Farewell, Slayer: Metal's Most Unflinching Band
Everybody who’s seen Slayer live has a tale to tell. Some are like war stories: There’s the time fans ripped the seats out of New York City’s Felt Forum, lit them on fire and threw them at the stage. And the Denver concert where the audience got so manic that the promoter made the band stop everything for about 10 minutes so singer-bassist Tom Araya could tell the crowd to take a step back before they’d play again. And, of course, there’s the infamous Hollywood Palladium gig where some 200 Slayer fans weren’t allowed in, leading to a vicious riot that got them banned from the venue for 25 years.
You don’t even need to be watching the band to get the full Slayer experience, as Black Dahlia Murder frontman Trevor Strnad once told me: “When you go see Slayer, you go to the bathroom and you’re taking a piss and the guy next to you looks right at you and screams, ‘Slayer!’ in your face. And then 13 other people start screaming ‘Slayer!’ in the men’s bathroom. And that’s what it’s all about, dude.”
There are certainly heavier bands and ones with nastier lyrics, but there’s something unique about Slayer that has always inspired an animalistic frenzy in their fans. Whether it’s the mix of eerie and crushing guitar riffs, the athletic drumming or Araya’s frenzied vocals, Slayer provide a live experience like no other group. Their shows are a rite of passage for headbangers, an unholy communion with metal’s loud-and-proud, self-proclaimed antichrists. And, even on nights when it’s not raining fiery seat cushions, the gigs still feel dangerous – there you are with a thousand or so fellow headbangers chanting “evil” over and over again during “Evil Has No Boundaries,” throwing the horns to lines like “Do you want to die?!” and “Praise, hail Satan!” and generally losing your shit during the “hits” like “Raining Blood,” “Angel of Death” and “South of Heaven.” It’s that sense of community that makes Slayer shows so exciting: When you’re in a group of Slayer fans, you feel like you’re in on something the rest of the world isn’t.
Now Slayer are embarking on their final world tour, a farewell to the cult of fans they built during nearly four decades of aggression. It’s a surprising move for metal’s most unflinching band – after all, they’ve persevered through controversy, flouted censors and even kept going after one of their founding members died – but they are human after all, so the end was inevitable. To paraphrase Neil Young, it’s better to self-immolate in an infernal blaze than it is to fade away.
It’s always been an uphill battle for the band, but they’ve managed to make a surprising impact on the mainstream while cultivating their devoted horde. Since forming in Los Angeles in 1981, they’ve earned four gold records and won two Grammys with little support from MTV and no radio airplay. They notched three albums on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time list, including the number six slot for their touchstone 1986 LP, Reign in Blood. Tori Amos has covered Slayer, Public Enemy and Lil Jon have sampled them, the Beastie Boys featured them as guests, Showtime’s Californication referenced them weekly, their songs have featured in everything from horror movies to hit HBO series and the Kardashian clan has feuded with them.
That’s because Slayer have always strived to be the most extreme at everything – they play the fastest guitar parts, they summon the darkest melodies, they sing the scariest lyrics. Reign in Blood is so fast and furious that when it came out on cassette, Side One contained the entire album. Side Two did too.
The amount of thought that the band put into simply sounding evil is staggering. Just take a moment to marvel at their riff library – the triumphal majesty of “Mandatory Suicide,” the sheer otherworldliness of “South of Heaven,” the angel-dust psychedelia of “Seasons in the Abyss,” the pulverizing wallop of “Disciple,” the mix of crushing and piercing notes in what could be their very own “Iron Man,” “Raining Blood” – it goes on and on.
Now consider their lyrics. Nearly all of their thrash-metal peers, including the other members of the genre’s so-called Big Four – Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax – have written a song about going to shows or moshing or, later in their careers, they’ve sung (gasp!) ballads. Not Slayer. Never has a band devoted themselves so vigilantly to the topics of hell, Satan, black magic, war, serial killers or necrophilia. More impressive, they’re themes Araya could sell convincingly at gigs without sounding (too) corny.
