Photo by Susan Moss.

In 2004, shortly after the release of Exodus’s sixth album, Tempo of the Damned, vocalist Steve “Zetro” Souza quit the band the evening before a sold-out Mexico City show and an impending South American tour. It wasn’t the first time—it had been less than two years since the thrash-metal vets last reunited following previous disputes. The resignation led to an all-out flame war and some of the most intense mudslinging in thrash history, culminating in guitarist and de facto bandleader Gary Holt publicly stating that Souza would never get his job back.

Fast-forward 10 years, and guess what? For 2014’s Blood In, Blood Out, Souza is back for his third stint with the Bay Area headbangers often credited with inventing thrash. For some fans, Souza is the voice of Exodus. But given his track record, will things work out this time around?

“Am I a fortune teller?” quips co-guitarist Lee Altus, who joined Exodus in 2005. “I can just tell you how things are going right now. I call it the honeymoon stage—of course, everything’s all peachy and great. Can I guarantee it’s not going to happen again? Absolutely not. But time heals all wounds, and I think he realizes the error of his ways. Let bygones be bygones.”

“If you ask Lee, he’ll probably tell you my riffs are stupid, crazy, and weird—even though, to me, they’re completely basic and simple.”
—Gary Holt

Blood In, Blood Out also marks another reunion: Kirk Hammett, founding Exodus guitarist (along with Tim Agnello, now a full-time pastor at a California Christian ministry) appears as a guest soloist on “Salt the Wound.” It’s Hammett’s first officially released recording with the band. (He played on Exodus’ 1982 demo, but departed to make metal history with Metallica before Exodus’ 1985 debut, Bonded by Blood.)

But for Holt and Altus, life isn’t just a big nostalgia trip. In addition to their stints with Exodus, they’ve remained at the forefront of the thrash scene. Since the 2013 passing of Jeff Hanneman, Holt has also toured and recorded with Slayer, and Altus still tours and records with Heathen, the Bay Area thrash band he co-founded in 1984.

Premier Guitar caught up with both guitarists to get the dirt on Blood In, Blood Out and find out why these thrash titans have ditched their modded Marshalls for digital technology.

Before we get into the heavy guitar stuff, how did Zetro get back in the picture?
Gary Holt:
Some issues arose between us and Rob [Dukes, vocalist since 2005]. Some were long-standing and some weren’t. It was never anything expected. We went into this album not thinking we were going to make any damn changes at all. Change isn’t something I embrace, you know?
Lee Altus:
It’s a sensitive subject and a he-said/she-said thing. It seemed like Rob just wasn’t into it anymore. He was going through a lot of stuff and wasn’t happy during the recording. He was getting married, and we were out on the West Coast recording—he’s from the East Coast, so he had to spend all this time here. But that’s part of the job.

Photo by Susan Moss.

Did you originally write Blood In, Blood Out with Rob in mind?
The songs were written for Rob. I tend to write with this band in mind, be it Zetro, Rob, or even Baloff [Paul Baloff, intermittent Exodus vocalist until his 2002 death]. It’s just one of those things. I love Rob—he’s an amazing singer and frontman. I watched him go from a guitar tech with a pink Mohawk and no vocal experience to being one of the best. I’m proud of that.

Did Rob record Blood In, Blood Out initially?
He finished all the songs except one. He went back home, and we were trying to decide what to do with the last song—whether to send him the track and have him finish it in New York or have him fly back here again. When we were listening to it, it sounded like someone just going through the motions—like somebody reading off the lyric sheet. It seemed like he just wasn’t there. When he joined in 2005, the guy was just unstoppable. Maybe he started taking it for granted in some ways, but when we talked to him, he was like, “No, that’s really not true. You guys have got it wrong.” Maybe that’s true—but then it’s even more unfortunate.
When it became apparent that we needed to make a change, it came down to, “Do we audition new guys or give Zetro a call?” We explored both possibilities, and the first thing we did was find out where Zetro was mentally, and how prepared he was to come back and give it everything he’s got. He was. From there, we let him audition. We gave him one of the new songs, and he had the audio file for seven hours—and the lyrics for two. When he sang it, it sounded like he’d been singing it for 10 years. It felt so natural and right that we didn’t explore any other options.

Do you guys write as a band?
I wrote most of everything. Lee wrote the lyrics to “Honor Killings,” and Jack [Gibson, bass], Lee, and Zetro wrote the lyrics to “Body Harvest.” It was the first time Jack got involved in that.

How would you describe the differences between your writing styles?
If you ask Lee, he’ll probably tell you my riffs are stupid, crazy, and weird—even though, to me, they’re completely basic and simple [laughs]. Everybody has their own little ways they do things, but we’re both Bay Area guys and we both write Bay Area thrash. It’s not like you have one guy’s songs that sound obviously different from the other guy’s.
Altus: Gary’s writing is like making moonshine, and mine is like making wine. He’s really fast, while I tend to be more anal and overthink stuff. It drives everybody else crazy. Other than that we both just write in that Bay Area style. We grew up with the same influences: everything from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal to Rainbow, Priest, Deep Purple, and Sabbath.