Slayer: The stories behind 20 of their biggest songs

We dig deep into the history of the biggest songs on Slayer's farewell setlist

Slayer: The stories behind 20 of their biggest songs
Ian Winwood
Gene Ambo

Two years ago, 37 years after releasing their debut album, Slayer took their final bow. Here, Metal Blade Records’ Brian Slagel – who signed the band to their first record deal – introduces our deep-dive into the stories behind the setlist that soundtracked the thrash legends’ own apocalypse…

“I first encountered Slayer at a club in Anaheim, California in 1983. Bitch, who were one of Metal Blade’s bands, were playing, but I also wanted to check out some of the other bands on the bill, and as soon as Slayer came onstage I felt, ‘Oh, this is something different…’

“They were all dressed in black leather, had creepy eye make-up on, and they were doing mostly covers but there was an intensity there, and I thought they sounded amazing and looked great. Aside from Metallica they were probably the heaviest band happening in LA at the time. What set them apart was that their influences were classic heavy metal but also some punk, and that made for a sound that was a much heavier, more aggressive metal than a lot of us had heard up to that point.

“They’ve managed to stay relevant through staying true to who they are, and I have to give a lot of credit for that to Kerry King, who keeps it real and has his way of doing things. They survived the ’90s, a time that killed a lot of metal bands, and when a lot of bands went another direction, Slayer didn’t sell out. They didn’t try to write a hit single, they didn’t become more of a nu-metal thing, they just kept being Slayer, and they had a stick-to-their-guns attitude that a lot of people liked. You also have to give a lot of credit to their live show, which always draw fans in because you know what you’re going to get when you go to see Slayer. They’re playing Black Magic on this final run and that song live sounds like they wrote it a couple of months ago. They play it with the same intensity and to the same level that they did 30-something years ago.

“It’s hard to say what any band’s enduring legacy will be. I think not only are they going to be one of the top four or five metal bands that ever existed, but if you expand that out to include rock music, they’re certainly in the top 10 too. At this point in time they’re in a class of their own, and I hope someone will come along and rival them, but they’ve certainly set a very high standard to live up to.”

Repentless (Repentless, 2015)

Immediately prior to the release of 2015’s Repentless, which is anticipated to be the band’s last album, Kerry King said of the material, “When I listen to the songs I get goosebumps, that’s how good I think they are. It’s important to me that people don’t listen to us and come away thinking that we’ve lost a step, because we haven’t.” In the same Kerrang! interview, the guitarist also said that the band had recorded enough material for another album, which would drop sooner than people might think. Only it didn’t. On the road for the final time, Repentless is the only song from the post-Jeff Hanneman era that remains in their live set.

Evil Has No Boundaries (Show No Mercy, 1983)

It was on the Metal Blade compilation album Metal Massacre III, released in 1983, that Slayer made their vinyl debut with the song Aggressive Perfector. That same year, the band issued their debut album, Show No Mercy, which kicked off with Evil Has No Boundaries. Re-introduced into the band’s live set for the first time since the year 2000, the second Slayer song heard by the world harks back to a time when they hadn’t quite found their feet. Back then, the quartet would pose for photographs wearing eyeliner and leering over the prostrate body of Jeff Hanneman’s girlfriend – “Those photos were cool,” said the guitarist, a full 13 years later – while recording music that would only come into focus with the release of Reign In Blood, three years later. (In fact, er, we even described the Californians’ debut effort as ‘pure, unadulterated junk’ in Kerrang! magazine). “When we were recording Show No Mercy, the producer wanted [drummer Dave] Lombardo to play without cymbals because they made too much noise,” recalled Jeff Hanneman, in just one example of a slow start.

World Painted Blood (World Painted Blood, 2009)

In a surprisingly deep cut, for their final exit Slayer have resuscitated the title-track from the not-greatly-loved World Painted Blood album of 2009, the last LP recorded with Jeff Hanneman before his death four years later. At the time, Kerry King feared that “this could be the first album in a long time that’s got a little bit of filler.” Turned out not to be so, though, at least according to him. “Every song sounds great,” was his final, unequivocal verdict.

