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Thrash metal pioneers Exodus stay the course 30 years later

By Selena Fragassi | For the Sun-Times

Thirty years ago, “Bonded By Blood” was supposed to be Exodus’ ticket into a burgeoning scene coming out of the San Francisco Bay area called thrash metal — the hybrid of hardcore punk’s raucousness with heavy metal’s steadfast musicianship. But, timing is everything, and the release of Exodus’ debut record was held in limbo for a year. Finally released in 1985, it was well after seminal albums by contemporaries Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer and Megadeth had already surfaced, eclipsing Exodus’ chance to become part of the established circle regarded as the “Big Four.”

KING DIAMOND

With: Exodus

When: 8 p.m. Nov. 27

Where: Aragon Ballroom, 1106 W. Lawrence

Tickets: $39.50

Info: (773) 561-9500; ticketmaster.com

In spite of it all, “Bonded By Blood” is well considered one of the most defining and influential albums of the genre and leaves Exodus with good reason to celebrate its 30th anniversary this year as they pay homage to a number of its best tracks (“Strike of the Beast,” “Exodus” and the title track) on their current tour opening for King Diamond.

“Whether or not the accolades happen doesn’t matter,” says Steve “Zetro” Souza, Exodus’ current vocalist who recently joined up again with guitarist Lee Altus, bassist Jack Gibson and long-time members guitarist Gary Holt and drummer Tom Hunting, after fronting the band during their heyday in 1986-1992 and again in 2002-2004. “I hate that term ‘Big Four,’ what does it even mean? Who builds that criteria?” he argues. “Tom [Hunting] taught [Metallica drummer] Lars Ulrich [the style], so if you want to think about it that way Exodus was ahead of thrash metal.”

In the early days, all the bands (also including Forbidden, Possessed, Vio-Lence, Mordred, Death Angel) fed off each other. They used to hang out at notorious Berkeley club Ruthie’s Inn, “and we were all a big family,” says Souza, a feeling that he says has come full circle again. “Everybody is working together again. Before we were all rivals trying to get to the number-one spot. Now everyone is so happy that we’re still doing this we’re pulling for each other.”

While Holt has more or less also joined Slayer, taking over tour duties for the late guitarist Jeff Hanneman (the reason why Holt will be replaced by Heathen guitarist Kragen Lum on Exodus’ current tour), Metallica’s Kirk Hammett was a surprise guest on Exodus’ latest album, 2014’s “Blood In, Blood Out.” The title coyly jokes about the band’s ever-evolving lineup that once briefly included Hammett. He co-formed the band when he was just a teenager, and besides the initial demos, has never been on any of the band’s official ten releases until now.

“When you get a guy with the magnitude of Kirk Hammett and the magnitude of the band Metallica you’re very fortunate to have people like that still paying attention to you even though it was his old band,” says Souza. With the added exposure, “Blood In, Blood Out” has become Exodus’ highest-charting album ever, and, “In my eyes I think it’s the best Exodus has ever done,” says Souza. “The musicianship, the songs, the ferocity, it’s an album that came back strong giving everything we have left in the tank.”

Now that the band is “older and more mature,” with most members in their 50s, Souza admits, “everyone’s performances are way better,” which has been a treat for the fans that are starting to turn younger. “When we did meet and greets last tour we had a grandfather, father and son come, three generations of Exodus fans, which is promising,” says Souza, “or as Jack [Gibson] called it ‘job security.’”

It wasn’t always that way though — Souza just got his pin for 20 years in the carpenters union after being forced to find alternate work in the mid-’90s when “grunge came in and killed metal,” he says, “just wiped it out … and we thought maybe we should call this quits.”

Thrash metal eventually found its way back through the fans that continue to support consistent tours and record releases from nearly everyone in the camp.

“After all of us had taken a backseat and started coming back, I think the fans might have been paranoid we wouldn’t do it again so they’ve been clamoring to it hard,” Souza says. “And we love seeing that. It makes this still the best job to have.”

Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.