Rock Homage: Farewell, Slayer — Metal to the Core

Slayer has been as good and dependable as any band ever has been in rock and roll.

Slayer — L to R: Paul Bostaph, Tom Araya, Gary Holt, Kerry King. Glad we got to know ye.

By Scott McLennan

The best thing about Slayer’s farewell tour, which resumes this week in New Hampshire, is that Slayer isn’t treating it like a farewell tour.

Last month, I paid my final respects to Slayer when its tour barreled into the arena at the Mohegan Sun, and it felt exactly like what a Slayer show should feel like. The music was loud, relentlessly dark, and unrepentantly aggressive. No maudlin speeches. No gimmicky themes beyond the usual display of pyro and demonic imagery. Slayer simply did what it has unwaveringly been doing for nearly 40 years.

That counts for something.

Slayer was among a handful of American bands that came around in the early ’80s and put a creative, stylistic stamp on heavy metal, a genre pretty much ruled by British bands up until that point.

Metallica, Megadeth, Exodus, Anthrax, Testament, and Slayer blended elements of punk-rock (hyper speed and graphic realism) into the volume and attitude that had already come to define heavy metal. Albums such as Slayer’s Show No Mercy and Hell Awaits, along with Metallica’s Kill ’Em All and Ride the Lightning, Exodus’ Bonded by Blood, Anthrax’s Among the Living. and Megadeth’s Killing is My Business…and Business is Good made anything by Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden seem perfectly quaint.

But, of all the American bands responsible for that vanguard sound, only Slayer stayed relevant maintaining a consistent focus on the dynamics of the so-called ‘thrash metal’ sound that it helped create.

For fans of extreme music, all of Slayer’s recorded output is dependable and worth checking out, but for those looking for genre defining work, go straight to Reign in Blood. Released in 1986, the album opens with “Angel of Death,” a hot blast of a song alluding to Josef Mengele’s experiments on concentration camp prisoners, and from there on the band never looks back en route to the climatic “Raining Blood” finale. To this day, no Slayer concert is complete without those two songs in the set.

Slayer’s peers either chased commercial ambitions (Metallica’s “black album” from 1991 is one of rock’s biggest sellers ever) or didn’t have the stability or creative chops to produce a body of work that compares to Slayer’s. Thirty-seven years is an awfully long time to be thrashing as hard as Slayer has.

Slayer didn’t avoid the spotlight, but the band also didn’t try to hog it. You didn’t see members of Slayer making cheesy media appearances or trade off its gruesome image  on ads to hawk products.

Musically, Slayer stayed metal to the core. The band preferred dirges — rather than ballads — whenever it wanted to slow the pace. There were no calculated radio hits (if you did happen to stumble on a radio station playing a Slayer song, you were either listening really late at night or tuned into a college station).

For the most part, the band put out its records, did its tours, and talked with journalists that covered extreme music. Along the way Slayer earned Grammy awards and the admiration of tastemakers such as producer Rick Rubin, who worked on many of their records. In fact, the most showbiz thing I ever saw the band do was perform the song “Raining Blood” with an actual shower of theatrical blood pouring down on the stage. The musicians and their gear were painted red. It was pretty cool, actually.

Best of all, the mainstream attention Slayer received did not dilute the music. Its last release, 2015’s Repentless, is every bit as brutal as its 1983 debut Show No Mercy. Album after album is packed with songs sprung from humanity’s darkest recesses and most venial impulses. War, murder, and torture surge through the material. Respected political, social, and religious institutions are criticized and defied. Slayer’s vision has been admirably consistent: to jam some of the ugliest parts of existence into our faces and wait for a reaction. There was no preaching or moralizing.

Of course, the Slayer’s amorality garnered plenty of criticism. Some have argued that by singing about atrocities without condemning them Slayer endorsed them. Through it all, Slayer never fanned the flames of controversy; it just kept releasing music that focused on what happens when our supposedly sane, civil, and reasonable civilization all falls apart.

Those who are outraged miss the point. Slayer’s music delivers a cathartic jolt. When the band wrapped up its set at Mohegan Sun the arena filled with deranged heavy metal fans didn’t rampage through the casino. In fact, the drinking and gambling crowd looked a lot more threatening.

And the show itself gave us Slayer going out at the top of its game. Founding members Tom Araya and Kerry King have (miraculously) aged gracefully — all of the necessary speed and menace were there. In 2011, Exodus guitarist Gary Holt filled in for ailing Slayer ax man Jeff Hanneman. Hanneman never recovered and, after his death in 2013, Holt joined Slayer full-time. He has since become a dynamic force in the lineup. The drumming job in Slayer has bounced back and forth between Dave Lombardo and Paul Bostaph — the latter is behind the kit for this farewell jaunt.

For all the battle scars and possible setbacks, Slayer has been as good and dependable as any band ever has been in rock and roll. And that counts for something.

The second North American leg of Slayer’s farewell tour begins Thursday (July 26) at the Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion in Gilford, NH, and then passes through the Impact Festival in Bangor, ME, on Friday. Slayer acolytes Lamb of God and peers Anthrax, Testament, and Napalm Death are part of the tour, making for a righteous send off.

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.

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