Postmortem (Reign In Blood, 1986)

Despite ostensibly being Reign In Blood’s slowest song, not to mention one of the very few Slayer compositions not to feature a guitar solo, Postmortem does, in the end, give way to the kind of frenetic full-on thrash for which the album is best known. In the studio, the 10-song set lost seven minutes of its original running time, simply as a result of the band speeding up. So svelte was its 28-minute duration (29 minutes on CD, trivia fans!) that cassette versions featured the album in full on each side. “When the songs were written they were slower, but when we recorded them they just got faster and faster,” recalled Dave Lombardo. “Man we were tight, fucking unbelievably fast and tight. It takes you a couple of takes to get to the point where the music is extraordinary. Then you reach that peak. After that, you’re just exhausted.”

Hate Worldwide (World Painted Blood, 2009)

The second song in the set from World Painted Blood, Hate Worldwide takes its cues from the many violent disagreements that pepper our planet. Nastiness is a popular theme with Slayer, and, in the press, for Kerry King in particular, with his quip that “Just because I learned how to make money doesn’t mean that I should share it with you, you motherfucker,” actually proving one of the more savoury to be taken from our archive. Not that he’d give two fucks. No more Mr Nice Guy, indeed.

War Ensemble (Seasons In The Abyss, 1990)

On October 14, 1990, at London’s Wembley Arena, Slayer attempted to shoot their first ever music video. The song in question was War Ensemble, and the plan was for the band to mime to the studio version of the track in front of the 12,000 fans that had gathered to see them perform as part of that autumn’s Clash Of The Titans package, alongside co-headliners Megadeth, as well as Testament and Suicidal Tendencies. The problems started when Tom Araya announced this plan to the crowd, who immediately began booing. “See, I told you they weren’t going to go for it,” he said to the director in the wings. Plan B was hastily arranged, which saw the band playing the track live while attempting to keep it as close to the studio original as possible. It worked. Not only this, but War Ensemble’s credentials as a bona-fide war song were established when soldiers were reported to have listened to it during a bona-fide war: Seasons In The Abyss’ opening number was a favourite among U.S. soldiers in the Operation Desert Storm assault on Iraq in 1991.

Disciple (God Hates Us All, 2001)

So taken was Kerry King with his lyrics to Disciple that he had one of its lines, ‘God hates us all,’ tattooed on his arm. This striking phrase is also the title of the parent album. God Hates Us All, released on September 11, 2001, the day of the World Trade Center bombing, succeeded 1998’s Diabolus In Musica, parts of which saw Slayer nod in the direction of the kind of down-tuned sound made popular by bands such as Korn, not always successfully. “[Diabolus In Musica] is kind of our Turbo,” was Kerry’s opinion, after the fact, a reference to the misfiring Judas Priest album from 1986. By the 21st century, the band were back to doing what they do best, and Kerry King was much more certain about it. “I want us to be the AC/DC of thrash,” he said. “I want people to know exactly what they’re going to get from us.”

Mandatory Suicide (South Of Heaven, 1998)

In a striking interview with Kerrang!’s Steffan Chirazi, published at the time of the South Of Heaven album from which Mandatory Suicide is drawn, Slayer were in uncommonly revelatory form. For a start, Jeff Hanneman admitted that “if [the four members] weren’t in a band together, we probably wouldn’t be friends.” (This didn’t change. Almost 30 years later, Tom Araya described Kerry King as “a business partner” rather than a pal.) In the same interview, Hanneman also revealed that two of his brothers had been drafted into the Vietnam war, one of America’s many overseas military misadventures. Mandatory Suicide is the first of Slayer’s great war songs, a seam they would mine further for years down the line. At the time, a T-shirt on sale on the tour in support of South Of Heaven featured on its front a young man hanging dead in his room; on the rear was a letter to the boy’s father from a military academy, saying that his son had been accepted into its ranks.

Chemical Warfare (Haunting The Chapel, 1984)

The stand-out track on Slayer’s first ever EP, Chemical Warfare was recorded in circumstances that were not ideal. For one thing, Dave Lombardo’s drum kit was placed on a concrete floor – drummers normally play on a mat – and thus kept sliding around all over the shop. The solution was to enlist the services of a roadie, Gene Hoglan, himself a fine player and the future beat-keeper for ‘LA Caffeine Machine’ Dark Angel, to physically hold down the drums while Dave pounded away. The drummer recalled that, “Gene wasn’t just holding my kit together – he was coaching me. He was an amazing double bass player even back then. He really helped me out.” Chemical Warfare was the first sign of the kind of band Slayer would eventually become, and has remained a staple of their live set for 35 years.

