A love of hard rock and heavy metal has been a common bond for Conan and Mario Moreno since the cousins dressed up as KISS' Gene Simmons and Ace Frehley for Halloween as kids in the late '90s.
Now in their mid-20's, Conan and Mario are the frontman/guitarist and drummer, respectively, for thrash metal upstart Exmortus. The band just released its third album, Slave To The Sword, and is currently on its first major cross-country tour as the opener for Swedish melodic death metal greats Dark Tranquillity.
Exmortus' sound is a blistering blend of European-influenced, neo-classical thrash metal. Conan's magnificent guitar solo centerpieces tie songs together and evoke memories of '80s shred guitar greats like Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai. Altogether, Exmortus' sound is a major leap from the KISS-worshipping days of the Whittier cousins' youth. Exmortus's heavy sound, however, is rooted in family.
Conan's uncle played in a local death metal band in the '90s called Specimen 32, which opened for touring acts like Deicide. “He's the one that really opened our eyes and ears to heavier music,” Mario says.
The band's upcoming tour is also a sort of familial full circle, as the cousins became fans of Dark Tranquillity as teenagers when Conan's father played them a music video for the song, “Monochromatic Stains,” from the 2002 album Damage Done. Chatting over beers at Little Bear in downtown L.A, the duo also credits their family with helping keep Exmortus together through multiple lineup changes since the band formed in 2002.
“We were barely teenagers when we started the band,” Mario says. “At that age, it's hard enough to find band members period, let alone band members whose parents were okay with their 16-year old sons going out to play backyard parties in East L.A.”
The group's current lineup includes new members David Rivera on second guitar and Jovanni Perez on bass. While these latest additions aren't blood relatives, the four guys went to high school together and at one point all lived within blocks of each other.
“They had just always been playing in different bands,” Mario says. “We feel like we've all been together for a long time now, just because all of our bonds go back so long.”
This feeling of shared history was something Conan and Mario were looking for when filling the vacated positions. “The guys we had play on [2011 album] Beyond The Fall of Time were out of the Riverside/Pomona scene,” Mario says. “It just didn't click.”
The feeling of closeness between the current incarnation of Exmortus is apparent on Slave To The Sword. The songwriting is more confident than on previous efforts, and fist-pumping anthems such as “Warrior of the Night” pack loads of dizzying riffs into tight, pure metal. The group seems far more confident than they were on their debut LP, 2008's In Hatred's Flame.
“Our first label [the now-defunct Heavy Artillery Records] asked us what we were listening to when they were prepping their first press release on us,” Conan says. “The truth at the time was we were listening to a lot of Boston and Journey, with a little bit of Megadeth being the heaviest thing on our plate. In the press release they said we were listening to Norwegian bands like Mayhem and Marduk. People expected certain things, but we were being marketed as something we were not.”
At this point, the cousins and their band have grown into what it seems they were always meant to be.
Exmortus plays the House of Blues in Hollywood on Saturday, February 22nd.