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Classic Don't Mean You Gotta Love It - 66%

OlympicSharpshooter, April 26th, 2008

You know, you’ve gotta be careful when you start treading around (and upon) the Classics. You know, the ones with the capital C at the beginning of the word. You don’t just blow into a film studies class and start taking potshots at The Godfather, you don’t get on your soapbox and stand in front of a painting by Monet. Some shit, you just don’t do. The attitude is similar when you get into the realms of popular music, including everybody’s most favouritest irascible misanthrope heavy metal. Obviously Bonded by Blood lacks the artistic merit of say, Petrarch’s sonnets, but there is something to be said for treating the old girl with respect if not reverence. The appreciation of art is subjective, yes, but it is also to some degree objective. It’s when you get to something like Bonded by Blood, which is both objectively hard to take seriously and objectively one of the holiest grails of thrash that problems often set in.

Objectively for instance, Paul Baloff can’t sing worth a goddamn. Subjectively, I find it a very lovely thing that he’s a frothing maniac at the mic. Best thing about the album in fact. I’ve heard him described as being a hardcore vocalist, and in abstract, this is true. Like the most successful hardcore ‘singers’ he has attitude for miles, throwing himself into every line and leaving vocal technique a steaming carcass on the side of the highway for the less-than-true vultures to worry at. It’s really no wonder the poor fuck died of a stroke, because I can imagine him popping the blood vessels in his eyes after each take. I say he’s hardcore in abstract, because in a literal sense he doesn’t sound like one at all; there’s absolutely no way a Proper Hardcore Punk vocalist like Henry Rollins would have the balls to sound this ridiculous. Baloff wanders in and out of key like a vocal version of Kerry King’s solos, randomly squeaking and cawing without much regard for his surroundings. It’s so metal you half expect him to vomit up a bullet belt or one of Blackie Lawless’ buzzsaw codpieces in mid-sentence. Punk is supposed to have a devil-may-care attitude, but with the possible exception of The Ramones and The Dictators, they’re all obsessed with image to the same degree as any other pop musicians. Paul Baloff sounds like a drunken punter who improbably found his way to the stage and made it his own.

The problem is that Exodus as a band never live up to his alcoholic enthusiasm. His incoherence is unearned. Bonded by Blood has already reached the kind of locked-in, stock violence that renders so many thrash records inert and formulaic. Sure it moves along at a good clip, though not so fast as some would have you believe, but it’s too workmanlike and systematic for my tastes. Voivod was the kind of band Baloff should have been in. Can’t you just see him piss drunk, dog-piling into a jeep with those wild Quebecois and off-roading in the snow dunes? The man was born to shriek garbled nonsense like “GO SHIT! I’M NOT A FISH!” I mean, Voivod already had the inimitable Snake so the position was filled, but the point remains. Baloff needed a band as manic as he was. Dave Mustaine was crazy too, and it’s the redeeming factor of the Megadeth records before he learned how to write. Mustaine’s in complete control of his band, and thus they’re scatterbrained disasters/masterpieces. Exodus lack the requisite inspired madness necessary to back up Baloff. It shouldn’t be all that hard either. “A Lesson in Violence” is one of the most unhinged vocals you’re ever likely to hear. Baloff is almost literally barking mad. Can we get a little shock value from the instruments then? Some feedback perhaps? One of the solos is fast enough to raise blisters, but so what? Christ, Pete Townshend had more authentic intensity when he stabbed his guitar into his Marshall stack in Tommy, and that was a major Hollywood musical co-starring Oliver ‘My Fair Fucking Lady’ Reed!

I’ve heard that Kirk Hammett taught Gary Holt how to play guitar, and that certainly jibes with the competent-yet-ever-so-slightly-behaved nature of his riffing. Although I think Hammett’s a more creative musician than Holt is, Bonded by Blood would probably have sounded much the same had Kirk stayed in place of Hunolt. The H-Team can write a mean riff (see the impossibly catchy one under the impressive solo trade-offs of the otherwise interminable “Deliver Us to Evil”), but they don’t know quite how to bring them to life. Say what you will about James Hetfield, but the man’s swaggering lust for rock stardom electrifies Kill ‘Em All in ways Bonded by Blood can only grasp at. Look no further than “Metal Command”, which definitely nicks a bit of the main riff from “Motorbreath”. “Motorbreath” is the perfect example of Metallica’s trademark NWOBHM upratchet, everything breathless with enthusiasm and catchy as all get-out. “Metal Command” by comparison comes off a little flat, Baloff shrieking way above his natural range while the band trot along under him, unable to really get going because they’re looking around for a doctor to deal with the blood squirting out of their front man’s eyes. It’s not that Exodus do a bad job, and “Metal Command” is a song that could definitely get the moshes going. It’s just that it lacks the fun, the giddy-up that makes the best of the early thrash outfits endearing. They’re craftsmen, not visionaries.

I guess it makes sense then that, for my money, the album’s best songs are the two mid-tempo efforts “And Then There Were None” and “No Love”. Cornerstone 80’s demon wax, sullen stones piled cathedral thick, masonry laid with leaden conviction. There’s a reason people seldom refer to the fastest thrash songs as ‘solid’, and Exodus are at their best when they are solid. Even though this album’s attempts at being sinister generally come off about as authentically as thrift-shop Halloween decorations, the slower pace allows the riffs to grind their way into you, those chintzy trimmings revealing finger-pricking steel hooks. This isn’t exactly Trouble’s soul-searing anguish, but Witchfinder General is not out of the question. Lots of nifty multi-tracking effects abound on “No Love”, and the evil’s thick enough you can almost understand why parents briefly thought this shit would push their kids from the straight and narrow down the short and easy road that leads from Heaven down to the flames. And if that allusion-heavy babble meant nothing to you, I’ll let my balls do the talking (no invasive surgery required!). The band’s undeniable way with tasty riffs is accentuated by the dynamic opportunities the variation in tempos provides. Certainly the blazing conclusion to “And Then There Were None” strikes the skull with a force few other riffs on the album manage.

It’s that paucity of impact that I find to be the principle flaw of the work, which is a grievous one considering its nature. The album isn’t by any means bad. Even if a lot of is just kinda there, it does occasionally cough up a real gem of a riff or a lick to keep you from completely zoning out. But highlights aside, the fact of the matter is, Bonded by Blood is the work of an opening band, not a headliner. People love to talk your ear off about how Exodus ended up being a second-tier band due to sheer bad luck. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if Bonded by Blood had been released in 1984 as planned they still almost certainly wouldn’t be part of the Big Four. It wasn’t a matter of getting there first, as if any old speedster would’ve mesmerized the metal public for all time if they’d shipped out before Slayer’s brand got burned into the masses. As I see it, this is an objective fact. What Exodus had to sell was not something that captured the imagination of people at large to the same degree as the Big Four, even within the underground. Subjectively, you can prefer whoever you damn well please. I can’t prove to you Metallica were a better band, though I can illustrate why I think they are and perhaps sway your opinion. Subjectively, I think Exodus became an infinitely more entertaining band when they morphed into a poor man’s Anthrax on Fabulous Disaster.

But I won’t deny this about Bonded by Blood. It is a part of the canon. It has exerted influence that time cannot diminish. Some kid was probably pretending to be Paul Baloff when he set his mother’s underwear drawer on fire while throwing the horns. It’s in the Hall, in the foundations of grim ol’ Mt. Metal. Shit like this is critic-resistant, regardless of my qualms about its actual quality. That last bit? Well I guess that’s as good a definition of a metal Classic as any.

Stand-Outs: “No Love”, “And Then There Were None”, “A Lesson in Violence”