Payback (God Hates Us All, 2001)

The final track from God Hates Us All, in a strong field Payback is a contender for the title of Slayer’s angriest song. ‘You’ve got a fucking catheter in your brain,’ sings Tom Araya of someone he intends to ‘beat [until they’re] just a fucking lifeless carcass.’ This frenetic slab of unpleasantness was written by Kerry King, who had made a conscious decision to focus his lyrics on more earthly concerns. “There’s no satanic or supernatural elements to [the album]. I tried to think about what pisses me off and why and how people could relate to that, rather than saying, ‘The devil’s over there fucking your mother, or something,’” he recalled.

Temptation (Seasons In The Abyss, 1990)

It is Seasons In The Abyss that is most heavily represented on the final leg of Slayer’s final tour, and of the set’s five selections it is Temptation that is the deepest cut. In the studio, part of the song’s success came about by accident. When recording the vocal, Tom Araya was asked by Kerry King to lay down a second take, just in case, after which producer Rick Rubin accidentally played back both versions simultaneously; from this the decision was made to overlap the pair on the song’s verse, thus creating its most notable feature. As for what Tom is singing about, once again it’s Satan, although by 1990 Slayer had calmed down their satanic approach, at least a little bit. “When we first came out it was just so shocking to people,” recalled Jeff Hanneman, “‘cause it was just ‘Satan, Satan, Satan’ all the time!” By 1990, however, the band had learned to incorporate other subjects into their lyrical CV, including war and serial killing.

Born Of Fire (Seasons In The Abyss, 1990)

Such was the difficulty Kerry King had in bringing Born Of Fire up to the standards he required of it in the recording studio, that this barnstorming thrasher was at one time known by the working title of Stress. The hard work, though, was worth it, not least for flashes of poetry such as ‘all things dead must rise again when twilight’s blanket falls.’ Really, though, the song is about Satan, and as such it slam-dances on familiar ground. “My thing is just rebelling against organised religion,” said Kerry at the time. “That is my main thing, because personally I think it’s a crutch for people who are too weak to get through life on their own. I’m the kind of guy who says if I don’t see it, then it doesn’t work. And nobody can show me God.”

Seasons In The Abyss (Seasons In The Abyss, 1990)

As much as they ever did, it was with Seasons In The Abyss that Slayer attempted to find a place in the mainstream. Not only did the song have a hummable chorus – or, at least, a chorus on which Tom Araya didn’t sound as if he was being eaten by a shark – but the band’s record label, American, worked hard to promote the track. Unveiled as a single in the UK, the song was issued in a plastic sleeve that contained fake blood. Despite this offer-of-a-lifetime bargain, the release failed to chart. The band also filmed an accompanying music video, their second, at the Giza Plateau in front of the Pyramids in Egypt. Despite the clip’s considerable expense, its presence was not made welcome outside the confines of MTV’s heavy music programme Headbanger’s Ball. “[It] cost a hell of a lot of money,” complained Kerry King at the time. “They say, ‘Go to the Pyramids – it’ll be great, who goes there?’ And then they play [the clip] for three weeks, and then it’s gone.”

Hell Awaits (Hell Awaits, 1985)

Despite its classic status, for a couple of years in the 1990s Jeff Hanneman insisted that Hell Awaits not be included in Slayer’s live set, despite the fact that he wrote it. The guitarist believed – and here he had a point – that the song has too many words, an impediment that caused his liking of it to cool in the subsequent years. In truth, the treble-heavy studio version isn’t all that impressive, but live the track is weightier than a medicine ball. In the studio, Slayer gathered around a single microphone to chant the words that serve as the song’s introduction. For years the phrase was kept secret, but now it is known as the injunction “join us” played backwards. As for the track’s satanic subject matter, Tom Araya said that, “I guess the best way to describe our fascination with Satanism… is to say that we are all on this planet to learn and experience. Those are the things that I’m learning in my lifetime… I want people to read it and just think, ‘Fuck!’” Sure, let’s go with that.

