On The Road With EXMORTUS (A Battle Axe Laid To Rest)
February 7, 2017, 10 months ago
About three years ago, I was working my third assignment as a photojournalist in heavy metal for Bravewords.com. One of the opening bands was an up-and-coming group of wildly energetic guys from Whittier, California called Exmortus. They were on their first major US tour in support of Dark Tranquility and Omnium Gatherum. Like everyone else who sees them live, I was completely blown away and became an instant fan. Three years and over 50 concerts later I still haven’t seen much that can match their live performance in both execution and energy. I introduced myself to them at the merch table and they were very welcoming, greeting me as if I were an old friend. I had every intention on buying an album to support them. I told them I had shot the concert and they would be able to see their photos soon on BraveWords. I asked if they had an album for sale and in fact they told me they had an album that was being released tomorrow. Mario (Drums) handed me a copy and wouldn’t let me pay for it. It turned out to be one of the best albums of 2014 in my opinion, the critically acclaimed Slave To The Sword. I would go on to publish my first album review for this crushing metal masterpiece.
Since that show I have never missed an opportunity to cover one of their concerts. Years later, greeting fans as if they were old friends at the merch table is still a tradition of Exmortus, and the fans take this opportunity to shake their hands and tell them what their music means to them. Aside from quickly becoming one of the most powerful forces in American metal today, their carefree and fun-loving personalities are unwavering no matter the present company. Whether it’s a little kid fan wearing corpse paint asking for a photo or dancing with a homeless freestyle rapper on the streets of Baltimore spitting some rhymes for a few bucks to get a meal, their enthusiasm and kindness persists. I headed out from New York to meet them down at the Baltimore Soundstage which hosts part of the Maryland Death Fest every year. This would begin my four day stint on the road with them for the I Worship Chaos tour alongside Children of Bodom, Abbath, and Oni.
Since the “Relentless” official music video shoot we did back in 2014 to coincide with the release of “Ride Forth,” I have been shadowing them on every tour for a few shows working on an open-ended documentary titled “Rising.” It’s about the band’s gradual climb through the ranks of heavy metal, life on the road, and the dedication, determination, and sacrifices it takes to do so. (Unfortunately minus the Holy Grail tour during which I was in England helping shoot a documentary about The Lord of the Logos Christophe Szpajdel and searching for my Viking soul on top of a volcano in Thorsmork Vally, Iceland). Spending time on the road with them has been quite the experience, hilarious, and moving. Through the years I have watched them rise to the occasion and conquer as the band, venues, and hordes of fans continue to grow. In the beginning all I heard was “Holy shit that band Exmortus was incredible - they killed it.” I still hear that a lot because for some reason they are still flying a bit under the radar but that is changing, and fast. With their battle attire donned for another US tour beginning tomorrow in support of Colorado thrashers Havok, and the very first wave of their European invasion set for spring, the band is ready to strike unleashing their electric stage presence upon the global masses.
They are influenced by so many great bands and you can hear and feel this in their music. Exmortus is just one of those rare metal bands that encompass all that is great in heavy metal and is constructed from bits and pieces of it all. Crossing genre boundaries and retaining that traditional feel while forging something new altogether is their blood oath. Classically-infused like Metallica, inspired by Beethoven and other classical greats, hellbent and epic like Judas Priest and Maiden, groovy and soulful like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, thrashy and relentless like Slayer and Carcass, frost-bitten and sinister like Immortal and Dissection. It’s a good thing that people are reminded of the greats who have laid the foundation of the bridge between that classic rock and roll feel into more modern heavy metal when they first hear Exmortus because these bands have stood the test of time. Being able to accomplish this while remaining distinctively a thing of its own is not an easy feat. Conan’s (vocals/guitar) renditions of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata Act III and Appassionata Act III feel like an extension of the band’s established sound, a testament to neoclassical proficiency and captivating melody.
Conan is a leader in the truest sense of the word. After the first night of the Enforcer/Warbringer tour, I wanted them to start the tour off right and had them spend the night at my condo an hour north of Manhattan. After making sure everyone was full, comfortable, and sleeping soundly, he and I stayed up late drinking Belgium doubles, talking about our favorite classical pieces and what they meant to us. He leads by example in classic “first man in last man out” form. They are unwaveringly dedicated to their craft, practice constantly, and are in a state of perpetual creation, always thinking about the next riff, the next solo, drawing inspiration from everything they see and hear. For David (guitar/backingvocals) that includes Michael Jackson’s swag and Ice Cube’s intensity. Mario’s list of his biggest influences contain John Bonham, Dave Lombardo, Lars Ulrich, Inferno, and Orge. Thie is evident in the music, and he is the driving force of the band. They are carriers of the torch taking their rightful place lying in wait to fill the shoes of the legends that have come before them.
