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"The age of Slayer is coming to an end.”
With these words, on January 23 last year, Los Angeles thrash metal titans Slayer officially announced that, after 37 years, 12 studio albums and somewhere close to 3,000 gigs, they were to commence upon one final world tour – “and will then move on”.
The news may not have been entirely unexpected within the metal community – following the tragic passing of founding guitarist Jeff Hanneman in 2013, it was hard to imagine that Slayer wouldn’t begin to consider an exit strategy, and at various points in the promotional cycle for their sole post-Jeff studio album, 2015’s Repentless, vocalist/bassist Tom Araya spoke candidly, indeed regretfully, about the toll the band’s continued existence was exacting on his family life and happiness. Yet such has been Slayer’s colossal importance in our world that the pronouncement felt seismic.
As with Black Sabbath’s 2017 exeunt, this was an end-of-an-era declaration both sobering and saddening. For if Sabbath’s monumental debut album inarguably created the definitive blueprint for heavy metal, then Slayer’s 1986 masterpiece Reign In Blood – a brutal, noxious, visceral and unflinching dissection of inhumanity, depravity and deviance – represents the most significant and influential reimagining of that template, to the point where one might now reasonably classify all metal music as either pre- or post-RIB. Awarded the title of ‘Heaviest Album Ever Made’ by Kerrang! in 2011, Reign In Blood will conceivably forever remain the benchmark against which all ‘extreme’ music will be measured.
Crucially though, Slayer’s eminence transcends this singular landmark recording, for beyond their celebrated musical legacy – which features at least two more bona fide metal classics in 1988’s South Of Heaven and 1990’s Seasons In The Abyss – it’s Slayer’s unimpeachable integrity that will safeguard the band’s reputation in perpetuity. Beyond their status as genre pioneers, across a four-decade career the LA quartet have come to embody uncompromised, unapologetic attitude, their catalogue wholly untainted by either industry expectations or commercial success. Longtime collaborator Rick Rubin, one of the music business’ most highly regarded figures, has hailed Slayer as belonging to a select group of unique artists who “follow their truth out of time, with no influence of anything else going”, as steadfast and unwavering in their vision as The Ramones, Motörhead or AC/DC before them. They bow to no-one.
None of this, obviously, could have been envisaged when 17-year-old guitarists Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King met at an audition for a long-since-forgotten Orange County, California rock band named Ledger in 1981. Discovering a shared interest in Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, the teenagers immediately decided to form a band of their own, recruiting 20-year-old Chilean vocalist/bassist Tom Araya and 16-year-old Cuban-born drummer Dave Lombardo in short order.
On Halloween night, 1981, the quartet played their debut gig as Slayer at Southgate Park Auditorium. The four-piece still had Maiden and Priest covers in their set when they opened up for fellow LA headbangers Metallica at The Woodstock in Anaheim one year later, on October 22, 1982, but now their repertoire also included original compositions such as Black Magic and Aggressive Perfector, the latter written specifically to secure a slot on the third instalment of the Metal Massacre series compiled by Lars Ulrich’s friend Brian Slagel. Metallica had made their recording debut (with a demo version of Hit The Lights) on the first Metal Massacre compilation earlier that same year, but the cocksure Huntington Beach band weren’t overly impressed by their contemporaries’ head start: Tom specifically remembers Kerry purchasing said album and the group collectively deciding, “We can come up with something better than this shit.” Combining Jeff’s love of hardcore punk with Kerry’s in-depth knowledge of NWOBHM artists, and a shared affection for Satan-glorifying Geordies Venom and Danish occultists Mercyful Fate, the group determined to make metal louder, heavier, darker and more evil than anything that had come before.
“We were going to call ourselves Slayer and be everything that’s not Hollywood,” Dave recalled. “We’re not going to be pretty boys, we’re going to be ugly, and we’re not going to write about parties, we’re going to write about Satan. Kerry liked the whole Satanic thing. Venom was a huge influence. We started working on our songs and developed it.”
Brian’s Metal Blade label released the band’s debut album, Show No Mercy, in late 1983. The first vinyl pressing was labelled Side 6 and Side 666 and had the words “Satan Laughs As You Eternally Rot” etched on one side. Metal Forces magazine, then the most respected authority on the emerging U.S. underground scene, was blown away by the recording, with editor Bernard Doe hailing the 10-track set as “one of the heaviest, fastest, most awesome albums of all time!” On the street, too, kids were enthralled. “I was like, ‘This is killer, these guys are like us!’” recalled Exodus guitarist Gary Holt, now Jeff’s replacement.
On January 30, 1984 Slayer travelled north to play San Francisco for the first time. Metallica had already relocated to the Bay Area, and the city’s nascent metal scene – featuring Exodus, Laaz Rockit, Vicious Rumours and more – was fast achieving notoriety among the tape-trading/fanzine community for its wild, violent energy. When Slayer appeared onstage at the Keystone Berkeley club wearing eyeliner – inspired by Alice Cooper – a number of regulars went into the rest rooms for paper towels and emerged chanting, “Take off the make-up”. The following night, when the LA group shared a stage with Exodus for the first time, they were noticeably eyeliner-free.
The two bands hit the road together for their U.S. tour later that year, with headliners Venom. “We were starstruck,” Gary later admitted.
“We cut our collective teeth on albums like Welcome To Hell, and now we were on tour with them. It was amazing.”
With thrash metal now drawing crowds nationally, major labels began to circle. Following a sell-out show with Raven and New Yorkers Anthrax at New York’s Roseland Ballroom in August 1984, Metallica were offered an eight-album deal with Elektra. The label set up meetings with Slayer too, but failed to show for their appointments. While they dallied, Metal Blade released the band’s Haunting The Chapel EP and Live Undead mini-album, and a second full-length, the more focused and powerful Hell Awaits.
