As the host of Tuesday night’s Gothic Blimp Works program “The House of Zazz”, I routinely rotate featured genre specials delving into the histories of particular corners of the extreme music universe. With the release of Slayer’s World Painted Blood, I suddenly found it necessary to devote an entire two hour chunk to the band’s abrasive, heretical body of work. Metallica may have nabbed an entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but these seemingly possessed lads from Huntington Beach, California deserve just as many accolades.
Years before I ever dreamed of becoming a metal deejay, I was a lowly Shop Rite stock clerk with aspirations of guitar godliness. Encountering bands like Metallica and Anthrax in late 1986 fueled those six-stringed fantasies to no end, but more than anything I fell in love with all things thrash metal because of its complexity, energy and larger than life vibe. I soon delved into LPs from other acts such as Overkill, Suicidal Tendencies, Flotsam and Jetsam, Megadeth and East Coast supergroup Stormtroopers Of Death.
I collected metal magazines with a growing frenzy, carefully scrutinizing every single advertisement to decide whether or not each new release’s cover art held any promise for the music within. A number of these thin-papered tomes compiled lists detailing the best bands and releases of the decade. And while I was relatively tapped in to the scene, one band still eluded my battered eardrums at the time. That band was Slayer.
1985’s Hell Awaits and 1986’s Reign in Blood were routinely included in any and all top ten lists, but I had yet to listen to either. Part of the problem was that Slayer’s pseudo-Satanic image turned me off. I was more into bands delving into overly serious societal woes and other such nonsense. But I’m sure that deeper inside there was an element of Slayer’s overall vicious mystique that simply scared the crap out of me.
Working those long hours in the supermarket aisles, pumping round after round of stickered price tags onto mass-produced goods, I would occasionally encounter likeminded metalheads. I formed a brief rapport with a fellow stock clerk, and we compared notes on our favorite jean-clad, metal-spewing entities. He was shocked that I didn’t have Slayer’s Reign in Blood, and asserted that if I liked all of this other stuff, I had to get it.
By the time I finally scraped enough cash and cojones together to venture into the grim realm of SoCal’s finest, they had released the slower yet no less intense South of Heaven. During a record shopping spree in Enfield one night, I caught Larry Carroll’s offensively sacrilegious cover art staring me down from a nearby bin. Upside down crosses. Demonic churches. Pools of blood. Unholy creatures. Damned souls. The stockboy was right – I had to have it!
I can still recall the moment I played the LP for the first time. I carefully removed the disc, set it on the platter, and slowly moved the needle towards the first track. For a split second I considered the distinct possibility that I was about to damn my soul for all eternity. After the eerie intro to the lead track “South of Heaven” wormed its way into a battering, distorted explosion of atonal madness, I was hooked.
I had listened to plenty of thrash metal albums by that time, but nothing quite sounded like Slayer. Dave Lombardo’s random Keith-Moon-possessed-by-Satan drum fills joined clawed hands with chaotic, screeching guitar harmonies. Adding to this unique concoction was the strangled, cacophonous wail of Tom Araya. It all sounded like music crafted in the deepest, darkest corners of Hell. And it was awesome.
Flash forward over twenty years and the recent release of Slayer’s eleventh full-length studio disc World Painted Blood marks yet another example of extreme music’s old guard balancing a surprising longevity with a shocking validity. With kindred spirits Megadeth dropping their fantastic Endgame just a few months ago, there’s undeniable proof that these early progenitors of thrash metal still have what it takes.
And now came the announcement that these harried old road dogs will be joining forces with Bay Area veterans Testament (who likewise delivered a fantastic disc in 2008), reconstructing a similar lineup to that of the landmark 1991 Clash of the Titans tour. The Woodstock of thrash metal if you will, it was the high water mark before grunge kicked guitar solos to the curb for an entire decade.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this tour and others like it is that there really was no anticipating it. There have certainly been musical acts plowing ahead well past their sell by date, but the type of neck-snapping music forged by bands such as Slayer, Megadeth and fellow “big four” thrashers Anthrax and Metallica was unprecedented before its dirty birth in the early Eighties. The Rolling Stones can continue touring unto the grave, but they never thrashed!
