June 5, 2007, jefitoblog.com
By Michael Fortes
The more menacing form of rock n’ roll known as heavy metal didn’t fully develop until the early 1980s. 1970s artists like Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, Kiss and the like may have been given the metal tag during their heyday, but they were relegated to the more friendly “hard rock” tag after the genre had undergone a major transformation in its second decade. Among those artists who raised the bar for speed, darker lyrical themes and overall heaviness were Megadeth, Metallica, Anthrax, and Slayer. While all four of these bands undoubtedly left a lasting impression, none were more uncompromising than Slayer.
Guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman, bassist/vocalist Tom Araya, and drummer Dave Lombardo came together as Slayer in 1981 in Huntington Beach, California. While their visual image would undergo some minor tweaks in their early years, their basic musical template – a blend of mostly screamed, non-melodic vocals and speedy, Judas Priest inspired riffs and spitfire drums – would remain largely unchanged throughout the band’s two and a half decades together (and counting). In fact, just by listening to the Priest tracks “The Ripper” and “Dissident Aggressor,” you can hear the basic musical ingredients of Slayer in under 6 minutes.
While their peers often made major concessions to commercial demands – Megadeth and Metallica made many music videos and employed basic pop structures in their biggest hits, for example – Slayer stuck to a musical vision so dark and unpalatable to the masses that one has to respect the fact that sticking to their guns finally paid off this year in the band’s first ever Grammy win. Their vision employs extreme elements of shock, the kinds of things that raise the ire of good Christian parents everywhere – Satanism, the occult, serial killers, Nazism, war, and plenty of other sensitive topics, none more prevalent than a raging anti-Christian bent that came to a head on last year’s Christ Illusion.
Before you run away screaming, let’s keep one thing clear and in the front of our minds throughout this guide: Slayer, like all other successful, prolific, career-minded bands, needed to cultivate an image. The image they chose plays to the rebellious nature of teenage boys (and to a lesser extent, girls too), much in the same way that Alice Cooper, Kiss and Black Sabbath did in the 1970s. More to the point, there is a plain absurdity to the most ‘satanic’ songs in Slayer’s catalog that only becomes immediately apparent when any and all stiff, wooden or rod-like paraphernalia are completely removed from one’s rectum.
In other words, this shit’s a lot lighter than it lets on. It’s meant for fun. If you want it to make you laugh, it will. If you want it to kill you… well, you might have better luck achieving that goal by enlisting in the army.
The first Slayer album, released on the legendary Metal Blade label, is a humble, low budget affair, and it shows. The record sounds like it was taped in a dumpster, with echo running rampant throughout. The band’s lack of funds didn’t prevent them from creating a long-lasting, expandable template, however. Their logo appears inside of a pentagram on the front cover, and to this day, that same logo is still in use (seen in various mutations over the years, most infamously coupled with a Nazi-like eagle). The band’s early outfits, which were later dropped in favor of a more classic metal look of simple leather pants, jeans and dark tee-shirts, resembled the leather vests, studs and eyeliner of their more cartoonish forbears Kiss and Alice Cooper. The look may have been a comical throwback, but the music was downright scary, making Kiss and Cooper sound like Sesame Street theme music in comparison. “Blasting our way through the boundaries of hell / No one can stop us tonight,” screams Tom Araya on the album’s opening declaration, “Evil Has No Boundaries.” The song plays out like a comic book where the bad guys are the heroes, with Satan on their side and a general love of “mayhem.” In “The Antichrist,” all those who couldn’t see the point in showing up to church with their parents, or worse still, were let down by religious figures in their lives, heard “Your God left me behind / And set my soul to be free” and raised their devil horns in unholy communion. These songs are largely representative of the satanic/occult imagery prevalent throughout the record, along with the war and battle images of “Fight Till Death,” “The Final Command” and “Die By The Sword.” While the album isn’t considered a classic on the level of what would come later, it’s still a successful debut in that many of these songs remain in the band’s live set today.
