Exmortus – Ride The Axe

Sunday, 17th January 2016

Chances are good that if you regularly attend a lot of small clubs or theaters to see your favorite heavy metal bands, you’ve had the opportunity to witness the California neo-classical speed/thrash/death act Exmortus. Opening for diverse acts like Marty Friedman, Arsis, Destruction, and Dark Tranquillity to hitting small bars with Lich King or headline dates, they’ve honed their chops to leave audiences spellbound and cheering loudly.

Ride Forth is their fourth studio album – another spectacular platter that features lots of neo-classical shredding amid the thrash/death elements, while not forsaking harmony and melody. Little wonder why they start 2016 on one of the hottest North American tours with Warbringer, Enforcer, and Cauldron. Speaking to drummer Mario Moreno by phone prior to their first date in New York City, we were able to discuss their bassist changes, the importance of cover art to metal’s enduring appeal, as well as their Disney reinterpretation of an Exmortus original – and get some more information relating to the new record as well.

Dead Rhetoric: You mentioned in our previous talk that the writing for the new record actually started back in early 2014 as you were ahead of the game prior to supporting Slave to the Sword. Did any of those first sessions make the final cut on the record? And what do you think you learned the most about being on the road for that long with all those different bands that possibly applied to this recording?

Mario Moreno: I can’t really recall which songs from that period made it- at the time that we were writing, a lot of ideas became split, and you know one idea may have ended up forming two separate parts to two songs. I think at least half the album we had some sort of skeletal structure in 2014, a few riffs that blossomed into what made it on Ride Forth. Definitely touring a lot it gave us a lot of experience for what we felt most comfortable playing live, and what was a good representation of the band live as well.

Dead Rhetoric: Ride Forth seems to emphasize more of an evolved outlook for Exmortus, still being heavy but also injecting a lot more melodic/traditional hooks and harmony spots on the music front. How do you view the album even though it’s very fresh at this point?

Moreno: I think we definitely went the route of a lot more hooks. I kind of feel like we really pushed ourselves with the melodies on Ride Forth – a lot of guitar work, more notes than on Slave to the Sword. It is still fresh even though the album was recorded about half a year ago now, it’s been about a year since we’ve been sitting on these songs. I think it’s a step in the right direction, anyone who enjoyed Slave or our prior material will find something to like in Ride Forth. We did record this with Zack Ohren again – it went smoother in the recording process, but we ended up writing a lot of this album in the studio. We took about a week to record Slave and we took two weeks to record Ride Forth. That was due to booking two weeks, so we used a lot of that time to dial the tones in and finish whatever we didn’t finish as we went. There were a lot of frustrating parts but also a lot of smoother parts because of that history with Zack.

Dead Rhetoric: Are you conscious in working with your management Salem Rose Music about the first single/video choices you put out prior to the record release – as first impressions can be lasting ones?

Moreno: Yes. When we were thinking of what single to put out, we knew the type of core songs that we wanted. Our manager and the record label made theirs, and coincidentally a lot of the choices were the same. We went with “For the Horde” as it’s a good song to have a hooky riff… a little bit of everything. Ultimately we liked the entire album, so we didn’t care which would be the first one. Exmortus has such a wide range of sound, what one song would define the band?

Dead Rhetoric: New bassist Michael Cosio gains a lot of attention on “Appassionata” -another Beethoven composition turned to metal for the group. Tell us what he brings to the table to elevate the already impressive Exmortus roster of musicianship… and why did things not work out for Jovanni Perez (as previous bassist Aldo Bibiano stepped in for some of your touring)?

Moreno: In that case, Aldo was in the band prior to Slave, and then Jovanni stepped in to do the touring for that record. I guess when you go on the road for a long period of time, some people realize it’s really not for them and it’s not what they really want to do. Exmortus really doesn’t have set an expiration date like some bands set, we are only going to do this for this long and call it quits. Exmortus is an ongoing machine and I guess he realized he didn’t want to be a part of that. That was the case for Jovanni- with Aldo he had a kid, found out he was having a boy so it put a wrench in the gears for that. We’ve known Mike for a long time- he lives in the same city as us, we have mutual friends. It ended up working out, he used to play in a band called Abysmal Dawn which is technical death metal. It’s a good element to bring to the band, his bass technicality and also being able to groove out.

“Appasionata” actually went by pretty quick in terms of the recording, because there are no vocals. It is probably the hardest song on the album to play, and will be the hardest song to play live.

Dead Rhetoric: I must say Philip Lawvere delivered again on the cover art front for the band – how important do you believe imagery and cover art is for heavy metal today, considering all of the iconic pieces throughout the 70’s and 80’s from Black Sabbath, Dio, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Metallica, Rainbow and so forth?

Moreno: I think it’s very important. I think a lot of bands skip that aspect of it, they just think art is art. Getting into metal at a very young age, one thing that drew me to this was the artwork. Seeing covers with Derek Riggs and the Iron Maiden art, a lot of the iconic stuff was painted – so I feel like oil on canvas is a crucial thing to have being in a metal band. When we went with Philip Lawvere, that was the selling point because he had that old school feel, it’s a great representation of what metal should be about.

Dead Rhetoric: You’ve been able to play a lot of different type of venues over the years – from intimate clubs with barely a stage and the audience right on top of you as well as larger theaters for thousands. Where do your preferences lie?