South Of Heaven (South Of Heaven, 1988)

South Of Heaven is the best example of a band escaping from the corner into which they’d painted themselves. But despite its decelerated pace and its successful attempt to escape the shadow cast by Reign In Blood, by 1988 Slayer were attracting off-field problems as a result of the behaviour of their audience. A show at New York’s Felt Forum had to abbreviated when fans decided to use the venue’s seats as missiles – “You guys are fucking up!” admonished a grandly frustrated Tom Araya – while on the West Coast 200 supporters ran riot outside an oversold concert at the Hollywood Palladium. As for the album the band were touring to support, it was assumed that the title South Of Heaven was a reference to Hell; but, in fact, the location is the world in which we live. “South Of Heaven is how I imagine Hell on Earth,” said Tom Araya, “and the decline of mankind.” Kerrang!’s review of the album appeared alongside the headline ‘West Of Walthamstow’, which to this day we’re still chuffed with, to be honest.

Raining Blood (Reign In Blood, 1986)

When Slayer convened to record Reign In Blood, Kerry King viewed their new material as being nothing more “than the next 10 Slayer songs”. But under the guidance of producer Rick Rubin, the band emerged with a genre-defining classic of such gnashing and foaming swivel-eyed fury that it killed the movement it represented stone dead for everyone save for the band who made it. “The key was that he [Rubin] got us to take the reverb out of our sound,” said the guitarist, as if it were really that simple. Another key reason was exceptional songwriting, especially on the part of Jeff Hanneman. Raining Blood, the album’s almost-title-track, is a case in point, a song where no section is repeated and where the opening riff is among the best that metal has ever produced. A point of interest, Slayer themselves refer to the guitar line in the fast part of the track, on which Tom Araya begins his vocal explosions, as the ‘spider riff’ due to its impossibly complex nature.

Black Magic (Show No Mercy, 1983)

When Slayer recorded Black Magic in 1983, they were, to put it mildly, a bit hit and miss. Kerry King said of its parent album, Show No Mercy, “there are 10,000 riffs on all those songs. Now, we know what to do and we know what the formula for a Slayer song is… I know the difference between liking [a band] and being influenced by them [but] on Show No Mercy you can definitely hear some Iron Maiden influences.” In this context, Black Magic could be viewed as a giant amongst midgets. But it also amounts to more than this, and the song is strong enough to stand alongside many, if not most, of Slayer’s later tracks, not least because of the world-class riff that opens the song. So good is it that Metallica’s Kirk Hammett played a snippet of it onstage at Donington in 1995, atop a bill that also featured Slayer.

Dead Skin Mask (Seasons In The Abyss, 1990)

By the time Slayer had released Seasons In The Abyss, Tom Araya was emerging not only as metal’s best enunciator – “Because I’m Latin my speech can sound kind of slurred, so in the studio I try hard to make every word clear,” he said – but also as a lyricist of occasional finesse. Dead Skin Mask is not only the singer’s own lyrics, but it is also the first time his band had written a song about a serial killer – in this case, the Wisconsin slaughterer Ed Gein – terrain to which they would return time and again. At times the treatment is almost artful, as when Araya sings of how ‘Empty eyes enslave the creation / Of placid faces and lifeless pageants’, a reference to Gein’s habit of fashioning trophies and keepsakes from exhumed bodies. Araya himself was unabashed about his newfound creative side. “With newspapers I always look to see if there have been any tragedies,” he said, “to see if anybody’s been run over or murdered. I’ll read those articles and start getting an idea [for a song]… I also read a lot of poetry. A lot of people see my poetry as a crock of shit, but I see it as poetry.”

Angel Of Death (Reign In Blood, 1986)

And so it ends, as it must, with the most controversial entry in Slayer’s songbook. The lyrics to Angel Of Death are many things: they are violent, they are unflinching, they’re a bit clumsy, and, really, they’re probably unnecessary. But this brazen look at the activities of Josef Mengele, camp ‘doctor’ at Auschwitz, is not an endorsement of Nazi atrocities. “I know why people misinterpret it,” said Jeff Hanneman, the song’s author, “it’s because they get this knee-jerk reaction to it. [But] when they read the lyrics, there’s nothing I put in the lyric that says, necessarily, that he was a bad man, because, well, isn’t that obvious? I shouldn’t have to tell you that.” Actually, Hanneman does say that Mengele is ‘a bad man’, in the lyric ‘rancid angel of death flying free’, but this slightest of moral judgements was never going to be enough to calm the storm that the song caused. In Europe, the release of parent album Reign In Blood was delayed by almost six months as the group’s label, Def Jam, sought a new distributor, after Columbia refused to touch it. In the UK, the LP was released just days before the start of the band’s Reign In Pain tour in Newcastle on – of all days – Good Friday.

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