Whether in concert or on record, Slayer have always been a band you love, hate or learn to live with. They would actively bait controversy, whether with the song “Angel of Death,” about Nazi doctor Josef Mengele (“There’s nothing I put in the lyrics that says necessarily [Mengele] was a bad man, because … I shouldn’t have to tell you that,” guitarist Jeff Hanneman once said) or by changing the final lyric of Minor Threat’s “Guilty of Being White” in a 1996 cover version to “guilty of being right,” which upset people despite the fact that Araya is Chilean. Even their latest album, Repentless, features a standout called “Pride in Prejudice.” And a year after the parents of a teen accused Ozzy Osbourne of hiding backwards messages on his records, allegedly inspiring their son to kill himself (Ozzy was acquitted), Slayer started their album Hell Awaits with the words “join us” whispered like a chant in reverse. Where Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie write songs that shock with elements of irony and cabaret, Slayer always stared directly into the void.
Moreover, their album art was almost always over the top. From Reign in Blood through 1990’s Seasons in the Abyss, their records featured Bosch-like hellscapes imagined by artist Larry Carroll; their “Seasons in the Abyss” single came in a “blood pack” with floating skulls; their Divine Intervention album featured the arms of a fan who’d carved “Slayer” into his forearm on the CD (the “Serenity in Murder” single similarly showed a man with the band’s name bleeding down his back); and God Hates Us All featured a bloody Bible with nails in it.
At their shows, they always presented their signature brand of blasphemies somewhat nonchalantly. It was never in your face. You just had to come to terms that you were now in hell. Araya peers out at the audience, bellowing his vocals, the rest of the band headbangs, the lights change between stark red, blue or green, offering glimpses of backdrops of inverted crosses and pentagrams. It’s there, in the live setting, where they always proved their mettle.
While their studio albums changed the way heavy metal was recorded (producer Rick Rubin took the reverb off the guitars on Reign in Blood and boosted the drums), Slayer’s riffs feel more electrifying live, and Araya sounds possessed. Just put on the band’s two official concert recordings – 1984’s Live Undead and 1991’s Decade of Aggression – to witness the swagger they conjure onstage. When they play “The Antichrist” on Live Undead, the notes seem to fall off their strings effortlessly like loose meat as the audience screams over the melee, and on Decade’s “Hell Awaits,” drummer Dave Lombardo’s rhythms swing with a looseness not heard on the original recording. Even “Angel of Death,” a warhorse for the band at the time, has an unhinged quality to it. The sound is electrifying, and it’s a great reminder of why Slayer have become one of metal’s greatest bands. And if you doubt it, they’ve got you covered with a disclaimer in the liner notes of Decade: “Unlike most other live recordings, this is Slayer completely ‘LIVE.’ No overdubbing exists on this recording.” This is the true sound of damnation.
When Slayer say their final goodbyes, it will be bittersweet. While they are as intense as ever (when I saw them in the old Felt Forum space inside Madison Square Garden last year, they sounded even more bloodthirsty than usual), they’ve undergone many changes in recent years. Guitarist Jeff Hanneman, who wrote many of the group’s most beloved songs, quit touring with the group in 2011 after contracting the flesh-eating disease necrotizing fasciitis and died of unrelated alcohol-related liver cirrhosis in 2013. Exodus guitarist Gary Holt stepped in for him when he was sick and later joined full-time. Meanwhile, founding drummer Dave Lombardo, who’d been in and out of the band over the years, exited the group once and for all following a financial dispute in 2013; Paul Bostaph, who replaced Lombardo in 1992, once again rejoined the band. Through it all, Araya and King’s determination kept things going.
Now they’ve reached an end. The group hasn’t made any statements or done any interviews explaining why it’s decided this would be the final world tour – or whether that means Slayer are breaking up afterwards or continuing to record or play one-off concerts. A couple of years ago, Araya told an interviewer it was “time to collect [his] pension,” and, over the years, he’s complained that he was bummed he could no longer headbang the way he used to. King, meanwhile, has remained dedicated to Slayer but has expressed exasperation about putting extracurricular activities on hold because he didn’t “know if [he’s] gonna be working in two years … hopefully in Slayer.” Then there was the public inter-band dustup between the two of them last year when Araya posted a photo of Trump giving the metal horns on the band’s Instagram without consulting his bandmates; King supported Clinton. Have they really grown so far apart that not even Satan can unite them?
They likely won’t be offering any answers from the stage. It’s just not their style. What they’ll do instead is bash their way through 37 years’ worth of unapologetic, skull-rattling anthems to darkness. They’ll welcome you to claim your plot in hell, which is exactly what the fans want. After all, for metalheads, the last tour will be a final sweaty summit, a final stab at creating a moment that will add to Slayer’s mystery and legacy. It’ll be one last chance to look at whoever you’re standing next to in the bathroom and scream, “Slayer!”