Moreno: The bigger venues are awesome, I love the sound at the bigger venues – it’s good to see the band on a huge stage with tons of lighting, monstrous sound- but I always liked the more intimate stuff. It’s what we started out in, playing a lot of small bars where the crowd you get to feel more. You can see the people’s faces, you are that close. Shows like that we are more free with our sets and I think that’s ultimately where it’s more an intimate show/jam session. I do like the air conditioning in the big venues though. Some places get hot where I feel like a rotisserie chicken because of a heat lamp on top of me.

Dead Rhetoric: I love the fact that you are willing to tackle a number of different covers and switch them in and out of live sets. Any chance of a future EP gathering of such songs – or will you stick to special releases like the For the Horde 7” with the Yngwie Malmsteen “As Above, So Below” b-side to surprise the listeners and appeal to the collectors?

Moreno: I think we might, it would be interesting to do an EP of covers. We have thought about it, but we’ve never really gathered enough songs together to do it. We’ve also thought about doing a classical EP, heavy metal versions of our take on a lot of classical pieces and I think that’s something different. Hopefully soon, there are so many songs that we know and so many songs that we want to do.

Dead Rhetoric: How exciting will be this long January-February run of shows with Warbringer, Enforcer, and Cauldron? It’s almost like a world summit of awesome traditional, speed and thrash metal over the course of an evening…

Moreno: We are pretty excited for it- I think it’s an awesome blend of genres of metal. We are also in good company because we’ve known the Warbringer guys for almost a decade now. We are very excited – we used to be label mates with Enforcer when we were both on Heavy Artillery, there’s a history behind all the bands. I think the fans are going to dig the metal assault all the bands are going to bring. We have enough material to switch things around as the tour goes- we are going to probably do three new songs and three old ones, possibly four depending on time. The people coming out to the shows will hear a good combination of the new and old stuff.

Dead Rhetoric: At this point in time how do you define success?

Moreno: At this point in time? We are getting played on the radio, playing bigger venues, touring with bands that I never thought I’d get to tour with like Marty Friedman and packages like this, Enforcer, Cauldron, and Warbringer, bands that are awesome. I guess success (means) we are on the path- I don’t know if it’s necessarily by definition, but I definitely think we are on our way.

Dead Rhetoric: What activities or brain refreshers do you employ to maintain sanity on the road, especially in cramped quarters with long van rides between certain gigs? Are you guys wise enough to give each other a little bit of personal time and space when possible?

Moreno: Nah, we are always pouncing on each other! (laughs) Yelling at each other in a good way. We mainly just listen to music and sleep a lot, here and there read some books, bring our instruments and fiddle around. Nothing out of the ordinary, sometimes just stare out at the sky. The landscape, it’s cool to drive across the United States you see a lot of breathtaking stuff- at least to me, different terrain and when you get out of the city you can see the sky a lot more. I don’t think anyone feels strained.

Dead Rhetoric: Even though we don’t have major MTV exposure like in the 1980’s, it seems like there’s so much content to consume in the blink of an eye that allows everyone to get up to speed at a fairly quick pace…does the longevity of the heavy metal scene surprise you especially on a global scale?

Moreno: Not really surprised, I’m kind of surprised it’s not even bigger. There are so many outlets and it seems like heavy metal has outlasted a lot of other genres. I’m surprised how many bands have gotten big off of social media just by likes and stuff like that. Not really going out and playing. I don’t see metal going away- I see it growing at an increasing rate. Los Angeles is getting a hard rock/heavy metal radio station back on commercial radio. In the past we had KNAC, it’s been a long time- starting the new year we will have Full Metal Jackie on KLOS, her own hour block of hard rock/metal music. That’s a good sign that metal is still crushing it.

Dead Rhetoric: Who came up with the “Mickey Is King” transposing of last album’s “Metal Is King” – does this showcase another, humorous or light-hearted side of the group?

Moreno: (laughs). We got banned by Disneyland and can’t play on any Disneyland property. When we were doing it, around that time we had seen a lot of videos from Behemoth and these other bands that had done Disney versions of metal songs. We thought it would be funny to do our own because of the ban, Conan just transposed everything into another tuning. That’s how it came about.

Dead Rhetoric: Who would you say are some of the drummers past and present that you admire and help mold your outlook and style of drumming?

Moreno: Definitely Scott Travis from Judas Priest. Mickey Dee from Motörhead- I’m trying to think. I started out playing guitar though so I never really had many drummers as heroes. I guess those two for sure- Nicko McBrain from Iron Maiden, a lot of those classic guys are a big influence on me for drumming. Mickey Dee is very underrated, I know Motörhead was not looked at for their drumming, but I know his King Diamond stuff is rad to.

Dead Rhetoric: Any special memories of Lemmy come up since his recent passing?

Moreno: I did see them live – one of my first concerts ever was Iron Maiden, Dio, and Motörhead at the Long Beach Arena. That was an awesome bill, an amazing show. Just to see that bill, that was a really good memory of Motörhead as well as Dio.

Dead Rhetoric: How do you see the rest of 2016 playing out for Exmortus?

Moreno: Pretty much a lot of touring, later in the year we might put out another 7” or something, we have new material we are working on already. Hopefully Europe in the spring or fall- that would be uncharted territory for us. Even though on this tour we are playing North America, we are hitting a lot of cities that we have never played before – some in Canada and some in the US. We are looking forward to that!

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