Nobody can guess at how long one can continue snapping necks and shredding eardrums before the collateral damage becomes too much – and we still won’t know how much longer these brutal dinosaurs can continue pummeling the world with their surprisingly vibrant death rattles. Metallica front man James Hetfield points his finger at the unlikely spryness of Iggy Pop as a sort of template for thrash metal’s future.
In any case, Slayer are still a force to be reckoned with – delivering lethal doses of spine-shattering chaos after nearly thirty years of mayhem. With original drummer Dave Lombardo back in the fold for the past two albums, one would be forgiven for viewing their current state as a sort of second golden age – the glory-stained corpse of the Reign in Blood era revived, though with far more gray hairs.
Slayer’s road to this present day re-justification hasn’t always been a smooth one, for die-hard fans strangely turned bitter towards them sometime after the release of their 1990 disc Seasons in the Abyss. While comrades Metallica and Megadeth actually flirted with poppier sensibilities, the edgier, scarier and far more consistent Slayer found that even the slightest change in tempo could rile their fanbase.
And Slayer’s fans are a legendary force – known to destroy plush venues in a matter of minutes, these violent whirlwinds of energy seem to live for injuring themselves whilst bellowing “Slaaayyyerrr!” at the top of their leathery lungs. With such a psychotic support group, it’s no wonder that any remote deviation from the vintage Slayer formula can elicit frothing rebukes from their scarred, sore-necked followers.
What’s funny is that Slayer have barely altered their course since their inception in the greater Los Angeles area back on Halloween night, 1981. From the belligerent abuse delivered by “Aggressive Perfector” on Brian Slagel’s Metal Massacre III LP in 1982 to current spine-crushers like World Painted Blood’s “Psycopathy Red”, it’s clear that even the band’s more “experimental” moments of slowness and guitar downtuning have been nothing less than pure – well, Slayer.
And while they cycle through drummers at a near Spinal Tap rate (Dave Lombardo, Tony Scaglione, Paul Bostaph and Jon Dette have all warmed the infernal drum throne at one time or another), the distinctive wail of vocalist/bassist Tom Araya coupled with the razor-edged twin guitar attack courtesy of Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King ensure that on any recording from any given era, you know exactly what band you’re listening to.
From corpse-painted, Satan-hailing Venom wannabes to thrash metal legends, Slayer have always been a band worth risking laryngitis and/or bodily injury over. So for new listeners and those who haven’t tuned in since 1990 alike, here’s a brief recap of the twisted discography of these infernally sick thrash metal harbingers of our doom.
Show No Mercy (1983) – dropping around the same time as Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All, this slab of early speed/thrash is drenched in occult and horror trappings. Slated for its overall poor production quality, it actually doesn’t sound as bad as its reputation would have one believe – despite the fact that Dave Lombardo had to record his cymbals separately after laying down the drum tracks. Apparently producer/label head Brian Slagel couldn’t figure out how to record a full kit without the cymbals bleeding into the tom mics.
For an early recording it also drops a surprising number of Slayer classics, including a number of songs (like “Die by the Sword”, “The Antichrist” and “Black Magic”) that remain in heavy live rotation to this day. Plus you get vintage classics such as “Evil Has No Boundaries” (featuring Death Angel/Strapping Young Lad drummer Gene Hoglan on background vocals!), “Fight Till Death” and “Show No Mercy”. 7.5 out of 10
Haunting The Chapel (1984) – a quick cash-in at the behest of Metal Blade guru Brian Slagel, this three song EP is remarkably overpriced. If you do seek it out, get the remastered version which includes the original recording of the first official Slayer song – “Aggressive Perfector”, off of the Metal Massacre III compilation.
