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Exodus founder, leader, and mainstay Gary Holt laughs out loud at the suggestion that the album cover of the band's landmark 1985 debut, Bonded by Blood, contains a veiled caricature reference to Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett. A familiar and cherished site to metalheads of a certain generation (read: You're getting old, bastards!), the album depicts a pair of Siamese twins joined at the back. One of the babies has a demonic smile and sports curly black locks that suspiciously resemble Hammett's '80s hairstyle. The demon baby's twin, meanwhile, is clearly born of a more, um... fair complexion.

"Oh no, that wasn't supposed to be Kirk," chuckles Holt. "But now that you mention it, it does share some similar ethnic traits. Maybe I'm the gringo, white-trash one on the right and Kirk's the other one — I don't know! That was completely unintentional.

"And," he adds, "why does he get to be the evil one?"

Before he became a guitar icon in the biggest metal band in the world, of course, Hammett was an original member of Exodus. And as any thrash-aged fan can tell you, Exodus was part of the reason that Metallica made its now-famous migration to the Bay Area from Los Angeles in the first place and a major factor in the area's coming to be known as thrash metal's birthplace and capital. Predating regional genre luminaries like Testament, Death Angel, Forbidden, D.R.I., and Vio-Lence, Exodus cocreated the blueprint for this most vital of musical forms.

Listening back to the guitar riffing on Bonded by Blood, one can hardly deny that the album matches the essential-listening quality of thrash metal's pillars such as Metallica's Kill 'Em All and Slayer's Show No Mercy. Not to mention innovation — even by today's standards, the riffs sound sleek and sophisticated, and the guitar tandem of Holt and Rick Hunolt put as much of a distinct spin on the art of the riff as other celebrated guitar duos.

But despite mounting success in 1987 and '89 with the albums Pleasures of the Flesh and Fabulous Disaster, Exodus' history has been fraught with turmoil and frustration. Dizzying lineup changes, major-label disinterest, methamphetamine addiction, and the death of original frontman Paul Baloff sank the band. Consequently, though Exodus continues to draw reverent praise from peers and history-savvy fans, the widespread recognition (and sales) enjoyed by the genre's "Big Four" acts — Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax — still eludes Exodus.

So how does Holt, the man largely responsible for Exodus' momentous sound, feel about having watched his peers become household names that sold millions?

"It doesn't bother me, someone else's level of success," Holt answers pleasantly. "The only thing that's ever bothered me is when people tend to conveniently omit Exodus' name, like when they're speaking of the so-called 'Big Four.' At the same time, I know what this band did, and so do a lot of other people. I don't dwell on it. I know the time line of when we started doin' shit, and I know the time line of a lot of other bands. There were two — there was us and Metallica. And everybody else, although they may have been close behind, was behind."

Holt and the rest of Exodus come to town this week on the heels of their third post-reunion studio album, Atrocity Exhibition, Exhibit A. Casual fans who haven't kept up with the band will notice that a couple of key faces from the band's classic, late-'80s lineup are once again gone — namely, lead guitarist Hunolt and vocalist Steve "Zetro" Souza. Both contributed greatly to the momentum of the band's comeback, and their departures left Holt as the band's sole familiar face for 2005's Shovel Headed Kill Machine.

So how uncomfortable or hesitant did Holt feel carrying the band name on his shoulders alone?

"Not at all," he answers, "because I'm stubborn and pig-headed."

Holt insists that the current lineup, which is fronted by relative newcomer Rob Dukes and also includes former Heathen lead guitarist (and childhood friend of Holt's) Lee Altus, is "the greatest the band has ever seen."

Longtime devotees, of course, will have their varying opinions but can also rejoice in the return of founding drummer Tom Hunting. His presence on Atrocity Exhibition, however, immediately drives home how essential he has always been to Exodus' trademark sound. Holt concurs.

"The difference between Tom and [replacement drummers] Johnny Tempesta and Paul Bostaph," Holt offers, "is that, until he left the band in '89, I'd never played with another drummer in my life, not even for fun... so when I write something, his drumming is what I hear in my head. And no matter how great the drummer is, whether it's Bostaph, Tempesta — it could be [revered Slayer drummer] Dave Lombardo, for that matter — it's going to sound odd to me at first. It's an adjustment period, just because the way Tom plays is so unorthodox and factors into the way I write."

Holt acknowledges that keeping the band financially solvent is a greater challenge these days while adding that operating on a smaller scale has its advantages. Although he can look back on a 1989 Headbanger's Ball tour with Anthrax as a high-water mark, he also sees that, in the genre's history, thrash is "absolutely vital right now."

As much as old fans might want it, he refuses to tread creative water for the sake of nostalgia. For better or worse, Atrocity Exhibition pushes forward into new, darker territory with a more corrosive type of anger. Holt says his personal life is "very mellow" these days but insists that the album's harder edge merely reflects his desire to progress.

"We were never interested in being our own best tribute band," he says. "We're never going to try and re-create or repeat Bonded by Blood."

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Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

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