It was 2 AM on a warm summer morning in Boston outside of Fenway Park. Although at this point heavily sedated from a night of celebratory spirits, Exmortus was still reeling from the exhilaration of playing a sold out show at the House of Blues in support of the legendary Amon Amarth and Entombed A.D. The fellas were hungry and asked me if I knew places to eat this late. Having attended college in the area I knew just the place. Mario and Conan hopped in the back, David had called shotgun. I handed David my iPhone and said, “Here, you pick the music.” His choice was a precursor of great things to come foreshadowing the near future Immortal - Sons Of Northern Darkness. To some this may seem like nothing but to me it was a revelation, a catalyst towards a deeper understanding of one of the reasons why I was so drawn to them, we shared a common metal ancestor. We rode forth blasting black metal and windmilling all the way to Allston which used to be the capitol of the rock world for some late night burritos. Following behind them on the street I couldn’t help but to think how Steven Tyler walked these same streets while he was rising to greatness.
Conan Q & A:
Q: What was it like touring with one of your guitar idols (Abbath)?
A: "It was really fucking cool! Haha. Never would I have imagined Exmortus touring with Abbath when I first started getting into Immortal since the release of Sons Of Northern Darkness."
Q: Do you have a favorite Immortal album or song? And why so?
A: "There are too many awesome songs to choose from, as for album, I think I’m gonna have to go with 'At the Heart of Winter.' I like to think of this album as a foreshadowing of Sons, Toddlers of Northern Darkness, if you will. It’s interesting to note that Damned in Black followed right after with its rawer sound and energy evident in previous albums, but I think the overall (freezing) atmosphere and effect felt in 'Heart' is captured and developed tenfold in Sons. 'Heart' has a lot of traditional sounding riffs which was very appealing to me at the time since I was mostly listening to Maiden, Priest and other old-school metal bands and that is what ultimately got me into the more extreme music. So I owe it all to this album."
Q: How big of an influence has Immortal more specifically Abbath’s guitar work had on you?
A: "The phrasing of riffs and song structures really stand out to me even as a mature writer. I love Abbath’s aggressive rhythms and sinister melodies. I try to capture the Immortal feel in much of my work but it ends up sounding different due to other influences which is a great thing, I want to create something new. I just like to use Immortal as a raw foundation from time to time."
Q: It was really interesting to hear that Dissection was a big influence for you vocally when we did the Relentless shoot, can you tell me a bit more about your vocal and lyrical influences? Especially the ones that are outside of your specific niche like Dissection.
A:"I always loved Nödtveidt’s haunting howls and of course Abbath’s demonic grunts. They always stood out to me from the rest of the black metal scene of which I was never really a fan. Lyrically, Immortal’s 'One By One' along with other tracks was what inspired much of Exmortus’ battle themes. Violence and war is embedded in human survival and I like listening to and writing in this perspective. Other less “brutal” inspirations come from more historical and fantasy settings like Maiden’s and Priest’s work. I know I always cite them but that’s because those are just my favorite bands musically, lyrically and visually."
Q: Most memorable moment/story with Abbath from the tour?
A: There are too many! Haha. He is quite the character but one awkward moment was when he asked for one of our shirts so I handed him whatever he wanted. He unravels the shirt and holds it up to see the bloody font on the back of it, 'Death to Tyrants,' he reads aloud, and then stares at me, 'But we’re the Tyrants.' I was like 'Yeah...about that...' He just laughed and walked away.
Conan’s answers were very interesting to me and hit close to home reassuring the connection I have felt between Immortal and Exmortus. It makes sense that, vocally, he is inspired by Nödtveidt and Abbath. Live his vocals have a lot of body, and are very raw and sharp, clearly influenced by black metal. This is a good example of one of the genre boundary crossing aspects of the band. Before the Philly show, when the guys were loading in I saw Abbath slip into a bar alone down the block and took the opportunity to spend some time and talk with one of my all-time favorite musicians. When I walked into the bar he was ordering a drink. I put my hand on his shoulder and said to the bartender “This ones on me.” “Thank you my friend,” he said. I ordered a beer and we sat and talked for a while. We spoke about the success of the tour, the recording of “Battles In The North,” and how he was looking forward to returning home to Norway. I told him how amazing the transfer of the new material to the live show was, especially Ashes of the Damned. He said he loved the new material and really enjoyed playing it live. I told him I have always been a big fan of his all his work but “At The Heart Of Winter” was my personal favorite to which he replied, “At The Heart Of Winter was a very special album.” The conversation ended with some very exciting news for fans of his work when he informed me he was planning on returning to the studio this year to begin recording a new album. So here we have come full circle, from listening to Immortal in the car in Boston, to touring with their front man, and finding out that “At The Heart Of Winter” is considered sacred and very special to us all. Founding members and cousins Conan and Mario accredit Immortal to be one of the biggest inspirations during the formation of the band back in 2002. They hold Abbath in the highest regard only referring to him as “Our Lord Commander.”