After Slayer completed their first ever national tour in support of Show No Mercy, 1984 saw the release of two stop-gap collections. The three-song EP Haunting The Chapel (expanded to four songs with the addition of the CD bonus track “Aggressive Perfector”) added two more classics to Slayer’s live repertoire. “Captor Of Sin” kept the Satanic themes alive (“Satan’s child now stalks the earth / Born from my demon seed” – they even get the family values thing right too!), while “Chemical Warfare” opened up a couple of new directions for the band. First, the song’s war imagery began a long streak of Slayer songs detailing the horrors of the battlefield, songs which are unfortunately timeless. In this case, images where “soldiers lie bleeding and dead by the smell,” attacked by “demons not ready to die,” ensured that the band would forever have a loyal military following. Gulf War soldiers who rocked out to “Chemical Warfare” certainly could relate. The other direction was that of longer song forms. “Chemical Warfare” was the longest Slayer song at the time, clocking in at six minutes, with ample room for Hanneman and King to rip some jaw dropping guitar solos.
After the faux-live album “Live Undead” appeared later in ’84, Slayer had solidified their ever growing fan base, and were on their way to greater infamy.
Though by this time Slayer had a real producer in the studio, they didn’t quite make it out of the dumpster yet with Hell Awaits. That didn’t prevent the album from making an even bigger impression than its predecessor. While Show No Mercy contained more classic songs, Hell Awaits was significant for a number of reasons. The title track found the band pushing the limits of speed metal, with lyrics spit out so fast that one could barely decipher them without following the lyric sheet. The form of the song was also a novel approach for the band, taking some cues from ‘70s prog rock. As the track fades in, a chorus of backwards voices can be heard whispering “join us” repeatedly, ending with a low, demonic declaration: “welcome back!” Then the music begins, with a jammed out, almost danceable rhythmic pulse of guitars, bass and drums slowly leading to… the ungodly fast main section of the song, where Tom Araya somehow manages not to get tongue tied while quickly telling the story of a legion of demons trying to achieve the murder of the Lord against “angels fighting aimlessly, still dying by the sword.” It’s a nightmare scene for Christians everywhere.
From here, we receive detailed reports on some of the dweller’s in Satan’s lair – the “schizophrenic lunatic” of “Kill Again” who “kill[s] the preacher’s only son / watch the infant die,” the “blood sucking creatures of the night” who dwell the streets at night in “At Dawn They Sleep,” the sick fuck with a “relentless lust for rotting flesh” in “Necrophiliac,” and so on and so forth. At seven songs, “Hell Awaits” is a long full length album, with only two of those songs running under four minutes, and perhaps even more brutality in the words and music than what was thought possible at the time. It was a tremendous leap forward, one that would not go unnoticed.
In a most unlikely turn of good fortune, a young, up-and-coming producer and label mogul by the name of Rick Rubin would hear Hell Awais, prompting him to take Slayer from Metal Blade and sign them to his own label. Rubin was quickly becoming a hot commodity. He co-founded the Def Jam label with Russell Simmons, and was already making waves with hot signings like L.L. Cool J and the Beastie Boys. While it may not have been apparent at the time that a hip hop producer would want anything to do with a speed/thrash/death metal band, we would find out in due time that Rubin likes a little bit of everything. As he would do in later years with artists like the Dixie Chicks, Neil Diamond, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and others, Rubin would coax the very best music possible out of Slayer, not to mention their best sounding album to date.
The longer song forms on Hell Awaits that so impressed Rubin would manifest on Reign In Blood as the album’s bookends. “Angel Of Death,” which infamously chronicles the exploits of Josef Mengele (infamously because the song’s detractors conveniently ignored the band’s characterization of Mengele as “infamous” and “rancid,” and his actions as “sickening”), opens and closes with speedy sections. A slower section sandwiched in between details Mengele’s twisted experiments on the hapless victims of the holocaust. The closer, “Raining Blood,” is one of Slayer’s most dramatic songs, opening with an ominous, intermittent thump-thump-thump on the bass drum beneath the sound of pouring rain, and ending with a careening firestorm of metallic jamming. In between are eight frenetic bursts of noise, each clocking in at under three minutes (the shortest, the 1:38 “Necrophobic,” is the fastest song in Slayer’s catalog), that gave use the strongest indication yet that Slayer was, deep down, a dolled up hardcore punk band fascinated with war, death, Satan, and all things blasphemous.
Along with Metallica’s Master Of Puppets, Slayer’s Reign In Blood is considered one of the greatest metal albums of all time. It is uncompromising in its intensity, and says all it needs to say in under 30 minutes. It was also a hard act to follow, but somehow the band managed to keep Reign In Blood from becoming their own Metallic Black Album-like success, where nothing that followed could ever be considered as good. In fact, the next two records have earned their place alongside Reign In Blood as metal classics.
