Southern California has long had a reputation for nurturing the art of shred guitar. Eddie Van Halen exploded out of the Pasadena backyard scene and blew minds worldwide on Van Halen’s 1978 self-titled debut with “Eruption.” Randy Rhoads furthered the practice with his work on Ozzy Osbourne’s 1980 debut, Blizzard of Ozz — most notably with his solo on “Crazy Train.” Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen each relocated to Los Angeles as teenagers in the early ’80s and exploded as innovative forces in rock guitar.
Shredding has ebbed and flowed in popularity throughout the decades since, but in 2016, two Los Angeles–based metal bands are making strong cases for the continued vitality of the shred. Exmortus partakes in thrash metal that is heavily infused with neoclassical-shred guitar that would make original genre pioneers such as Malmsteen proud. Holy Grail, meanwhile, are a more traditional beast, one that proudly wears influences of the early-’80s New Wave of British Heavy Metal and acts such as Anthrax on its sleeves.
Though each band’s core members are in their late 20s, Exmortus and Holy Grail have honed their individual songwriting skills over the last decade to become veteran forces in the local Los Angeles scene. Exmortus cut their teeth in early years playing backyard parties in East L.A., Downey and Whittier. Holy Grail made their presence felt on the Sunset Strip — which is where we meet up with each band’s guitar-based core to discuss their influences and songwriting, over pizza and beer at the Rainbow Bar & Grill.
The camaraderie between all four guitarists — Jadran “Conan” Gonzalez and David Rivera of Exmortus and Eli Santana and Alex Lee of Holy Grail — is evident immediately. All four guitarists geek out over their incubatory influences and name-check legends like Malmsteen, Rhoads and Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath. The first guitarist Santana mentions, however, is a bit of a departure.
“What got me wanting to play guitar was Bret Michaels,” Santana says. “For ballads, he would strum the guitar in the videos. I figured I should learn how to do that if I want to get girls and be Bret Michaels.”
Santana later name-checks death metal legends Morbid Angel and the one influence repeatedly mentioned by all four guitarists: Yngwie Malmsteen. They also find common ground in that all had family members who played guitar while they were growing up. Gonzalez and Rivera share similar stories of first picking up the guitar because of a family rivalry.
“My cousin Mario Moreno started playing guitar first,” Gonzalez says. Moreno is now Exmortus' drummer. “My dad would give him attention when he played, so I got jealous for attention.”
“Same here,” says Rivera. “My cousin started playing. I got jealous and was like, ‘I want to play too!’”
All four played their first licks on hand-me-down and budget-brand guitars. At this point, the four shredders basically interview each other on this topic.
Santana: “My first guitar was a Crate Guitar. It was a pack that came with a little amp.”
Gonzalez: “You have to start out with duct tape on a Crate Amp.”
Rivera: “It’s way cooler to be able to make a great sound with a shitty, beat-up guitar.”
Gonzalez: “That’s how you’re supposed to start. Not like these dudes that are 15 years old, playing for four months starting out with a Les Paul and a full Marshall stack.”
Lee: “I had a Stratocaster copy; it was a Johnson guitar. After seeing Yngwie Malmsteen live, I grabbed my dad’s scalpel and I started scalloping the frets.”
All four guitarists were teenage metal heads with similar influences, but as their bands formed and developed, their own styles began to develop and diverge. Exmortus started out as a death metal-oriented thrash band on their 2008 debut In Hatred’s Flame. A flair for the neoclassical emerged as a stronger presence when Gonzalez took over vocal duties and Rivera joined the band on second guitar in the years that followed. The group’s last two albums — 2014’s Slave to the Sword and their just-released effort, Ride Forth — each feature shred guitar covers of Beethoven songs alongside the band’s original works.
“I like a lot of classical music,” Gonzalez says. “I worship composers like Beethoven.”
Over the same time period, Holy Grail emerged with their more traditional take on the heavy metal guitar sound, from their 2010 debut Crisis in Utopia and 2013's Ride the Void through their newest record, Times of Pride and Peril, which was released this past week. Vocalist James Paul Luna takes an “air raid siren” approach to his craft, similar to metal vocal giants like Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson and Judas Priest’s Rob Halford. Though their sound has become more modernized as they evolve, the guitar work of Santana and Lee still evokes their classic influences, which can be traced back to compositional exercises Santana did during the band’s early days.
“I made an ultimate playlist of my favorite solos from metal songs,” Santana says. “To force ourselves to write, I would take the structure of the song and remake the song with my own riffs. The song 'My Last Attack' [from Crisis in Utopia] evolved from Megadeth’s ‘My Last Words’ and Tokyo Blade’s ‘Attack Attack.’”
While some metal bands firmly split guitar duties into rhythm and lead — think James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett of Metallica — the guitar duos of Exmortus and Holy Grail each trade off the blistering shred solos that are peppered throughout their songs. We asked each duo about competing with one another for solos, but the answer we got was the opposite of what we were expecting.
“We actually find that as we approach the end of recording an album, we just want to be done,” Holy Grail's Santana says. “For the last solo for Ride the Void, we actually did a rock-paper-scissors where the winner got to sit out and not do the last solo. Under the pressure of the workload, your ego goes away and you just want the thing to be done and over with.”
At this point in the conversation, the topic of talk turns back to influences again. All four guitarists begin to discuss influences outside of the standard guitar gods. Gonzalez and Rivera reference the power of heavy metal bass players like Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris, Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler and '80s Ozzy Osbourne bassist Bob Daisley. Lee goes into great detail of how playing video games growing up influenced his sense of songwriting.
“I remember a lot of video game themes because they had such great compositions and melodies,” Lee says. “I took what I could to bring it into our songwriting. The video game Doom has a lot of songs that were influenced by Pantera and Ozzy Osbourne.”
Gonzalez agrees with the video game reference, mentioning the “metal bass lines in Sonic the Hedgehog" and "the heavy classical soundtrack of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.”
“I hear every form of music through a metal filter,” Santana says. “I’ll hear classical music, hip-hop or Bjork and I hear it with a five-piece band, heavy guitars, and double-bass drumming. I listen to hardcore punk and imagine what it would sound like if they knew how to play their instruments and played it in tune.”
Exmortus and Holy Grail have put together impressive resumes just through their recorded work. But in the world of heavy metal, careers are solidified in the live setting. Each guitarist pulls off the dexterity of their shredding solos live seemingly without effort. But it’s not just about simply standing there pulling off every note. Each band displays a sense of over-the-top theatricality when shredding live.
“In real life, I like to just jump around in people’s faces anyways,” Exmortus' Rivera says. “That’s how I am anyways, so it only makes sense to be like that on stage, too.”
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During shows, each guitarist takes notice of the more attentive fans in the crowd they refer to as “fret watchers.”
“I actually slapped a guy on the hand in Florida,” Santana says. “There was a guy that was pointing to his friend with his fingers at what I was playing. I just slapped him in the hand and said, ‘Stop it!’”