Haunting was another interesting production fiasco, with Dave Lombardo playing on a concrete surface that made his drum kit threaten to fall apart while sliding around the room. Gene Hoglan again stepped in for support (literally!) as he held Dave’s gear together during the recording. One could theoretically skip it, except for the fact that it contains two of Slayer’s early best – “Captor of Sin” and “Chemical Warfare”. 7 out of 10
Live Undead (1984) – another overpriced Metal Blade cash-in, this “live” record is slightly dubious for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was recorded when Slayer had only one studio album and an EP under their belt, so it seems a little premature. Secondly, it wasn’t actually recorded in a club, but rather live in studio with a handful of Slayer acolytes.
Still, it does capture the band’s early fury and the canned crowd is particularly rowdy – often screaming chants of “Slayer! Slayer!” during the actual performances. It’s a manufactured rush, but it does a decent job at putting together the band’s earlier “best of” songs and giving a sonic glimpse of the deadly majesty that is a live Slayer show. 6.5 out of 10
Hell Awaits (1985) – Slayer’s last (and best) recording for Metal Blade, and also their first “essential” disc. Starting with creepy backmasked voices crying “Join Us!” before a demonic voice welcomes you back to Hell, it’s a great introduction to the musical equivalent of damning your soul. At only seven tracks it may seem like a short disc on the surface, but it’s actually longer than Reign in Blood.
Instant classics “Hell Awaits”, “At Dawn They Sleep” and “Necrophiliac” immediately leap out to claw at the listener’s throat, though the remaining tracks (“Kill Again”, “Praise of Death”, “Crypts of Eternity” and “Hardening of the Arteries”) are nothing to sneeze at either. Guaranteed to send your grandmother into apoplectic fits and reflexive bouts of crossing whilst uttering looped Hail Marys. 8.5 out of 10
Reign in Blood (1986) – it all seemed so absurd on paper. Slayer, one of the most extreme bands on the planet, left Metal Blade records for the hip hop label Def Jam. Joining the likes of LL Cool J, Public Enemy (who would sample “Angel of Death” on their track “She Watch Channel Zero”) and Beastie Boys (who would feature Kerry King soloing on “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”), Slayer nonetheless delivered their ultimate manifesto on musical evil.
Clocking in at barely over thirty minutes, Reign was the culmination of guitarist Jeff Hanneman’s long running obsession with hardcore punk, which eventually infected the sensibilities of drummer Lombardo. Nothing but balls out aggression, from the controversial opening track “Angel of Death” to the eerie wails and doomy toms of “Raining Blood”, there’s a reason Reign in Blood is generally considered the Citizen Kane of thrash metal. 10 out of 10
South of Heaven (1988) – deciding that there was no feasible way to outdo the breakneck tempos of the previous album, South features a number of slower numbers that ultimately come off as no less menacing. There’s a creepy sense of weirdness draped over the whole disc, and while some fans cried foul upon hearing the trudging rhythms of the opening title track, it is still an essential listen for any Slayer fan.
Tracks like the blistering “Silent Scream”, the ominous “Live Undead” and the violent “Ghosts of War” (with its surreptitious, half-volume intro) tear into the brain matter of listeners with ghoulish glee, and standout tune “Mandatory Suicide” sees vocalist Tom Araya ditching the scream to deliver a somber spoken word segment oddly reminiscent of what Bono pulled off at the end of U2’s “Bullet The Blue Sky”. 9 out of 10
Seasons in the Abyss (1990) – Slayer’s only Nineties studio offering with Dave Lombardo on drums, it essentially balanced speed and moderate tempos - the yin and yang elements of Reign in Blood and South of Heaven. Tight Slayer compositions such as “Born of Fire”, “Spirit In Black” and the breakneck paced “War Ensemble” weighed in against slower, groovier riff titans like “Skeletons of Society”, “Expendable Youth” and the grisly homage to serial killer Ed Gein - “Dead Skin Mask”.