The extreme speed of Reign In Blood was novel and addictive, yet Slayer chose to change directions with the follow up. South Of Heaven did not completely abandon their punk intensity – witness “Silent Scream,” written from the perspective of a soon-to-be-aborted embryo, and the self-explanatory “Ghosts Of War.” But for the most part, songs like the title track were the order of the day – ease up on the cymbals and snare, but keep the double bass drum thumping fast and hard. The subject matter also started to veer away from the shock value of Satanism and more towards the social and the political via the aforementioned “Silent Scream,” the ode to the soldier that is “Mandatory Suicide,” and the title track, which basically tells us we’re surrounded by sickos and we’re all going to hell in a handbasket:
Bastard sons beget their cunting daughters
On and on, south of heaven
And for the first time, Slayer included a recording of cover song, in this case Judas Priest’s “Dissident Aggressor.” While the music is faithfully replicated, Tom Araya makes no attempt to mimic Rob Halford’s piercing banshee wail. He also changes the refrain from “stand / punch” to “stand / FIGHT.” As a result, it would be very easy to mistake the song for a Slayer original. After all, Priest taught Slayer pretty much everything they know.
Slayer migrated to Rick Rubin’s next label venture, Def American, for Seasons In The Abyss, where their labelmates were, among others, the Black Crowes and Andrew “Dice” Clay. Here, Slayer split the difference between the slightly ploddier approach of South of Heaven and the speed freak nature of Reign In Blood. Some of the demonic subject matter returned too, buried in the second half of the record as we are asked if we have “ever danced with the devil” or “ever penned your name in blood” in “Temptation.” Still, warfare and general violence was a lingering concern in “War Ensemble,” “Expendable Youth” and “Hallowed Point.” While still “extreme” and “obscene” to most ordinary folk, this approach was actually more like “middle of the road” by death metal standards. This, along with Slayers maiden voyage into the world of music videos, helped Seasons In The Abyss to become the most successful album they had released thus far, reaching #44 on the Billboard 200 and, like its two predecessors, earning a gold record for half a million units shipped. Concert favorites “Dead Skin Mask” and the title track were two of the slower tracks on the album with distinctive riffs and choruses, making them ideally fit for consumption by rebellious Christians and neophyte metal heads alike. The latter was filmed as a video, with a curious choice of a backdrop – the Egyptian pyramids.
Seasons completed a significant trilogy in Slayer’s catalog. It, along with South of Heaven and Reign In Blood before it, were the best-sounding, best-selling, and best-loved Slayer albums to date. Just like the Rolling Stones’ run of four classics with Jimmy Miller, or Stevie Wonder’s five ‘70s classics that followed his debut as a self-produced artist, all future Slayer albums would be judged against their own classic run of long players. And yet, they would still keep selling 6 figures worth of each original album, keep charting higher, and gain more and more respect with each passing year.
A double live album might seem like a lot of Slayer, but the songs are so concise and adequately varied in tempi and tone for a death metal set that this barely-90-minute collection storms by and cuts out before it has a chance to overstay its welcome. Recorded in 1990 and 1991 in London, San Bernardino and Lakeland, Florida, the recording quality is typically up to Rick Rubin’s high standards, with soon-to-be-default grunge producer Brendan O’Brien serving as mix engineer. What’s more, the best of those tinny, overly reverbed early recordings get a more proper and exciting representation here. The medley that whacked my head into realizing that there was a tremendous, superhuman amount of talent at hand here is what opens the album: the multi-part “Hell Awaits” and the early Slayer anthem “The Anti-Christ.” Beyond the flawless segue, it was Tom Araya’s verge-of-being-tongue-tied spew of vocals on “Hell Awaits” that had my jaw to the ground.
From here on out, it’s the “greatest hits” of Slayer, from “South Of Heaven” and “Dead Skin Mask” to “Die By The Sword” and “Chemical Warfare,” as well as a heavy sampling of the Seasons In The Abyss album (“Temptation” and “Skeletons Of Society” are the only songs from the album not present). It’s a fitting cap to the band’s first decade, and also serves as the last time we’d hear Dave Lombardo drumming with the band for a decade. After a series of personality conflicts, Dave and Slayer parted ways. He would go on to form Grip, Inc., as well as serve as the drummer in former Mr. Bungle/Faith No More vocalist Mike Patton’s Fantomas.
