Rare is the metal band that can shred your face clean off while using virtuoso techniques worthy of Italian violinist Niccolò Paganini—with all the sonic subtlety of a pissed-off Japanese giant monster.
Which is why Whittier, Calif.'s Exmortus tends to stand out amidst the current thrash-metal resurgence—a resurgence spearheaded in significant part by New York indie label Heavy Artillery. Among the label's top releases in its two-year history is 2008's In Hatred's Flame, Exmortus' blistering 11-track debut that remains invulnerable to criticism and immune to negative reviews.
"You really need to have both qualities in metal," insists Exmortus drummer Mario Moreno, just 21, during a recent phone interview. "Melody and brutality. You can't have one without the other. Or at least that's what we try to do."
Still, it's not always balls-to-the-wall metal blasting in the quartet's cramped tour van. While the band's bassist, Daniel Duarte, is a diehard Eagles fan, Moreno and the other Exmortus members enjoy classic hard rock, particularly Boston and the Scorpions.
"We listen to a lot of music that the metal community probably doesn't consider brutal," Moreno admits. "Oh, well."
At times, the band's guitar-soloing blueprint seems cribbed from the discography of Swedish guitar wizard Yngwie Malmsteen. But the Exmortus drummer, technically mind-blowing in his own right, reveals that it's actually Ozzy Osbourne's classically trained sideman Randy Rhoads who influenced Exmortus' lead guitarist, Conan (not the guy's real name, we assume).
"It wasn't at all like we sat down and came up with some formula of putting melodic guitar on top of devastating rhythms," he continues. "Nobody said, 'Let's go for that sound.' Our debut album is the result of us just trying to push everything we were listening to at the time—from Polish death metal like Behemoth to Judas Priest-type power metal—into each song."
Even songs that have vastly different approaches—for instance, the epic, Iron Maiden-esque "Valor and Might" and the crushing doom-metal avalanche of "Fimbulwinter"—still possess a distinctive Exmortus sound. With the band's war-obsessed lyrics growled by singer/guitarist Balmore Lemus (can you believe it's his real name?), the whole package comes across like a bunch of really smart, musically gifted Dungeons and Dragons gamers picking up instruments and trying to replicate the thunderous cacophony of an ogre slaughter.
Despite his band's heterogeneous attack, Moreno laments the homogenous gender of Exmortus fans when pressed with the question: Does this music bring chicks to your shows, dude?
"It's definitely harder to get ladies playing this music," he confesses. "It's a sausage fest all the time. When a lady does show up, she's got, like, five dates. We definitely do it for the glory, for the pure adrenaline, for the excitement of seeing so many people headbanging and going crazy. We've seen some stunning (mosh) pits."
But the craziest road experiences for Exmortus have been on the East Coast, where basement shows are de rigueur. Moreno, who is 6 foot 1, can barely manage to drag his drum kit into such low-ceilinged underground spaces. Plus, the earthquake tendencies of his home state cause him to consider gloomy notions like: If there were a sudden tremor, there wouldn't be a support beam to keep every kid in here from being flattened.
The future is less hostile to imagine, however: Exmortus is eager to cut a second full-length after wrapping up the current tour with labelmates Vektor, a savagely talented sci-fi-themed band out of Tempe. (See Rhythm & Views on Page 48.) Moreno and co. plan on being pretty creative on the new record—and hope to not force anything if it doesn't work right away—in order to avoid a sophomore slump.
"We're going to write new songs on the road and stick with Heavy Artillery for the next record," confides Moreno. "Vektor are such awesome dudes who we've known for a few years now. It's cool that we ended up on the same label and to see the progression of a band that was just starting out as we were. It will be good to tour with friends."
Back in Southern California, Exmortus has a garage that they padded up themselves, as well as the support of their family and friends, despite toiling in a genre of music that's difficult to understand at first—or even 50th—listen.
"My mom and everyone else in my family have supported us since the very beginning," says Moreno. "I mean, they buy us all the gear, and I would definitely call that support, right? They've always helped us, guided us and kept us from being a lazy band. They even work our merchandise tables for the local shows here in California. Clearly, they don't enjoy sitting there for hours, so I imagine they do it because they want to help us and they believe in us."
What, no girlfriends manning the merch yet?
"Not yet," chuckles Moreno. "You can't please everyone all the time."