Lombardo continues to throw in the most inspired fills, especially during the grandiose, standout title track. Araya also accidentally summons his inner Marvin Gaye on “Temptation” – performing two simultaneous lead vocal tracks, one staggered just a moment or two behind the other. 9 out of 10
Decade of Aggression (1991) – one of the very best live thrash metal albums. Recorded during the seminal Clash of the Titans tour, this seminal double disc release was a last hurrah for the Araya/King/Hanneman/Lombardo lineup, and features a great selection of classic Slayer anthems dating back to their first LP. From the opening sample of the “Hell Awaits” intro, the electricity in the stadium air is fully captured in the sonic realm.
The decision to separate King and Hanneman’s guitar lines fully into the left and right channels adds a little extra kick, and it helps the recording come menacingly alive. It may not fully capture the ferocity of some of their earlier shows, but it’s an accurate representation of where they were at during this era. Plus there’s just something odd about it – in a good way. Though it’s probably hard to find now, it was also released in a steel box (limited to 10,000 copies) with two essential bonus tracks – “Skeletons of Society” and “At Dawn They Sleep”. 9 out of 10
Divine Intervention (1994) – the first full-length studio album with ex-Forbidden drummer Paul Bostaph on the skins, it’s also one of their strangest. The title track is a long, creepy ditty about alien abduction – something that would seem more at home in the lyrics of Megadeth. There’s also the frenzied “Dittohead”, focusing on the politics of controversial radio pundit Rush Limbaugh.
Not that there is an overall lack of all things murder and mayhem – the uber-icky “213” hashes out the bent psyche of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and “SS-3” deals with the assassination of Nazi officer Reinhard Heydrich. Kerry King in particular has opined that the circumstances surrounding this recording (essentially playing musical chairs with producers and recording locations) have hampered its overall impact, but it can still pummel you into next week if you don’t keep an eye on it. 7 out of 10
Undisputed Attitude (1996) – while some may view this as a throwaway item, it’s actually one of the most “fun” discs in the Slayer catalog, if any such descriptor could ever be used. Featuring only one new song (the grinding “Gemini”), the disc is a collection of cover tunes celebrating the hardcore punk bands that influenced Slayer in the past. As a reflexive middle finger to the pop-punk stylings of Green Day, it’s a hoot. Key tracks include versions of Verbal Abuse’s “I Hate You”, D.I.’s “Richard Hung Himself” and a reworked take on The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” – now entitled “I’m Gonna Be Your God”. 7 out of 10
Diabolus in Musica (1998) – this one’s a grower. Originally generating fan unrest upon its release due to a perceived “selling out” (i.e. they tuned their guitars down in order to capture the growing zeitgeist that was Nu Metal), this disc gets surprisingly more vital with every listen. The only tune to really feel similar to (then) modern metal is lead single “Stain of Mind”, which occasionally predicts the feel of System of a Down (whom Slayer took on tour before that band’s first album dropped). 6.5 out of 10
If anything, the buzz of Undisputed Attitude carries through into this release, especially since King largely left the songwriting duties to punk aficionado Hanneman. Take a listen to “Death’s Head” and it becomes clear that this material resembles early-Eighties hardcore far more than it does that of Deftones or Korn. Often referenced as the most “experimental” of Slayer’s albums (which more accurately describes Divine Intervention), it actually feels more consistent than usual, which can lead to early diagnoses of it being “dull”. It’s also notable for featuring more of Araya’s chugging bass guitar work than usual.
God Hates Us All (2001) – having the dubious honor of being released on September 11, 2001, this angry Kerry King-dominated monster certainly painted Slayer as thrash metal prophets. Unfortunately, on the production side it seems a little rougher on the ears than Diabolus in Musica, largely because its tweeter-shredding sound levels have been crushed to the digital ceiling as an early victim of the music industry’s “loudness wars”.