The three years between Decade Of Aggression and Divine Intervention saw Slayer’s credibility and respect continue to rise, resulting in their highest charting album yet. In Lombardo’s place was the equally deft Paul Bostaph, whose debut recording with the band was on the band’s contribution to the 1992 Judgement Night soundtrack., a collaboration with Ice-T titled “Disorder.” Bostaph would remain with Slayer for close to a decade. Also of note, Rubin’s Def American label dropped the “Def” from its name by this time, and Slayer found themselves sharing a label with new neighbors Donovan and Johnny Cash!
And as the times continued to change, so did Slayer, albeit with results more mixed than in prior years. The album opened promisingly with another war-themed speed metal dirge, “Killing Fields,” and the slower narrative pieces like the title track and the haunting “213” (written from the perspective of convicted cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer – 213 was his apartment number) carried the expected screaming horror that had become Slayer’s trademark. But then “Dittohead” came off as speed for speed’s sake, without so much as a single hook to give it a chance at being memorable, while “Circle Of Beliefs” took the band’s anti-Christian sentiments and put them on a soapbox – “you’re following a fake / Everyone awake!” OK, now how many in the Slayer army don’t already agree with this sentiment? Nevertheless, the record earned largely favorable reviews and established Paul Bostaph as a worthy successor to Dave Lombardo. Debuting at #8, Divine Intervention also became their highest charting album up to that point, another gold success.
If the hardcore punk influence that jacked up the speed on Reign In Blood wasn’t immediately apparent, Slayer made sure their love of punk was more clearly preserved for posterity on this mostly all-covers record. Bands that only a punk connoisseur would recognize are represented here: TSOL, DI, Verbal Abuse, etc. Explore these bands and you’ll be hipper than the punks next door. A few familiar names get the Slayer treatment as well – Minor Threat have two entries, with “I Don’t Want To Hear It” and a controversial reworking of “Guilty Of Being White.” Perhaps to underscore the potential for misunderstanding the song’s meaning, Tom Araya changes the words at the very end to “guilty of being RIGHT.” An innocently naïve, typically boneheaded song illustrating the difficulty of understanding the white man’s guilt becomes something more arrogant and sinister. Why they did this, I don’t know, and I wish I had thought to ask when I interviewed Tom in 1998. A less controversial liberty taken was the submissive-to-dominant switcheroo that resulted in the Stooges “I Wanna Be Your Dog” becoming “I’m Gonna Be Your God.” Former, icky. Latter, funny!
With a couple of old, previously unrecorded early ‘80s original punk tunes by Jeff Hanneman thrown in for good measure (“Can’t Stand You” and “Ddamm,” as in Drunk Drivers Against Mad Mothers – remember Mothers Against Drunk Driving?), the record flows seamlessly…up until the last song, a down-tuned original dirge called “Gemini” that sounds nothing at all like anything else on the album. It instead serves as a taste of what’s to come in the future – some lower, slower material and further sonic experiments.
Diabolus represented the largest reach Slayer made with changes to their sound, as so-called ‘nu-metal’ bands like Korn, Slipknot, and System Of A Down gained a stronger foothold on the metal scene. After opening with the “Gemini” descendant “Bitter Peace,” Slayer reached out to the youngsters banging their heads to the new crop of metal bands being showcased on the air and at Ozzfest. They did this with songs like the single “Stain Of Mind,” whose almost funky verse rhythms brought Slayer as close to hip hop as we’re ever likely to hear – much closer, ironically, than they got when they recorded “Disorder” with Ice-T, who was in full metal mode since forming Body Count. Yet somehow, “Stain Of Mind” manages to sound distinctly Slayer in spite of the unlikely approach.
Elsewhere, “Death’s Head” employs that low, dirty bass sound most closely associated with Korn, along with some gimmicky vocal effects. “Desire” comes closest to the style of Seasons In The Abyss, mixing lust and death in much the same way as that album’s “Dead Skin Mask,” with an almost-as-memorable refrain. But that was about the only bone thrown to fans of the classic Slayer sound. This record was aimed at the new breed. Yet, the speed was still there, the occult subject matter remained, the riffs were still heavy, and Tom Araya was still screaming rather than crooning or rapping. Make no mistake, this is a Slayer record.
