Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Exhorder - Slaughter in the Vatican (1990)

Exhorder is one of those bands which has benefited greatly from both the internet and the wayback machine of a modern thrash audience craving for genuine sounds from the genre's Golden Age of explosion and expansion, circa about 1985-1991. I remember picking up this tape at the local mall when it came out, largely because of its logo, artwork, and R/C records association, and giving it a few spins before setting it aside and not bothering with it except for the occasional relisten to figure out what it was that did not quite grab me in the first place. The name was mentioned in passing by a few friends, articles, radio shows, but 1990 was right on the threshold of thrash metal's popularity waning; not that it would go down without a few masterpieces that year, or ever truly vanish, but even the better records coming out were often ignored by a mainstream hesher populace that seemed satisfied with 1-4 of their 'Big Four', and at most a handful of others, before tuning over to their glam metal, or Ozzy and Dio and Sabbath, Maiden and Priest. But fast forward 15-25 years, and groups like Exhorder, Demolition and Morbid Saint find themselves with an entire new fan base mixed in with a lot of those 'oh yeah, I remember them' sorts and remaining diehards.

I am not among these, because frankly, try as I might, I don't feel any stronger about this album now than I did back when it initially dropped. There are certainly some technical aspects to Slaughter in the Vatican that I admire. This was forceful, energetic thrash, much heavier than what the more popular bands were pulling off, very much in league with a Dark Angel or Sadus. There are loads of riffs, and enough variety to pad out substantial 5-6 minute tracks without resort to banal repetition. And then of course there's the 'charismatic' and unique vocal style which Kyle Thomas brought to the table, known as a massive influence upon Pantera's Phil Anselmo who, when shifting away from his 80s power metal screaming, really popularized this style of Southern swagger and tough guy oomph. And while I've seen this debated often, I think it's rather obvious...listen to Pantera while Exhorder were releasing their demos. Listen to Pantera once they made the shift to Cowboys from Hell, and got the drop on this debut. He's absolutely been 'touched' by what he heard from his Nola friends. Not to the point where it's a complete copy, and in fact I thought Anselmo did a better job wrenching some attitude and emotion from the style, as the band's success would attest, but there it is. I'd also say that some of the thicker grooves used by the Texans were inspired by particular Exhorder riffs, but ultimately Dimebag was a more dynamic and distinct player than Labella or Ceravolo here.

And about those riffs...well, they're one of the primary reasons I've never been feeling this. All the guitar parts in general, as hammering and proficient as they are played, sounded like a rather generic hodgepodge of material that bands like Exodus, Dark Angel, Sacred Reich, Sepultura and Devastation had already unleashed upon the populace. Don't get me wrong, they are dextrous and intricate enough to exhibit that more thought had been placed into them than your garden variety Metallica clones gigging at high school talent shows, but I'll be damned if not a single one of the considerably huge array of guitar riffs on Slaughter in the Vatican stick with me for even five minutes. Whether bursting out into faster material or the denser, groove/thrash in verses to tunes like "Desecrator" (a song Pantera was clearly fond of), I just get bored hearing it again. Even when some small pattern of notes begins to align with the aural pleasure centers of my being, they'll switch it off into something else less interesting. Add to that the relative lack of good bass lines, since the very notion of that instrument seemed like an afterthought that the guitarists just played themselves, and not an independent voice that might add a little swerve and meat to the propulsive palm muting. It's frustrating, because these gentlemen could. fucking. play. Just nothing that memorable, and all the leads also feel pretty skimpy or throwaway.

The drums anchor down the belligerent pacing and muscle of the rhythm guitars rather well, but they lead me to another of my issues here...even as a teen, I could tell this was a Scott Burns mix without needing to read it in the booklet. And Burns is a guy I found very inconsistent. He's done some albums I truly love, and others which almost feel muffled and neutered by his presence (Sepultura's Arise and the first couple Deicide discs come to mind). I get that he was sort of the 'house engineer' for a lot of the Roadrunner/RC classics, and he absolutely knocked a few of them out of the park, but I just don't like some of the mix or the guitar tones he gets on albums like this one. They feel too subdued and compressed. Slaughter is not an egregiously bad example of this, but it's enough of a factor that my old cassette gathered a lot of dust until. Lastly, as much as I can appreciate Kyle's style and influence, I just wan't too into the inflection of the vocals here. Their delivery was not unfamiliar to me (I owned Cowboys from Hell already), and there's a charisma to them that a lot of run of the mill thrashers lacked, but they're about 50/50 in effectiveness for me, whereas his protegee was superior at making them seem enormous and angry, like a school bully about to pop you one on the nose. Some of the lyrics are passable, like "The Tragic Period" about Edgar Allen Poe... EXCEPT for the stupid "Anal Slut", which is beyond awful, and it creates a bit of an obnoxious aesthetic disparity to be leaping back and forth between the two on the same album.

Ultimately, going back to Slaughter in the Vatican for another round didn't yield to me the sort of cult classic that I've seen so much fawning over. It's just nothing I'd queue up when I've got so many other options I prefer. That said, it's also not an album I can find a lot to mock or complain about...apart from lyrics like "Fuck your brains out/squeeze your tits/blood on your thighs/virginity dies" which seem like a budding bucktoothed parallel to Cannibal Corpse, but unwilling to go the brutal distance. "Lust/anal lust/up the butt/lousy slut". Oh, the BUTT. I thought yous guys was referring to that other kind of anal. Sodomy overture aside, this is a competent debut, with no effort spared, that simply doesn't click with me. Accomplished, practiced mediocrity which doesn't yield even a single song I need to hear again.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10] (consumed by overconfident assumptions)


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