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Clearly, some people didn't get the comeback they wanted with Tempo of the Damned, so Exodus promised that Shovel-Headed Kill Machine would up the ante on attitude and brutality. It certainly does that, but it does have its drawbacks. There's the lingering question of whether Exodus should throw in the towel at this point or not; if you were to judge based solely on this album, the answer would be "Hell no! They're just getting started!" But, compared to the classic Exodus albums, SHKM is only halfway there.
I'll start by saying that the aggression has made a big comeback to the band's sound. Maybe not in a way we were expecting, but it beats the passive nature of Tempo of the Damned. There are plenty of rapid-fire assaults powered by Paul Bostaph's powerhouse drumming and charging guitar lines, but there are also the dirty, mid-paced and snide mid-paced songs as well. This, however, is where the album fails in some aspects. Songs like "Altered Boy," while certainly catchy, push the limits of how far these things can be pushed before walking a fine line of tedious songwriting and the rehashing of ideas. The fairly predictable song formulas don't help matters; each song, even the barnburning numbers, follow a typical thrash formula: intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, solo, chorus, etc. Occasionally the intro riffs are repeated at later points, which only gives listeners a sense of, "When the HELL will this song be finished?" Generally these types of things aren't a problem with thrash/speed metal, because most songs are a decent and listenable length. Unfortunately, Gary Holt got a little too ambitious in his writing and had the grand idea that he could compose an Exodus album with the epic scope of ...And Justice for All. "Deathamphetamine" clocks in at almost nine minutes, but it easily could have been four or five. (St. Anger, anyone?)
With this aside, the core of each song is a huge step up from Tempo of the Damned. Gary's riffs and solos are some of the meanest he's composed in years, and the chemistry of the band is ten times tighter than anything we've seen from the band. Songs like "Going Going Gone" and "Now Thy Death Day Come" are where the band truly shine with skull-bashing palm-muted riffs, shredding leads, and machine-gun double bass. Some moments hearken to more old-school territory, such as "Shudder to Think," but the majority of the work done here is the new and fierce face of Exodus. Paul's drumming once again proves him to be a thrashing machine, as seen on the mile-a-minute title track. Rob's introduction to the band helps bring back the snide and crass edge to the vocals, but also brings degree of brutality to the sound. His rough, gutteral shouts beat out the old-school vocals in attitude, even though he tries out some clean vocals every now and then. Unfortunately, his performance is somewhat brought down by Gary's cheesy lyrics. It seems like Gary tried to recapture the essence of the old-school Exodus in the lyrics, but it comes off as nothing more than juvenile tough-guy talk. Every line rhymes in a very annoying manner: "Washed up, washed out/What more can I say?/You better start filling out your resume." That's taken from "Shudder to Think." But it only gets better from there... Not. "Altered Boy" is pseudo-political with its stance on the recent troubles in the Catholic church, and "Deathamphetamine" is pretty self-explanatory. Exodus need to be a fucking thrash band, not some twats delivering politically correct messages. Hell, most of the lyrics are downright laughable.
Fortunately, the conviction in the music is enough to cover up for it, and the production on the album is incredible. The guitar tone is massive and thick, with enough treble to cut through the mix. Paul's drums have a deep, punchy sound to them, but have a modern-day control to them that helps things out in the long run. The bass has the signature Exodus sound; sharp and clear, without losing the grit it needs to maintain the nature of everything.
If you can deal with the more boring moments of the album and the slight cheese factors, Shovel-Headed Kill Machine is mean and ferocious as hell.
Favorite tracks: "Deathamphetamine," "Shudder to Think," "Now Thy Death Day Come," "Shovel Headed Kill Machine."