EXHUMED: An Annotated Autopsy of Auditory Atrocities
If you’ve spent any length of time talking to me about music, you’ve likely heard me speak at great length about San Jose California’s Exhumed. The champions of grinding, punk-ish, 80s-Thrash-inflected Death Metal.
I recently saw Exhumed live for the second time at the Opera House here in this great Hogtown of mine, having previously seen them at Heavy TO 2013. I tried to see them in October 2013, along with Napalm Death and Municipal Waste, but when I got to the venue none of Exhumed’s merch was at the table. It turns out the 4 band members, their tour manager, and their driver all have several outstanding DUIs. When you have DUIs and try to enter Canada as a US citizen you need a Temporary Residency Permit; which, the band had gotten too many of in too short of a time span, and were turned away at the Niagara Falls border. Being somewhat despondent I got drunk on Barking Squirrel and moshed to Napalm Death. To add to my disappointment, Exhumed managed to book a last-minute show in Buffalo at a venue that is a repurposed funeral home. What a show THAT must have been.
In happier recent news, Exhumed have released a re-recorded version of their 1998 Relapse Records debut “Gore Metal”. To mark the occasion, I will conduct my own “necrospective” to explain why I hold Exhumed to be the best Death Metal band ever.
I first heard Exhumed back in early 2001. I was a young metalhead on a budget, and I happened upon a 2-CD sampler from Relapse Records. It featured more than 50 songs by upwards of 30 bands on the label, and it cost something like $7.00. My thought process was “I’m practically making money on this one!”, so I picked it up.
It featured tracks by more conventional Death Metal /Grindcore bands like Dying Fetus, Nile, Origin, and Incantation. None of these bands really wowed me; they weren’t bad, they were just sticking to the tried-and-true Death Metal tropes laid out years before by older, arguably better bands that I liked more (Morbid Angel, Suffocation, etc.). Then track #6 kicked in and caught my attention in a big way. It was “Decrepit Crescendo” by Exhumed. It was Death Metal, but something about this song was different. The drums weren’t as fast as the other bands, but they had a way of quickly ratcheting the intensity of the song up and down. The guitars had a clarity to them, and a sinister vibe that came without the guitarists just picking the strings as fast as they could. The vocals weren’t all super-low cookie monster grunts, and to top it all off it was catchy! It had a vocal hook in the chorus that consisted just of the song title, but it stuck in the back of my head like mad. I found myself going back and listening to this track multiple times. Eventually, I arrived at track #24, “Open the Abscess” also by Exhumed. I learned that “Decrepit Crescendo” was not an outlier and that this band had made a grindy, thrashy, punky version of Death Metal that was something all their own. In short order I purchased their first two (at the time, only two) albums: “Gore Metal” and “Slaughtercult”.
I now have their entire discography, including all of their pre-Relapse material dating as far back as 1992, which the band graciously made commercially available to a wider audience. And who says capitalism does more harm than good?
All of Exhumed’s releases are a little bit different; The grinding Possessed-meets-Repulsion slam of “Gore Metal”; The blunt fiery clangor of “Slaughtercult”; The more complex technical tunes of “Anatomy is Destiny”. The polished go-for-the-throat assault of “All Guts, No Glory”;The groovier, moshier stylings of “Necrocracy”. Each different from one another in an Exhumed sort of way, but there are common threads and techniques that run through Exhumed’s entire catalogue. It’s these things that make them the most exciting, unique, and engaging band the genre has to offer.
While most Death Metal bands pride themselves on non-traditional song structures, Exhumed prefer to stick to traditional Rock n Roll song-writing -particularly when it comes to song composition and the content of their choruses. While discussing the song The Matter of Splatter on his blog, Matt Harvey wrote: “[Drummer] Col Jones and I really insisted that every song have a typical rock song structure – verse, chorus, verse chorus, bridge, verse chorus, and when Mike brought this tune to us, we immediately caught on to its structural simplicity”
The riffs may thrash and grind, but they’re organized around each other in a way that invokes KISS or Van Halen. With a musical style this abrasive, non-linear song structures can leave the listener exhausted after a while. Exhumed keep their audio-butchery focused and to-the-point. This helps to keep your attention, as you anticipate that chorus coming up again.
Speaking of choruses, Exhumed also tend to have simple, sing-along ones. In a Death Metal band? Say whaaaat?! In an obvious nod to Death’s track “Pull the Plug” and the works of the almighty Discharge, Exhumed songs usually have a chorus consisting of a simple lyrical hook often comprised solely of the song’s title ( see Limb from Limb and The Beginning After the End). Their approach to song-writing makes the music a lot more fun. In a world of ultra-serious, humourless Death Metal bands (I’m looking at you, Hate Eternal), Exhumed’s approach is “Let’s all sing along to a song about dismembering people with a chainsaw!”. Exhumed know that even when listening to something brutal and heavy, you should be having fun. Originality is overrated. Fun is underrated.