The Diabolus formula remained on God Hates Us All for the most part – gimmicky vocal effects and modern metal production augment the usual Slayer elements. However, speed is emphasized more, and the Satanic overtones became the most overt since the days of Reign In Blood, resulting in “best since” hyperbole in some reviews. In truth, you should notice by now that little about Slayer other than their basic production values ever changes. And, had this album not been fated to see its public release on September 11, 2001, it might not be considered all that significant in the band’s catalog. Yet, with the refrain of “Payback” coming off like America’s collective love note to the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, one has to wonder what kind of crystal ball these guys were staring into:
You've got a fucking catheter in your brain
I bought this album after work on 9/11, and hearing “Payback” that night was just too perfect. Then I mellowed out to two other high profile 9/11 releases – Bob Dylan’s Love And Theft and Mariah Carey’s Glitter soundtrack. And no, I did not go to bed angry again after hearing the Mariah disc.
And few fans could have been angry when Slayer toured behind God Hates Us All with a “new” drummer. Paul Bostaph unexpectedly had to leave the band after sustaining a hand injury that left him unable to play on tour. When faced with having to replace Paul, it was none other than the estranged Dave Lombardo who saved the day. The original band was back together, and as an added surprise, their encore performances consisted of the entire contents of Reign In Blood, start to finish, in order, all 30 minutes of it.
And so, as with any major band that has lasted as long as Slayer – 2003 marked the 20th anniversary of the release of their debut album – the godfathers of thrash were feted with their very own multi-disc boxed set. Apocalypse was released in two different configurations: a stripped down edition in a compact slipcase containing 3 CDs and one DVD, and a deluxe edition housed in a case resembling an ammo box, containing an additional “bonus” CD of a 2002 live concert in Anaheim. While the Metal Blade years are represented solely by a handful of previously unreleased live recordings and videos, their major label tenure is solidly covered with 32 selections drawn from the band’s officially released albums. Most fans who bought this set likely had those recordings already, but more than half of the set is either previously unreleased or very tough to find elsewhere, making still worthwhile for the diehard. The tail end of disc two rounds up some import only bonus tracks, most notably the cover of Suicidal Tendencies’ “Memories Of Tomorrow” that appeared on the Japanese edition of Undisputed Attitude. A couple of covers that appeared on actual movie soundtracks precede the Suicidal tribute, including a menacing remake of Iron Butterfly’s “In A Gadda Da Vida” that appeared on the 1987 Less Than Zero soundtrack (yes, the one with LL Cool J’s “Going Back To Cali” and the Bangles’ “Hazy Shade Of Winter”). And then there’s “Disorder,” the collaboration with Ice-T from the Judgement Night soundtrack. Disc three consists entirely of unreleased live and demo material spanning the band’s career and… well, there’s just loads of Slayer here, enough to tide one over for three years.
And three years is what it took for Slayer’s next original studio album to appear. Christ Illusion marked not only the return of Dave Lombardo on a Slayer album, but also saw the band re-employ Larry Carroll to illustrate the cover art. Carroll was responsible for the Reign In Blood, South Of Heaven and Seasons In The Abyss covers. While Christ Illusion also turned out to be their highest charting album, debuting at number 5 on the Billboard 200, the return of elements from the band’s past glory marked an added dose of absurdity. Witness “Skeleton Christ:”
You'll never touch God's hand
It’s all been said and done before, and more eloquently too. Can’t resist raising some devil horns though. You just gotta!
The prevailing theme of the record is that religion is the cause of the world’s greatest suffering, or as it’s written in “Cult,” “Religion is rape / Religion’s obscene / Religion’s a whore.” In other words, this is Slayer doing Slayer, making the record they are expected to make with their original drummer, recalling their glory days and coasting as well-respected elder statesmen after trying to compete with the younger generation. While it pales against their best work, it’s still extreme, intense, and distinctly Slayer, and few would argue that the band should bother changing a thing at this point.
And to bring this story to a strangely un-metal, un-rebellious end, Slayer reached a major milestone this past February when the album’s lead single, “Eyes Of The Insane,” earned a Best Metal Performance Grammy. It seems that the voting committee has learned a thing or two about what constitutes heavy metal since that embarrassing moment when the Best Metal Album Grammy went to Jethro Tull over Metallica back in ’89…