“Just one more show,” was the unspoken sentiment after melting faces in front of a sold out crowd at the Theatre of Living Arts in Philadelphia, PA. Exmortus was in their van relaxing in silence winding down from the adrenalin of their performance. The silence was broken by Jose Feliciano’s “Gypsy,” playing from a phone attached to a clothes pin hanging from a string usually reserved for laundry. With only one more night to go, but another U.S. tour just a month and a half away and the band’s first European tour right around the corner in spring, no song has ever rang so true before. “I’m just a gypsy who gets paid, for all the songs that I have played, and all the records that I have made, playing music for my fellow man, I’m part of a caravan, I have traveled on the land, but I’ll continue to travel though my guitar’s old and tiring fast.” Being present to bear witness to these little moments was very moving. Exmortus was packing up the merch and getting ready to load out. With the tour coming to a close Abbath took a moment to express how impressed he was with his proteges. He said “You guys are the best thing for thrash,” and that they could “Go all the way.” Across the street from the venue stuffed ourselves with cheesesteaks at Ishkabibble’s before heading to NYC. They raised the black sails and prepared for the final push. It was an amazing last night on the tour, yet another intense sold out show at the famous Irving Plaza in NYC. After the show Abbath approached David with some gifts: an extra guitar stand, and a Jason Bourne DVD. David jokingly asked him to sign it to which Abbath joked back saying, “Why? I’m not Matt Damon.” Before giving it back to David he took a sharpie and gave Matt Damon the Abbath corpse paint treatment. Outside, Exmortus was finishing up loading the trailer and beginning to reflect on the past month on the road. Around midnight we were approached by one of the guys in Oni and he said Bodom wants you guys to come hang out on the tour bus and say farewell. If you had told me earlier that day I was going to spend my night drinking brass monkeys on Bodom’s tour bus till 3 AM and listening to NWA I would have said, “None of that sounds right.” I think Ice Cube and Dr. Dre would find it amusing that L.A.- based neoclassical thrashers and Finnish heavy metal legends celebrate the conclusion of a successful U.S. tour by talking about them and listening to their music.
One of the more interesting conversations I sat in on was between Audio engineer Allen Falcon of Birdcage Studios (he is the creator of the Exmortus official “Let Us Roam” music video, and helped handle pre-production for both “Slave to the Sword” and “Ride Forth”) and Alexi “Wildchild” Laiho of Children of Bodom. “What is your craziest drug experience?” he asked, to which we all slowly turned our heads and waited for a response. “I have never really been a big drug person, I’ve tried some cocaine but nothing to crazy. But one time back in the day when I was about 19 or so I was touring with this black metal band Impaled Nazarene. We were down in Mexico somewhere and after the show everyone was having some drinks so I joined in, but I didn’t realize somebody put something in my drink, I’m not sure what it was.” After talking about it a little bit we had come to the horrifying conclusion that it was most likely mescaline. “It was the craziest thing, I was tripping really hard it was pretty fucking intense. Me and my friend I was with who also drank it just kept asking each other over and over, are you alright? are you alright? are you alright?” At this point we are all dying laughing. He goes on to say, “It was only for like 2 minutes but I swear to god it felt like two whole weeks.” We found out that he doesn’t like sushi, but what he would say about food was even weirder and pretty hilarious. “When it comes to food I’m like a 5 year old kid, I just want some hot dogs and mac and cheese.” W also found out that Alexi doesn’t like Anime and doesn’t really know anything about it apparently, because when Allen asked him if he liked Dragon Ball Z he replied, “Dragon who?” So yeah, in conclusion he is a pretty down-to-earth guy and outright hilarious.
