would certainly lack metallic quality (i.e. folk metal. On the same note, check out how brutal “Old McDonald” sounds when played through a Marshall stack on an overdriven guitar downtuned to B-flat). The issue as it stands for Exmortus on Ride Forth is that in addition to much of this release screaming prodigious talent, scholastic competency and years spent wood shedding, it’s also tempered with a discouraging lack of soul, power and testicular fortitude. Or balls, as they say on the streets.
Let’s dissect it from the outfield inwards, so to speak. The Phil Lawvere cover art is presumably a variation on the idea of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding over the horizon. From an artistic point of view, it’s an excellent piece of drawing; the form, dynamics, depth, shading and all that other technical art school hooey I know sweet fuck all about appears in good stead. But really, all I know outside of the fact it looks good is that I could never create anything half as decent. Still, if you take a closer look, there’s an underlying comic book feel to aspects of it (the background, the garb and musculature of the horsemen, the horse’s legs/hooves) and it ends up being the sort of piece that may look menacing at first, but in the end wouldn’t – or at least shouldn’t – even concern concerned parents.
The same can be said for how Exmortus approached this album’s introductory tracks. “Speed of the Strike” and “Relentless” are songs that will undoubtedly have fret watchers and tech-nerds frothing at the chops in salutation of its fleet-fingered transposition of the sound, style and, in some cases, the works of famed European classical composers into a more metallic housing. The trouble is that while the songs have speed, instrumental agility and more notes per minute than everyday auditory systems can process, there’s a noticeable lack of intensity and potency. The middle-of-the-road production in which the drums lack booming oomph, the guitars slink instead of slay and the compressed sounding mix that lacks depth, doesn’t help matters. The result is that said tunes come across as an average sound quality, look-at-us display of showmanship as opposed to meaningful statement of intent. That’s not to say it’s all neutered disappointment as one encouraging facet of this settled upon mix is how prominent the bass is, an instrument that sometimes suffers from a lack of respect in metal circles.
There’s a better balance and synthesis of the band’s two loves in the next two songs, “For the Horde” and “Let Us Roam” which, if it weren’t for the plain sound quality, could have been studied cracks to the dome via equal parts iron fist and weighty sheet music manuscript. The shortcoming of their approach which has finesse weighted in the favour of fury is no more salient than on “Hymn of Hate” and “Fire and Ice.” Conventional wisdom dictates that songs titled as such – especially the former – should be simmering with enough sonic you-know-what so that it feels like a pair of arms are reaching through the speakers to throttle your lily-white ass six shades from Sunday and into the afterlife. On the contrary, both tunes are hyper-melodic odes to showing off skill sets and making slightly heavier all the etudes anyone who’s been taught an instrument via the Royal Conservatory are all too familiar with. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate a robust display of talent, as the instrumental “Appassionata” is an excellent airing – and a Beethoven cover to boot – but done more appropriately as a showcase, a showcase in which you can really hear bassist Mike Cosio blazing away.
When all is said and done, Ride Forth is what it is and while I can absolutely appreciate its practiced classical side being combined with speedy thrash/melodic death metal – who doesn’t like to hear something that challenges preconceptions and mental faculties? – other times, I just want my metal to hammer me over the head like a twitterpated cavewoman who desperately wants to get me back to her cave on the shitty side of town. What metal fan reading this site doesn’t like it fucking heavy (whatever your definition of heavy)? Oh, Exmortus, what a tangled web you’ve weaved…