Still, there are some crushing tracks to be found on it, and it is certainly Paul Bostaph’s hardest hitting (and final) entry. Live staples “Disciple” and “Bloodline” are great, but one shouldn’t discount other aural battering rams such as “New Faith”, “Seven Faces” and the effortlessly brutal “Payback”. Just be wary of removing the artwork-censoring cover inlay around sensitive family members! 7.5 out of 10
Soundtrack to the Apocalypse (2003) – the inevitable Slayer boxed set, available either as a four disc compilation or a five disc smorgasbord housed in a cardboard “ammo case” packed with a book and various other goodies. Disc one is essentially useless, as it only contains previously released tracks from the first three Def Jam studio releases – and a few live tracks from Decade of Aggression.
Of course any true Slayer set would be lacking without some tunes from their Metal Blade years, so instead of including the live tracks from the Decade limited edition, key live tracks from the olden days are instead selected. Disc two gets things better, as it peppers in a small pile of tunes from movie soundtracks and Japanese bonus releases. So if you don’t already have Slayer’s tortured take on Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”, here’s your chance!
Disc three throws in a ton of live material, including audience bootlegs, rehearsal takes, bedroom recordings and a number or more recent professional pieces. Oddly, Slayer’s studio pairing with Atari Teenage Riot from the Spawn movie soundtrack appears in the middle of this array, probably because it wouldn’t fit on disc two where it would naturally belong.
Disc four is a great DVD compiling professional live footage, EPKs and TV appearances in addition to a healthy dose of vintage camcorder-derived bootleg material. While most hardcore Slayer fanatics will probably own the full concerts these were derived from, it’s still a great compilation. The fifth disc (included only in the boxed version) is a 2002 live recording from Anaheim featuring the return of Dave Lombardo on drums. It also comes housed in a replica of the infamous squishy skull-and-plasma “bloodpack” CD case that originally came with some Seasons in the Abyss promos. 7.5 out of 10
Christ Illusion (2006) – originally meant to drop on the infernal date of 6/6/06, this return to form with Dave Lombardo back on the skins was ultimately delayed due to Tom Araya’s gall bladder issues. While Lombardo still doesn’t fully let loose like he did on the older albums, there’s still a palpable “somethingness” that he brings to the table, and while this release was quickly labeled as “disappointing” by fans and press alike, it also refused to exit my car CD player for a very long time.
Killer tunes such as “Skeleton Christ” and “Catatonic” parade around merrily with official singles “Cult” and “Eyes of the Insane”. It also features the controversial tune “Jihad”, which digs into the events of 9/11 through the viewpoint of a terrorist. It was eventually rereleased with the additional, Grammy-winning tune “Final Six” after Rick Rubin’s American Recordings jumped ship from a Warner Bros. umbrella to that of Columbia Records. In either package it’s a brutal disc that grows with each listen. 8 out of 10
World Painted Blood (2009) – fully delivers upon the promise made by Christ Illusion. Lombardo now rips through his surroundings with some impressive skinsmanship, and King and Hanneman again split songwriting duties to the benefit of the final product. Even Araya got to chime in during the creative process due to a shortened recording window.
Lead singles “Psychopathy Red”, “Hate Worldwide” and “World Painted Blood” all shine with that pure Slayer patina, while the staccato midsection of “Unit 731”, the grim foulness of “Playing with Dolls” and the sheer political rage of “Americon” make this a solid slam dunk for the original lineup. Clearly, these guys have more of our blood to spill before the day is done. 8.5 out of 10
There are a few other lesser commodities (such as the Hot Topic-exclusive “Eternal Pyre” EP, the rare “Live Intrusion” promo and a handful of other singles and DVDs), but these main titles will get you going on any burgeoning Slayer shopping trip. Just tear these pages out and bring ‘em with you to the mall for a perfect holiday shopping list guaranteed to satisfy the lurking metalhead in just about any family member. But just remember, you can never just say the name Slayer in public – you have to scream it! \m/
Program Guide, 2010