Thrash metal, one of the most respected and influential metal sub-genres, has returned as a ‘hot menu item’ amongst metal and punk crowds. While the Big Four of thrash — Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax — have always remained relevant throughout the rock and metal scene, an often overlooked and underrated subset of these bands are just now starting to gain their much deserved respect.
Exodus, Testament, and Death Angel were all pioneers of the renown “Bay-area thrash” scene, alongside their colleagues Slayer, Metallica, and Megadeth. Unlike the Big Four, these fellow thrash founders haven’t seen the same mainstream success, but instead they’ve always stuck to their guns in delivering hard hitting, exuberant, and diabolical songwriting. It’s not your dad’s metal but your cool uncle’s rather. And it just happens that with the resounding success of modern metal outfits Lamb of God, Machine Head, and even younger thrash-infused acts like Power Trip and Turnstile, fans are just now rediscovering the brilliance of thrash’s roots.
Exodus, who are one of the bay-area thrash scenes earliest bands, just so happen to be at the forefront of this massive renaissance. In many regards, Exodus stand above some of the Big Four in their ability to maintain such a technical ferocity in their riff writing, particularly this late into their career. Guitarist and founder Gary Holt, who also lended a hand playing for Slayer over the last decade, is a crown jewel in masterful metal guitar playing. On the band’s upcoming 11th studio album, Persona Non Grata (out 11/19), their signature riff and groove power are at an all time high, and with the help of Andy Sneap, it’s easily Exodus’ most modern sounding record. All in all, there’s not better time for thrash to be back, and this new Exodus album is making it especially exciting.
Speaking on all things Exodus and the band’s upcoming 11th studio album, Gary Holt sat down to speak with Forbes:
How do you look at the legacy of Exodus now with this 11th studio album? That’s certainly a remarkable achievement.
Well when I think about it, people lately mention it’s our “11th album” and I’m like “that’s all?” We’ve been a band for a long time, and we’ve had a couple of layoffs semi-retirements, self-inflicted wounds and stuff, and then that little band called Slayer had me occupied for a while, but it feels good because we’re extremely proud of this record, it’s insane how good it is. I mean one of Exodus’ biggest fans is me, but we know we made something special with this record.
In typical Exodus fashion, there’s no shortage of absolutely punishing riffs on this new album. How are you able to maintain writing such technical thrash music this late into your career?
Writing riffs for me is the easiest thing that I do in life. Finding the great ones requires some work, but writing riffs is like a baseball player going out and throwing a ball around or a football player tossing the football — it’s natural to me and I love doing it. If I didn’t love riffs maybe it’d be a little more difficult, but I still get super excited over a really sick riff, and I write thousands of riffs. When we went into this album I had some songs completely done, some in various stages of completion, and then I had thousands of riffs that I didn’t even bother to get into because I came up with something new. I get ‘ADD’ about things, and sometimes I have to be told to go listen to the old stuff, and then I’ll find gems but I’m usually ready to move on to the next one.
‘Persona Non Grata’ certainly stands apart from other album title in the band’s discography. What was the idea behind the title and making it the lead track for the album?
When I was writing this song it was always going to start the album off. I was like “let’s start the album off with the second longest song on the record, why not!” And the song is just furious, but it also twists and turns and it’s a journey in itself. The song’s subject matter to me is just about a release of negative energies in your life. People ask me who’s my persona non grata, and you know there’s a lot of things. That could be one of twenty million things, but I consider it an all around purging of negative energies. I also tell people the song means what it means to you. It could be your ex-husband your ex wife, your boss, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, it could be whatever. You decide, because I want the song to mean something to everybody.
You’ve stated the song “The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves,” was inspired by the riots, but in that “it’s about what the people beating on the rioters were expecting to happen. Did they think they would beat a smile onto their faces?”
Exactly, I mean it was a slogan I had seen before and it just always stuck with me, and then while watching the world burn and making this album that’s just what stuck in my head. Obviously you have looters and people just out to destroy, and I’m pretty conservative on law and order but I’m a centrist. As American’s we have a constitutional right to assemble and protest and I saw a lot of people being beaten for doing nothing. The United States was going through a horrible moment of turmoil and it wasn’t helping anyone, and I just thought what is the end game here? Is their goal to beat everyone into a smile?
To what extent were the songs on this record influenced by the social and political unrest of the last few years?
Once again, I think the environment the album was written in and what’s going on subliminally in the background on TV influenced everything. We didn’t want to be obvious. For one, we didn’t want to write a song about the pandemic, because we figured by the time the album comes out there’s going to be thousands, I mean there’s going to be concept albums about the damn thing. We wanted to be a little bit ambiguous about how we were addressing things going on, rather than just come out like some far left social justice warriors or far right, because we’re a band of absolutely opposing political ideologies on some people’s accounts, and yet we’re the last of a dying breed. We’re still brothers and we totally love each other and we agree to disagree on a lot of s**t. Fortunately I write most of the songs, so my viewpoints get in there more, but when [a band member] who feels a little differently has written something, I don’t sit there and edit them either.
Over the last few years people have talked about the thrash metal scene getting a noticeable resurgence, particularly with non-big 4 bands, like Exodus, Vio-lence, Testament, and Death Angel, etc. Has this been apparent to you in any way, specifically with a younger generation moving toward the sub-genre?
Yeah, I definitely think there’s a resurgence or renaissance going on right now. The funny thing is when we made our ‘comeback,’ album to use the term I don’t really like, with Tempo of The Damned (2004), people kept coming up to me like “how does it feel to be at the vanguard of the thrash metal resurgence?” I always told them “I’ll believe it when I see it, I just played for 18 people last night in Colorado Springs. Yeah some resurgence,” [laughs] but it has now. I’ve watched every year that we’ve busted our asses and kept working. 18 people became 200, and then 200 became 300, and it has become much more popular. Now I’m getting asked questions about Paul Baloff by like 14 year old kids, it’s kind of crazy. They weren’t even alive when Bonded By Blood was made, and they come up asking me “was Paul really that crazy? Did he use to wreck houses?” Wow [laughs], it’s awesome.
I mean some of the stories about Paul from ‘Murder In The Front Row’ are truly fascinating, do you think that’s played a part with regards to that?
It has now yeah, and the stories I’m talking about with these kids goes back 12 years, and a large part of our audience are teenagers now. But [Murder In The Front Row] has spurred a renewed interest in it, I mean that movie is like our high school year book, I love it. It’s phenomenal.
As far as the 2000’s go, this is the band’s longest gap in between records. Was this a calculated process with regards to the release schedule, or is it just how things worked out?
No, it was just my duties with Slayer had gotten in the way of that. When I got the call from [Slayer] and management saying “alright this is the end coming up and we’re going to do a two year final tour,” I mean that put another two years on it. But it also gave me an end date for when I could return to Exodus, and I’ve been struggling with the emotional toll of ‘where should I be?’
I loved my time in Slayer and I was treated like family, but Exodus is my number one family. We’re childhood friends and all, I mean Tom Hunting (drums, Exodus) and I had been busted shoplifting as teenagers together [laughs]. I really wanted to get back, and from that point I knew that I had a two year window to just work and it was going to be awesome. We were going to play amazing venues and then I was going to be free to get back to things. Obviously the pandemic and Tom’s cancer diagnosis delayed things a little further, but right now everything looks great and we can’t wait.
How’s Tom doing lately?
He’s doing amazing, we just played our first show back about two weeks ago at Aftershock and it was crushing. So much emotion and one of the best sets that we ever played. We felt really uplifted by the audience.