Then also managing the group, Brian knew that his friends were outgrowing his label, and made it known that Metal Blade would listen to offers for their biggest band. When the rap label Def Jam, founded by New York University student Rick Rubin in his dorm room in 1983, expressed an interest in Slayer, both band and Slagel were understandably bemused, but Rick convinced the Californian quartet they’d be a priority act. In the summer of 1986, he booked the band into Hit City West studio in Los Angeles, and set about making the album that would change their lives.
“We’d rehearsed it and practised enough,” Tom recalled. “We went in and Rick said, ‘Let’s just record it.’ We just played it until Rick was satisfied with the performances.”
“It’s close to being a live album,” Rick admitted. “It’s a testament to how great Slayer are. They really were creating their own genre.”
Clocking in at just 28 minutes and 58 seconds, Reign In Blood was the ultimate short, sharp shock. Shorn of reverb, the album sounded dry and granite-heavy, its lacerating riffs overladen with Tom’s brutal but sharply enunciated vocals conjuring blood-red visions of Hell, human sacrifice, torture, disease and decay. The band and label were delighted with the recording. And then their distributors, CBS, shook the ground beneath their feet by demanding that the album’s opening track be excluded from the record. Angel Of Death was Jeff’s dead-eyed, graphic and clinical depiction of the unimaginable horrors perpetrated by Nazi ‘surgeon’ Josef Mengele. “Next thing I know,” said Jeff dryly, “we’re neo-Nazis.”
“I guess [CBS] were offended,” Tom Araya told Metal Forces in 1986. “They don’t like seeing Nazi criminals being glorified. But Angel Of Death is not glorifying [Mengele], it’s just stating what he did and got away with.”
Rick refused to remove the song; CBS in turn refused to release the album. Ultimately, it would be Geffen Records who put Reign In Blood on record shop shelves in October 1986. In America, the record barely cracked the Billboard 100, but word-of-mouth reviews declared it a masterpiece. Kerrang! awarded the album 5Ks, hailing it as “an agonising yet breathtakingly brilliant 28 minutes”. Slayer had arrived, and in doing so, they created the starting point for the entire extreme metal underground, from Death to Converge to Gojira to Code Orange.
It would be years, however, before the LA quartet became accepted by the mainstream music industry. Rolling Stone magazine called 1988’s South Of Heaven album “genuinely offensive Satanic drivel”, while retailers banned a Mandatory Suicide T-shirt depicting a teenage boy hanging in his bedroom. Come 1990’s Seasons In The Abyss, the Californians were accused of glorifying serial killer Ed Gein with harrowing album highlight Dead Skin Mask. Unrepentant, Slayer’s next album, 1994’s Divine Intervention, featured a song inspired by ‘Milwaukee Cannibal’ Jeffrey Dahmer. Beyond the shock tactics, however, in songs critiquing abortion (Silent Scream), military aggression (War Ensemble) and the criminal justice system (Dittohead), Slayer began to develop a moral core, looking at humanity’s darkest impulses and questioning, ’Why?’
“When we started out, we talked about devils and demons. We still write about devils and demons now, but on a societal level,” Tom, a practising Catholic, noted in a 2015 Noisey interview. “At first it was, ‘Oh, you’re a Satanic band, you worship the devil.’ We don’t, but we did start writing songs that way. And then it became more about the ills of society, human beings and how evil we are.”
1996 saw a lawsuit filed against the band, by the parents of Elyse Pahler, a 15-year-old who was murdered by Californian teenagers Royce Casey, Jacob Delashmutt and Joseph Fiorella on July 22, 1995, allegedly as a ‘blood sacrifice’ to Satan to increase the standing of their metal band, Hatred. David and Lisanne Pahler argued that Slayer songs Postmortem and Dead Skin Mask incited the killers to “stalk, rape, torture, murder and commit acts of necrophilia” on their daughter. The case was thrown out in 2001. “There’s not a legal position that could be taken that would make the band responsible,” said Slayer’s lawyer. “Where do you draw the line? You might as well start looking through the library at every book on the shelf.”
If one were to seek a single image to encapsulate all that Slayer represent, one might do worse than zoom in on the events of April 23, 2011 at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California. On that day, Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer – thrash metal’s ‘Big Four’ – joined forces for the first time on American soil. An emotional occasion for all involved, it was a celebration of three decades of friendship and culture-changing music. Yet the heaviest moment of the day came without fanfare or introduction, when Jeff strolled onstage to join his bandmates to play South Of Heaven and Angel Of Death.
Three months earlier, he had been fighting for his life in a Californian hospital, after being bitten on his right arm by an insect carrying a flesh-eating disease called necrotising fasciitis. Before walking onstage that night, the guitarist removed the sleeve from his shirt, so that the full, gory horror of his wound would be visible, both a typically defiant ‘fuck you’ to the disease itself and also, one suspects, a gleeful piece of horror theatre, designed to turn a few stomachs, as his band had done so often before. Sadly, the guitarist would never play in public with Slayer again: in the early hours of May 2, 2013, the 49-year-old musician succumbed to liver failure.
It seems appropriate that the final two words of Piano Wire, the last song Jeff ever penned for Slayer, included on Repentless, are ‘never surrender’. The album’s title track, written by Kerry, is intended as a vision of the band’s life through his fellow co-founder’s eyes.
‘I hate the life, hate the fame, hate the fuckin’ scene,’ Kerry writes. ‘No looking back, no regrets, no apologies.’ As epitaphs go, it could hardly be more apposite.
Slayer will officially play their last ever show on UK soil at Donington during next weekend's Download Festival (get your tickets now). But when they leave us, they will do so with zero sentimentality, heads held high and integrity intact. One of the greatest rock bands in history, truly, we shall never see their like again.
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