If there's anything that three decades spent in the wild and wooly world of heavy fucking metal has taught Exodus singer Steve "Zetro" Souza, it's to never say never. After being not-so-amicably dismissed from the band for the second time back in 2004, it looked for all the world as if the thrash-metal progenitors were charting a new course away from the man who sang "Toxic Waltz."
As recently as last year, odds didn't look good that Souza would ever get a crack at the big stage at House of Blues in Houston.
"I probably wouldn't have put any money on it," the singer says.
He should've. To the surprise of practically everyone, Exodus parted ways with their front man of the last ten years, Rob Dukes, on the eve of the release of their latest album. And the first guy they called was Zetro.
"Their management got in touch with me saying they were interesting in hearing what I sounded like singing a couple of new songs," Souza says. "They didn't give a reason why, so, of course it's human nature, you're going to speculate everything in the world. Maybe a tour, maybe they want me on a couple songs, maybe they want me to return. I had no idea."
The answer, as it turned out, was all of the above. In the blink of an eye, Exodus was reunited for a third go-round with the singer who fronted the band during its '80s heyday, when they made their name alongside Metallica as the leaders of San Francisco Bay Area thrash metal.
More cynical fans saw the move as a transparent effort to cash in on '80s nostalgia, and there was no shortage of them to go around. But when the aptly titled Blood In, Blood Out album dropped last October, the critics mostly fell silent.
That's because Blood In, Blood Out was quite possibly the thrash album of the year. There's no going back to 1985 again, but Exodus' feisty new music slays right alongside their best -- all whipping snare cracks and sharp, chugging leads. Pumping out heavy metal this pointed after 30 years requires real passion, and no one sounds more passionate on the record than Zetro.
His theatrical Bon Scott wail has always sounded right for nasty, hard-edged thrash, but on there's no question that on the new record he sounds like a man 200 percent ready to get his gig back. It can't be the most comfortable thing in the world to record an album written with another singer in mind, but his performance is as tough as nails.
Souza says he was all-in on his third act in Exodus as soon as he heard the new material.
"I couldn't wait, it was so good!" he gushes, with obvious enthusiasm. "I thought, 'This is the best Exodus ever!' I truly felt that. And I still do! I think every song is very strong."
Souza's not just blowing smoke. Like many of their fellow thrash innovators such as Slayer and Overkill who fell on hard times in Kurt Cobain's '90s, Exodus has re-emerged in the 21st century with something to prove. Modern studio production has rendered each hyper-speed riff with a vicious, mosh-ready clarity.
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That's not to say the band isn't courting nostalgia, of course. Far from it. Before Souza replaced original Exodus screamer Paul Baloff, he was screeching out a living with Legacy, the band that would soon become Testament. Thirty years later, tonight, he'll be opening for them in downtown Houston, Texas, on the Dark Roots of Thrash II tour. As one might imagine, it's all been a bit of a time warp.
"I hired (Testament guitarist) Alex (Skolnick) when he was 15 years old; I had to ask his dad to let him join the band," Souza says. "When I see them, I think of all these things that went down, like how when I joined Exodus, I recommended Chuck Billy, who I knew from growing up in the same town.
"I remember those days very well," he continues. "Now, going on tour with Testament, they're going to be playing The Legacy in its entirety. I think ten of the 11 songs, I wrote, on The Legacy! So it's definitely going to be kind of a flashback to say the least!"
Back in the day, Exodus never would have toured with Testament, nor with Slayer or Suicidal Tendencies, which they'll do later this year. There was too much friendly competition in the thrash scene to team up. But age (and the lure of a dollar or two) has a way of changing one's perspective on such things.
"Now, I guess we've all learned," Souza says. "It's like, 'Dude, you're still here! We're still here! Wow!' With all the shit we've been through, it's great. So, it's more like a celebratory thing between everybody, and everybody's trying to help each other out. That's why tours like this are possible, now."
The first Dark Roots tour was a success, drawing a big, crazy crowd to House of Blues on its Houston stop two years ago. Zetro says he expects this time around to be even more successful.
"I think that's a tribute to the musicians, but also the fans, who have never forgotten this music and always loved it," he says. "It seems like they all sort of started listening to it again. I think they missed it."
Don't miss Testament, Exodus and Shattered Sun tonight at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline St. Doors open at 6 p.m.
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