The band also knows how to use song structures and dynamics to ‘shift the gears’ of a song. “Under the Knife” gallops away at a blazing tempo for good chunks of it, but as the band seamlessly transitions into a half-time, Metallica’s “One”-inspired breakdown, you can’t help but bang your head. In “Death Walks Behind You”, Exhumed gradually increase the tempo of the middle section into a textbook 80s “mosh part”, making you want to throw elbows at your fellow man as guitarist/vocalist/band leader Matt Harvey aptly belts out “Fuck it up!”. Music with this much going on at once can be cerebral but Exhumed know just which pedal-tone riff to bust out, and which drum beat to use to get a visceral reaction from the listener. Death Metal has never sounded so lively.
If Exhumed have a signature guitar technique, it’s their slide-y, slurred power chord riffs. While most Death Metal songs feature hyperfast-picked single-note tremolo riffs for their fast parts, Exhumed took a technique pioneered by Swiss thrashers Celtic Frost and made it nuclear:Many of their riffs consist of power chords that slide up and down through dissonant intervals, with the guitarists picking only every other chord and letting them ring as their fretting hands slide up/down to the next one. This creates a manic, blistering sound that is simultaneously smooth and controlled while cutting down on excessive picking noise. You can’t help but think “How are Exhumed keeping this whole thing from going off the rails?!?!”. Seeing them pull this technique off live is a sight to behold, as it seems damn near impossible to slide up and down the neck AND do string skips while playing that quickly and cleanly. Decibel Magazine rated Harvey #14 on their 2007 list of Top 20 Death Metal Guitarists of All Time. A quick peek at the sheet music for “The Matter of Splatter” will convince you that he should be MUCH higher up on that list.
While we’re on the topic of guitars, Exhumed’s guitar solos are also atypical of the genre. Harvey and company can tap, sweep-pick, and tremolo pick as good as any Death Metal guitarist; but they prefer to employ solos that are oddly traditional and melodic, sounding more like Eddie Van Halen than Trey Azagthoth (see “Deadest of the Dead” and “As Hammer to Anvil”). The contrast between these solos and the detuned, dissonant rhythms played beneath them make for delicious contrast. The guitars really sound like they are “saying” something. In a genre where interesting and memorable guitar work is at least 50% of what listeners look for, this is vital.
On Drums and Vocals:
Exhumed also prefer an approach to drum writing and performance different from their contemporaries. Since the 90‘s, many modern Death Metal bands trigger their drums and are addicted to that double-kick mechanism, making for what I call “typewriter drums”. I like Origin and Krisiun just fine, but their drum performances sound more like a 1950s steno-pool than a long-haired maniac hitting the skins. Exhumed do not trigger their drums, they use double-bass drumming sparingly, and they offer a diversity of beats within a song. You’ll find plenty of blast beats throughout their catalogue but they’re done with one foot (not two), and are mixed in with plenty of Slayer-esque Thrash beats and a healthy dose of d-beats. The latter are used to great effect in “The Naked and the Dead” and “Distorted and Twisted to Form”. What better way to remind the listener that Death Metal has always had a large strand of hardcore punk in its DNA, while simultaneously starting up a circle pit?
In a genre where most vocal performances are one-dimensional afterthoughts, Exhumed’s vocals are gripping. The band employs a vocal approach first introduced by Carcass, where one band member does a high-pitched shriek while another handles the usual bass-y growls. Exhumed took this technique and fucking RAN with it. As far as extreme metal vocals go, the duo of Harvey and former-bassist Ross Sewage can hardly be touched. While the latter is no longer with the band, his work on “Gore Metal” and Exhumed’s pre-Relapse output is integral to their style. His low-end grunts have an odd shape to them, making them sound like the oinks of a wild boar that’s having its throat cut. “Septicemia” shows the stunning speed at which Ross can crank out lyrics with this timbre.
And as for Harvey’s treble-end vocals, they are one of the first things about Exhumed that caught my attention. Harvey’s speaking voice is a fairly low West Coast surfer dude drawl; Where every sentence kinda seems like a question? Because at the end he throws in an upward inflection? But on wax, his vocals are so high-pitched, manic, and shrieked that it’s legitimately difficult to tell what sex he is. Forget George Fisher from Cannibal Corpse. Listen to the length that Harvey holds his screams on the track “Casketkrusher” and hear what an intense Death Metal vocal performance really sounds like. And it’s not just lengthy screams. His poly-syllabic litanies on “In The Name of Gore” and “Postmortem Procedures” invoke the image of a possessed coroner reading from a particularly ghastly inquest. Exhumed’s vocals have character.
Exhumed’s appeal is that they are something of a paradox. They are first and foremost students of Heavy Metal. I’m talking all sub-genres, not just Death Metal. Their drumming includes the bounce of Charged GBH, hyper-polka-beat of Testament, and butchering blast beats of Repulsion. Their guitars pay homage to Exodus’ Thrash, Bathory’s Black, and Death’s….uh…Death. But they are more than just a cross-section of their influences. While celebrating all the great metal achievements that came before them, they create something surprisingly unique and fresh. Ironically, moreso than a lot of Death Metal bands who make a concerted effort to forsake their elders and break the mold. For that, Exhumed must be praised.
25 years and counting. I look forward to following them further down this long-and-grinding road.