Exhorder’s Slaughter In The Vatican: 25 Years Later
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More than just about any other American scene, Louisiana has produced some of the most significant metal bands of the last 30 years. From underground legends Graveyard Rodeo to current prodigious talents like Thou and Barghest, those swamps are fertile territory for all things heavy. Back in 1990, twenty five years ago today, while a fellow New Orleans metalhead was making history with some guys from Texas, Roadrunner released Slaughter In The Vatican, the debut full-length from local favorites Exhorder. While the record and the band itself will forever be (unfairly) compared to Pantera, Slaughter has become a legendary album in its own right: a groundbreaking and incredibly heavy slab of groove-infused thrash and speed metal. I reached out to Kyle Thomas, Exhorder’s inimitable vocalist (currently fronting doom godfathers Trouble) for the inside story on the makings of a metal milestone.
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Where was Exhorder at in the metal scene when Roadrunner approached the band, and how did they first get in touch?
The funny thing is that we already were a signed act when Roadrunner got involved. A label called Mean Machine that was a subsidiary of a label called Three Cherries was just starting up. If I remember correctly, Three Cherries was a jazz label branching into metal. The first contract they offered was a toss-up between Exhorder and Vio-Lence. They ended up going with Vio-Lence first, and signed us next. Borivoj Krgin was our contact there. During the recording sessions, Three Cherries folded. Roadrunner bought the contract, and we recorded the rest of the album through them. It was a bit of a strange start, which is storybook for our career and luck!
You’re right, that’s one very unique beginning. Did the label switch give the band an extra spark, or was it just business as usual?
To be honest, it was frustrating at first. It didn’t take long for us to realize that it was not a lateral move, though. Roadrunner was clearly an established label with clout, so in the long run it was a better move. All in all, it was a pretty big deal for us when we got signed, because there were very few bands that had ever been signed out of New Orleans at all, and not just in metal.
That New Orleans scene really solidified after Slaughter came out, with Crowbar, Eyehategod and Soilent Green (among others) breaking out around the same time. What was Exhorder’s relationship with the other bands in that ’89-’91 era like, if any?
Actually, all of those bands got their start in the early days in part by opening for us. We only really did about one or two opening slot gigs ourselves in the New Orleans area, and we just exploded so fast that we headlined probably by our third or fourth gig. An opening slot on one of our shows was the premier slot at the time. Eventually all of those bands ended up as big or bigger than Exhorder ever was, and I love them all. New Orleans is a large city, but compared to major metropolitan areas, it is kind of a small town. Everyone knows each other well, for better or for worse. Most of those guys I was very good friends with, and to this day still are. There really may have only been one or two bands from back then that we did not get along very well with. I’m sure a lot of that was our fault at certain times.
It wouldn’t be metal without some conflict, right? OK, back to the album. The track listing for Slaughter isn’t much different than the ’87 demo. Were there any significant changes made to the songs in the years between the demo and the proper album?
I know, right? In actuality three of those songs by the time the album came out were in their third recorded form. We did a demo with Sam Picolo in the summer of 1986 that is lost forever now, but it was Legions of Death, Anal Lust, and Ripping Flesh. All three songs appeared on the Get Rude demo, and most of that demo was immortalized on the Slaughter In The Vatican demo. Aside from maybe a few picking patterns, drum fills, or vocal approaches, I don’t think much changed.
Scott Burns was making a name for himself recording and producing some historic extreme metal records when he came on board for Slaughter. Back in 2008, Vinnie LaBella had some unkind things to say about the job Burns did on the album. What’s your take on it?
I have nothing bad to say about Scott at all, personally or professionally. What he was able to do to salvage a session that he never started that was done wrong from the beginning was quite honorable. Top that with a limited budget and old school technology, and I think that record sounds really good considering the circumstances. The thing that we didn’t like was mostly that it wasn’t the demo. We wanted that session to be the album, and Roadrunner shot it down. That session is more true to what Exhorder sounded like live. The album has a death metal feel to it, and we were never death metal. Neither of our albums truly captured that live ferocity that made Exhorder legendary. Maybe that was what Vinnie was saying; I don’t know, because I never saw the article.
That’s not uncommon, especially in metal; the magic a band makes on stage can get lost in translation in the studio. Do you remember what the critical reception to Slaughter was like when it debuted?
Ooooh, yes! A lot of people called it pure crap. Misogynistic, non-cerebral fluff. The music was shit. The singer was anything but. Of course we had a lot of good reviews also, but man, was it hated. And it’s just so offensive. Man, we scared some people. The ones we didn’t scare just hated us. Then there was the contingency with their jaws on the floor. Today, it is hailed as a masterpiece. Go figure. The Beatles were hated out of the gates as well. I just wish I had McCartney’s checkbook.
Ha! Any publicity is good publicity, as they say. Did the album’s release lead to any significant tours or festivals?
We never did a full tour of the United States on the first album. We would mostly go for weekends over to Texas or Florida, or up to Tennessee. We did go to Europe for a month long tour throughout the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Germany though. It was a low-budget tour, and some of the shows were in a really odd places in the villages and stuff. Like we would literally walked outside into the parking lot, and be surrounded by sheep! I was raised in the suburbs right outside of a major metropolitan area, so that is something that I’ve never really seen before. We did get to do a big show with Dark Angel on that tour, which was huge for me. Their first two albums had a great impact on me, and to this day I hold Darkness Descends in very high regard. The guys were really cool to us and I know Gene casually still. Great guy and an unbelievable musician.
I’ve had the pleasure of hanging out with Gene a few times, he certainly is the real deal. So looking back after 25 years, how do you feel about Slaughter and its legacy?
I tell you, if someone had told me when we first started that whole thing that it would one day be as iconic, influential, and held in such high regard, I would’ve told him they were absolutely crazy. We were just a bunch of angry kids wanting to make some noise and have a good time. So many bands that went on to be very successful in both album and concert sales have come to me and expressed their love and devotion to Exhorder, giving us credit as a huge influence to them or their band, or just mutual respect as contemporaries. I never have seen a financial bounty from this or anything else I have done musically for that matter, although it has put food on my table from time to time.
In the end, what really matters is that it belongs to the people. I have had people tell me that this album has gotten them through the darkest times of their lives, and they tell me that it is what helped them survive. To me, that alone is worth its weight in gold. It’s funny, because when some people find out that I don’t live by the words on this album in my day-to-day life today, they are sometimes disappointed and on occasion very angry.
One time I received a hate email so vile, that the asshole that sent it actually threatened my life. He was angry that we went from being a pure thrash band (which we never truly were anyway, we had way too much punk influence and traditional New Orleans influence) to a hybrid of that and one of the early bands that played I guess what you would call groove metal. Ultimately what he said in the email was something like, “…you saw what happened to Dime-fag, so I suggest you get back to doing what you do best and fast.”. Not only do I take that as a threat, but I find it in horrible taste. Darrell was a friend of mine, and what happened to him was awful. To say that behind the fortress of a keyboard is absolutely 100% chickenshit. Whatever. I’ll play whatever fucking music I want. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. Otherwise, most of the time people are very nice, fun, and respectful. When I go out on the road with any of my other bands, I always get a lot of Exhorder stuff brought to me to sign. I guess we did something right!
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