By far the most moving thing I witnessed while on the road with them took place in the wee hours on Bodom’s bus as something very special occurred which is usually reserved for industry eyes only. 10 years ago when David Rivera was 15, he had saved his pennies working as a bus boy at Red Robin and used it to buy an Alexi model ESP. Since then he has played it at every single show and by now it has seen better days. Battered, worn, and chipped from the years of use, the tattered journey of a seasoned guitar was clearly written across its body. Unbeknownst to David, Allen had dug it out of the trailer and brought it onto the bus, he held it up to Alexi, stating, “Even though David is too humble to ask for himself, he would be honored if you would sign his guitar.” Children of Bodom had expressed how impressed they were with Exmortus’ material. He never would have signed it without David fully earning his respect as a guitar player for this was different then just any other autograph. It was like a knighting ceremony. Holding the guitar with both hands as if presenting David with a sword, Alexi handed it back officially retiring this battle tested axe. David held the guitar in his lap staring at it as his eyes began to swell and water. Holding back the tears he sat reflecting and for the first time it had finally dawned on him just how far he had come. “I can’t believe I am retiring this guitar,” he turned to me and said, “Whats next?” to which I replied, “Turn the page.” He placed it back in its case one last time knowing he would never play it live again.
David Q & A:
Q: What was it like touring with one of your guitar idols (Laiho)?
A: "It was really an amazing experience that I will never forget. I learn from every one I play with and am honored to have the opportunity to watch them do their thing every night."
Q: Do you have a favorite Bodom album /song?
A: "Follow The Reaper or Children Of Bodom, some of the first difficult guitar songs I attempted to learn."
Q: Tell me a bit about the back story of your guitar.
A: "I first got the Alexi model ESP when I was 15, working as a bus boy at Red Robin, I used it for every show since then and I never thought that I would one day be sponsored by the company or play with the man whose guitar I had been playing for years so it’s all been surreal."
Q: What did it mean to you to have him sign it? And how did it feel to lay that battle axe to rest?
A: "It was great, really happy the band got to hang with them the last day of tour, I wouldn’t have had it signed if it wasn’t for Allen Falcon, our merch guy, getting the guitar out of the trailer and asking Alexi to sign it. I was still a bit nervous about asking him and didn’t want to fan boy too much. And putting the axe to rest it felt like I reached a turning point in my career and that one chapter has ended and it’s time to start a better one, now that we have one of my best friends playing bass for us, Cody Nunez(bass), it feels like a family again."
Q: Was it another level of feeling like you have arrived with the conclusion of the historic tour knowing Europe is right around the corner?
A: "Going to Europe has been on our wish list since we started, can’t wait to spread our brand of neoclassical metal to the rest of the world."
Q: How big of an influence has Bodom - more specifically Alexi’s guitar work have on you?
A: "I read an interview years ago about Alexi’s influences and saw that among them were, Randy Rhoads, Jake E Lee, Zakk Wylde, Yngwie Malmsteen, guys like that, which were already my influences."
Even though they had spent nearly a month on the road together, Exmortus hadn’t really gotten the chance to hang out much and hadn’t spent any time on the tour bus with Bodom. Bodom’s sets are very long, and it takes a while to prepare and recover. With practically no nights off an excess of leisure time isn’t easy to come by. Following them on the road has given me an interesting perspective of the life style that they live. It is non-stop, go, go, go, prep, warm up, play, breakdown, load out, and try to get a few hours of sleep, true warriors of the night. This is not only reserved for the bands but for everyone involved from the people handling the merch all the way up to the technicians and tour manager. I have gained tremendous respect through observational insight of life on the road for musicians. It is exhausting, very demanding, and not for the faint of heart.
After receiving news of the second NYC shows’ cancellation, we spent the day checking out the sights in the city. We retraced the steps of The Warriors in Coney Island and took the Staten Island ferry to the financial district in Manhattan. For the first time I got to see a bit of their serious side as they stood staring into the Reflecting Pools of the 9/11 memorial at the base of where the twin towers once stood. After marveling at the beautiful architecture of the Oculus Train Station we boarded the ferry heading back to the van. We braved single digit temperatures standing shoulder to shoulder as we slowly drifted by the Statue of Liberty ; her torch lighting the way. The quiet hum of the engines and the gentle crashing of waves against the hull was the accompanying score for the end of this episode as the Manhattan skyline continued to shrink on the horizon. You could feel just how pivotal this moment was for the band, the end of a historic chapter in the book of Exmortus. Back in Brooklyn in an empty parking lot they dug their instruments out of the van and began to warm up. Even though there wasn’t a show that night it didn’t matter. They have so much heart and an undying passion for the music, and will never quit. This isn’t the end of their story, for the journey is just beginning.