How the greatest thrash band you’ve (probably) never heard made the comeback album of the decade

(Image credit: Daniel Torrieri)

“It’s flattering to hear that you’ve helped to change the face of metal,” says Exhorder frontman Kyle Thomas. “But it’s frustrating at the same time when people are still saying, ‘Who?’”

The last time Exhorder released a new record, George Bush was President of the USA. The first George Bush. Formed in New Orleans in 1985, Exhorder were playing brutal groove metal long before the subgenre was named. Never mind the Pantera comparisons that have dogged the band throughout their history: this band did it first. With a sound that married the precision of thrash and the bug-eyed venom of hardcore punk to that unmistakable Louisiana swagger, their two studio albums, Slaughter In The Vatican (1990) and The Law (1992), are both hugely influential cult classics. But somehow, Exhorder never really fitted in anywhere. As frontman Kyle explains, being outsiders was always just part of the deal.

“When we first started booking shows, the metal community didn’t want anything to do with us,” he says. “It was more of a glam, hair metal kind of scene and we weren’t about that at all. They didn’t know what to do with us, but the punk community welcomed us with open arms. We were doing something different from pure punk. We were more of a metal band with a punk influence, so we started playing shows with punk bands that had a metal influence, and it just exploded from there. A lot of people don’t understand that we’re not a pure thrash band. We were almost like a place for misfits to come to; people who didn’t fit in anywhere came to us because we were a little bit of everything.”

Although legendary among fans of crossover thrash and underground extremity and cited as an influence by the likes of Lamb Of God and Joey Jordison (“Joey told me that his old band used to pretend to be us!” hoots Kyle), Exhorder are hardly household names at this point. But they did experience a brief rush of upward momentum: rescued from a failed contract with jazz label subsidiary Mean Machine and signed with Roadrunner Records in 1989, Kyle and his childhood friends couldn’t believe their luck.

“It’s something that every young band dreams about,” muses the frontman. “But back then, if you weren’t from New York or LA or San Francisco here in the States, that was just something you dreamed about. I guess we built up a huge following quickly with our shows, and then the underground picked us up and we had write-ups in Maximum Rocknroll and RIP Magazine and all these little things combined. Pushead, the artist who worked for Corrosion Of Conformity and Metallica, he included us in a list of his top demos that he was listening to in Thrasher Magazine. It all started to draw some attention to us.”

Listening back to Slaughter In The Vatican, it’s not entirely clear why Exhorder didn’t have a more lasting and widespread impact. Overwhelmingly vicious from start to finish (“Probably because we played everything too fast!” chuckles Kyle) and palpably different from just about everything else that was happening in metal at the time, it still sounds absurdly intense today.

“Yeah, we were teenagers and I was an angry young man,” Kyle grins. “I was the quintessential, stereotypical angry young dude. It’s not like I had a tough life. I had a nice family and a middle-class home. I don’t have a dark story, but what I did have was an upbringing in Catholicism. I went to Catholic school, went to church, I saw through the hypocrisies, and that was the thing that really always gave me something to write about. But we were also just guys that enjoyed angry music and enjoyed a wild time. We were pretty much young hellions at the time. I’m grateful that my children didn’t go the wild route that I did! Ha ha ha!”

In the end, as Kyle admits with disarming candour, Exhorder simply weren’t equipped to deal with the career they had hoped to build. The “wild route” he and his bandmates took sustained them for three more years, but as the band toured in support of 1992’s The Law, the wheels fell off in spectacular fashion. Thrown off a tour with death metal icons Entombed for, among other things, destroying backstage rooms and physically threatening the Swedes’ manager, Exhorder had officially pissed on their own fireworks.

“The things that got us kicked off, we have to hold our hands up and say, ‘Yeah, it was our fault!’” Kyle laughs. “We were taking no garbage off anybody but at the same time we shot ourselves in the foot. If you get the reputation as the band that you don’t want to book on a tour, because promoters aren’t gonna want their venues destroyed and the headlining bands won’t want to be physically threatened, well, we definitely made a lot of mistakes. But it made for a great story! Ha ha ha!”

(Image credit: Daniel Torrieri)

Exhorder split in 1993 and, in true New Orleans tradition, Kyle Thomas went on to lend his vocals to all manner of projects, including ill-fated stoner metal crew Floodgate (check out their sole album, Penalty – it’s a cracker!) and stints with stoner mob Alabama Thunderpussy and doom legends Trouble. Meanwhile, guitarist Vinnie LaBella, Exhorder’s chief songwriter, spent the decades that followed writing music but not performing. As a result, when the idea of a reunion was first mooted in 2008, Kyle Thomas was definitely excited by the idea of hitting the road and playing those old songs again, but he was arguably more intrigued by the prospect of making a new album.

“We discussed it as a possibility, but the first order of business was to put a live show together,” he notes. “I knew Vinnie had a stash of music over 27 years. He had to, you know? He didn’t do anything! Ha ha! He’s been tweaking songs over the years in anticipation of maybe this happening at some point, so we were ahead of the game in that regard. Based on the reception we got from reuniting in the first place, we made a conscious decision to give it another crack.”

And what a crack it turned out to be. In 2019, the band reunited to release a new album, Mourn The Southern Skies, a record that doesn’t sound like the work of a band that haven’t been in a studio for nearly three decades. Aside from boasting one of the biggest, most devastating production jobs you will ever hear, Exhorder’s long-awaited return was an absolute feast of great songs, all sung with towering command by an apparently ageless Kyle Thomas. Great credit has to go to Vinnie LaBella, who not only wrote all the music but produced the album too. 

“Oh, I agree wholeheartedly. If there’s anybody that’s been under the radar and overlooked as one of the guitar greats, it’s Vinnie LaBella,” Kyle states. “For someone to take a 27-year sabbatical and then come back, present us with this music and then produce the album, it’s incredible. It was co-produced with Duane [Simoneaux], the engineer, but the vision was all Vinnie’s. The guitar tones are crushing. I can’t take any credit for it because I’m not a strings player in this band, but it makes me proud that my business partner and lifelong friend is finally getting some recognition.”

Kyle Thomas cheerfully acknowledges that Exhorder really screwed things up first time around. This time, however, everyone involved is older, wiser and a lot more chilled out. Finally, it seems, these unsung heroes are ready to complete the task they started back in ’85. Mourn The Southern Skies offers one particularly telling moment: a new version of Ripping Flesh, a song Exhorder first recorded on their Get Rude demo in 1986. Somehow, the new version sounds even more pissed off than the original. Ultimately, you can’t keep a great band down.

“I thought really long and hard about it when we started this again,” Kyle concludes. “We’re not angry young men anymore, so how are we going to write angry young man music? Then it just clicked. I’m going to write angry old man music! The anger’s still there, we just see things through a different set of eyes. We never felt like we completed the job and there was a lot that we could and should’ve done. This time, it’s definitely personal.” 

Published in Metal Hammer #328. Since the article first appeared, Vinnie LaBella left the band, leaving vocalist Kyle Thomas as the remaining founder member

Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s.