EXA – Left In Shards

From the early years of Sodom and Kreator, through to latter day revival sounds with Dust Bolt, the Germans have always had a great ability when it comes to thrash metal. Here’s another band that really should be on your radar. Formed in 2016 when the musicians were still at school, EXA’s music carries all the ferocity of your 80s favourites, tempered by a production sound that’s a little more modern.

Their second album ‘Left In Shards’ has the sheer confidence of a band with a much broader legacy. From the minute the opening track ‘Return To Madness’ rips from the speakers with a hint of Slayer, before shifting effortlessly into a barrage of riffs from the Testament mould, it’s clear the thrash fan is in for a genuine treat. The sheer tightness of the rhythm guitar work is enough to make the track stand, but the way the band shifts between pure thrash and more of a groove – the latter bringing out a great deepness in the guitar tones and a harder edge to the drumming – is genuinely impressive. Over the riffs, frontman Tom Exa barks a vocal that might be a little more divisive, but there’s a clarity in his delivery that suits the material, and in terms of lead guitar, things are a little minimal by contrast, but a really tight lead fills a few bars with an impressive flurry of sound. Slowing down for the chugging ‘Under His Eye’, EXA show off the other side of their core sound when attacking a steady groove that fuses the bones of classic Testament with something that sounds like early 90s Metallica. The slower tempo is less of a fit with an abrasive voice, but it’s hard not to be impressed by the chunky guitar tones and all round toughness driving the music throughout.

Cranking the gears a little more, album highlight ‘Dead Child Eyes’ kicks off with a full throttle riff worthy of Slayer circa ‘Seasons In The Abyss’ and then delivers a barrage of high octane metal riffs that drops the occasional Anthrax drum riff into the mix, alongside a tiny bit of a groove metal force. At the track’s most direct, genre fans might spot the odd riff or two that comes close to Metallica’s ‘Damage Inc.’, or even a Testament tune or two, but there’s a real love evident in any recycling. It’s also impressive to hear a great bass sound cutting through on occasion, and Tamino Bosse summons a tone, unexpectedly, that’s almost comparable to Sick of It All circa ‘Scratch The Surface’. With a clean lead guitar break, there’s also an obvious melody here, and the way EXA seamlessly fuse these high octane sounds is impressive. An even bigger aggression comes through in waves during the track’s coda when the speed oriented sounds give way to a brilliant hardcore breakdown coupled with a rather unexpected death metal growl. In many ways, these five minutes present the whole EXA package.

‘Mind Free’ retains the speed, but switches the guitar tone to more of a grinding hardcore sound. It never takes the number too far out of the thrash sphere, however, and with the help of a thunderous drum part (courtesy of Leon Pester), the number works just as fiercely. With another hardcore interlude topped with Tom’s lead guitar throwing out shrill notes, the number reaches peak anger before dropping back into a drum heavy groove, whilst the title cut works a few impressive stops between some really tight rhythm guitar work. Second guitarist Johannes Lortes serves some really classic sounds throughout, but here, his playing takes on wrist-breaking intensity, before the melody branches off into a more interesting rhythm. A push and pull between pure thrash and a groove laden heaviness gives the album more stand out moments throughout, but if anything sticks here – particularly beyond the intro – it’s Tom’s lead guitar. When it rises from the speed dominated riffs, he’s unafraid to explore a clean, old school metal tone, which always suggests that EXA have one ear on a melody, even at times when their best material seems to value pneumatics and speed above all else.

With ‘Cease To Exist’ returning to the kind of thrash/groove blend present in the opener and augmented by a few even angrier rhythms, even by the album’s tail end, EXA show no signs of slowing down, or resorting to filler. In fact, they bow out very impressively when the short ‘Circadian’ pays tribute to the epic thrash opening riffs of the 90s by offering a slow build up tempered by a clean soaring guitar. With the audience then drawn in, the drum heavy ‘King Terror’ attacks, firstly with a chugging, heavy rhythm that combines the taut melodicism of Testament with the force of Kreator, then drops into a slower head nodder of a groove that in some ways feels heavier. On the occasions that EXA slow down, the heavier tones really get an opportunity to shine, and here, the way those heavier moments are tempered by old school twin lead guitars conveys a great love of all things 80s. With Tom reaching within himself for one of the album’s most extreme vocals – again, the raw edges might remind some listeners of Kreator – it closes ‘Left In Shards’ with one of the band’s most aggressive tracks, and as the final notes fade, there’s little doubt of a job well done.

Sometimes, it’s possible to approach an album not expecting too much, only to be knocked sideways by what you eventually hear. This is one of those times. There are many moments where the band play to type, but any predictability never weakens their material. In some ways, it can be seen as a great strength, since EXA pull all of the best traits from their influences and create something just as fierce here. ‘Left In Shards’ sounds great from the very first play, and several spins later, it becomes an enduring piece of thrash continues to impress. If you still reach for those classic Testament, Slayer and Kreator albums with any regularity, or consider yourself a fan of thrash in general, you need to add this to your collection.

February 2024