Exodus made one of the best metal albums of 1985, Bonded by Blood. Twenty-two years later, the Bay Area thrash legends released one of the best metal albums of 2007, The Atrocity Exhibition: Exhibit A. The feat is more impressive when you consider the band's endless turnover between the two records — a period in which its on-again, off-again status was hobbled by a number of the usual culprits.
"We've suffered through the serious death, drugs, and rock and roll more than anybody," says guitarist Gary Holt, the only member who's played on every single Exodus album. "All the bad luck and bad circumstances pushed us."
In the mid-1980s, thrash metal was famously embodied by a group of bands collectively known as "The Big Four": Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth. Plenty of headbanger aficionados argue that San Francisco's Exodus was — or should have been — number five. Outside of metal circles, the group is a historical footnote: The original lineup featured Kirk Hammett, whom Metallica poached before Exodus released its 1985 masterpiece.
Exodus formed in 1979, two years before California rivals Metallica and Slayer plugged in for the first time. It also helped itself to a bigger dose of traditional rock cheese: Between heroic solos and gang-vocal choruses, singer Paul Baloff — the hard-partying John Belushi of the Frisco thrash scene — went big at every opportunity, alternating bellows and shrieks.
Like its Bay Area brethren in Testament, Exodus played whiplash funk metal that demanded physical reaction. Even after Baloff was replaced by Steve "Zetro" Souza in 1987, the band's music was better suited to headbanging than moshing. Ironically, Exodus scored its biggest hit with 1989's ode to slam dancing, "Toxic Waltz." It cost the group some street cred, but it also led to a major-label record deal.
The group recharged on 1990's mega-heavy Impact Is Imminent, but the album arrived just as metal fans were migrating en masse to grunge. Exodus split up in 1993 without ever scoring a gold record. (The Big Four all went platinum.) The band reunited briefly in 1997, but quickly broke up again. Holt was committed to Exodus, but it was hard convincing B-squad musicians to trade their journeyman paychecks — Souza and Holt worked for a roofing company during the hiatus — for meager touring bucks.
In 2001, Exodus got back together with Baloff to play a benefit concert. They planned to make another record, but Baloff died of a stroke a year later at age 41. Souza rejoined in 2004, singing on the well-received Tempo of the Damned. But after he nixed a South American tour mere days before it was to begin, Holt fired him. "[We were] putting up with a lot of bullshit from him, because he didn't really want to be there," says Holt. "He wanted to be home."
Skinlab's Steev Esquivel took over for a short tour before Holt's guitar technician, Rob Dukes, auditioned for the permanent vocalist gig. Dukes' deeper register replaced Souza's reptilian squealing on 2005's Shovel Headed Kill Machine and Atrocity Exhibition, which came out in October.
But hounded by personal crises and family commitments, the Kill Machine lineup — like those before it — began to crumble. Holt acknowledges that the parade of members who have marched through Exodus over the years has scarred its reputation. "Some people criticized it still being [called] Exodus, but I didn't go into that album planning on not having everybody there," says Holt. "I think [it would have been different] if we split up and, 10 years later, I came back with four different guys and called it Exodus. I went into rehearsals as Exodus, and then all this shit happened. I'm not going to let the band die over it."
The latest version of Exodus plays pure head-down speed metal on the ferocious Atrocity Exhibition. Holt's razor-tipped riffs are sharper and denser than they've ever been. He even gets political in songs like "As It Was, as It Soon Shall Be," which he wrote about the Iraq war. And while Atrocity Exhibition doesn't break any new thrash ground — an achievement that, at this stage, looks impossible — it makes the new crop of groups look positively anemic.
Holt, for one, is happy with the results. "But I'll never put anything in front of Bonded by Blood," he says. "Bonded by Blood is so much more than a great album — it's a genre-defining album. The new album is the best thing we've done since."
Exodus was Holt's first band, and — as long as he can perform with some dignity — he's not ready to give it up. And if that means fighting his way through clubs and competing with bands half his age, he'll do it. It sure beats fixing roofs. "All of the [big] bands from our era have money," he says. "They have houses. They have a level of comfort I don't know. So I'm constantly pushing myself to go back and reclaim what I truly believe is mine. And that's the crown at the top of the heap."