From The Depths
In 1986, four young men from LA, clad head-to-toe in clinging leather and glistening spikes, greasy hair descending towards their studded belts, decided to make the fastest, most brutal record of all time.
Across 28 minutes and 58 seconds, these gleefully confrontational provocateurs, all in their early-to-mid 20s, changed the very notion of how intense music could be. They created something that, it might be argued, has never been bettered. By anyone.
Reign in Blood was Slayer’s third album, hot on the heels of the rushed, embryonic Show No Mercy (1983) and the disarmingly brash Hell Awaits (1985). The burgeoning sound of thrash metal, which merged the pace and intensity of hardcore punk with the jagged riffs and theatricality of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, had become an arms race. And while LA compatriots Metallica had blown the game apart with 1983’s Kill ‘Em All, Slayer were intent on pushing the red button.
For Reign In Blood, Slayer were coaxed into employing the production skills of Rick Rubin, the hip-hop mogul then best known for his work with Run-D.M.C, LL Cool J and Beastie Boys. He sliced away the extraneous elaborations and progressive structures, leaving only abrupt, sordid perfection. It marked a departure from Slayer’s overt obsession with Satanic imagery, engaging instead with the grimmest depths of the human condition. From the unparalleled savagery of opener Angel of Death, guitarist/lyricist Jeff Hanneman’s paean to the horrific acts of Nazi SS officer Josef Mengele at Auschwitz, to the portentous knell of thunder which welcomed closer Raining Blood; from Larry Carroll’s graphic, grotesque cover art, to the unrelenting 210bpm barrage of double-bass-drum pioneer Dave Lombardo, underpinning Tom Araya’s harrowing hollers and the searing leads of the titanic Kerry King and partner-in-crime Hanneman – this was face-meltingly corrosive, intelligent and controversial.
They’d succeeded. It was the fastest, most brutal album of all time.
Over the past three decades, Slayer have become a byword for musical extremity; a totem for a way of life, an attitude. They’ve evolved, morphed, remained utterly ferocious. Albums like 1990’s sandblasted vision of the futility of war Seasons In The Abyss, 1994’s hateful Divine Intervention and 2001’s nihilistic monolith God Hates Us All have contributed to one of music’s most confounding catalogues. The image of the windmilling Araya winged by thick-necked King and sneering Hanneman headbanging through another machine-gun solo has become the most iconic sight in metal.
But it’s 2015, and Slayer is a wounded beast, worn by age, physical and mental turmoil. Just half of the original quartet remain. Tom Araya, the raging barbarian whose hell-raising screams have always been curiously offset by a surprisingly gentle nature, is 54, no longer the dervish of old. He’s a dented tank: solid, but showing signs of corrosion. He murmurs down the phone line to me, his LA-Latino voice worn to a wispy husk, his frequent chuckles rattling around his throat like coins in a washing machine. Our conversation is dotted with tales of bodily decline: their current, North America-spanning tour is “as good as can be expected”; my voice struggles to translate into his battered ears. His headbanging days, he tells me, are over. “Dude, I have two titanium plates in my back and six screws. After my first tour after the operation I visited the doctor and he said ‘It all looks good – have you been headbanging?’ I looked at him and said ‘Headbanging? Can I?’ He waited a second and said, ‘Not advisable!’” Araya emits one of those throaty cackles. “Now I just have to give the ugly look when we play.”
But Araya’s creaking body is nothing. Jeff Hanneman, the malevolent, blonde-haired force of nature who penned many of the band’s most memorable riffs and lyrics, was forced to leave the band in early 2011 having contracted an illness which couldn’t sound more like a Slayer song title if it tried: necrotizing fasciitis. While he recovered from this flesh-eating disease, linked to a spider bite, he was temporarily replaced by Exodus guitarist Gary Holt, a friend since both bands supported black metal progenitors Venom back in ’84. Having warded off the carnivorous bacteria, Hanneman joined his Slayer brothers onstage on 23 April 2011 for two songs: his opus Angel of Death and, with a damning clairvoyance, South Of Heaven. He would never play with Slayer again. In April 2013, Hanneman – who was seldom pictured without a beer in hand – was finally gripped by his demons and dragged to the netherworld, dying of alcohol-related liver failure that May.
Next month Slayer release their 11th studio album, their first in a turbulent six years. Repentless is the album’s title, but more than that, it’s become their mantra. “I think the title track not only speaks of Jeff and how we as a band have been,” Araya barks, his voice gaining volume. “That’s Slayer in a nutshell. We’re gonna keep doing what we do, we’ll keep going and we don’t give a shit what people think.”
Repentless acts as a riposte to those keen to predict the band’s expiration ever since 1998’s Diabolus in Musica, which bore the conspicuous mark of the nu-metal zeitgeist. Now King and Araya are in no mood to suffer in silence. “It’s for the haters out there,” Araya declares. “For the shit we’ve been through. Coming out with this record after all that’s happened.” Lyrically, the title- track, which emerges after a brief, Eastern- tinged intro, is unlike anything they’ve done before: a defiant, personal account of what it is to be Slayer. “Having that as the first song you hear, that says a lot,” Araya says. “It says a lot about how we feel about what we do and who we are. It’s a very strong ‘fuck you’.”
We don’t cause controversy, OK? We see something we like, something we think is cool. So that’s controversial, huh? Well, if you fuckin’ say so
And from this mindset, a very good Slayer album has emerged; losses have been transformed to strengths. After the departure of classic drummer Dave Lombardo following a pay dispute, his replacement Paul Bostaph is on stunning form, dominating with slamming thrash battery and intoxicating fills. A staple of Slayer listening was always to hear those panned solo leads and decipher whether they were the work of the livid King or the bolshy Hanneman, but his replacement Holt more than holds his own in the shredding tussle.
The elephantine grooves of Vices and the archetypal Slayer smash of Take Control, meanwhile, are instant classics. With one of the band’s key creative limbs severed, Araya and King have formed a more traditional yin and yang – King’s wraparound shades and serrated tattoos, muscular and tense; Araya unkempt, primal and emotional. But the latter makes no bones about who has grasped control.
“Kerry took the reigns and put together all of the music on this record,” he says, “and he did a really great job of trying to understand and assemble a really well-rounded Slayer album, not just half of one.” But the spectre of Hanneman looms heavy over Repentless – not just through what will presumably be his final Slayer composition, Piano Wire. Songs like Chasing Death (“You’re just a fuckin’ slave of discontent / I’m sick of watching you dig this hole”) and Vices (“You’ve always been powerless to your vices”) explicitly address the guitarist’s expiration.
The band put on a remarkably stolid front following Hanneman’s death, proving indubitably that sentimentality doesn’t enter the Slayer vocabulary – King even went as far as to describe his three-decade bandmate and creative partner as “worm food” in an interview earlier this year. But I’m keen to know whether his loss has made the remaining members more conscious of their own mortality. Araya is open, and sincere, in his reply.
“I started changing the way I live a long time ago, I learned a long time ago that…” he pauses, and chugs out a laugh. “You know, we were pretty fuckin’ crazy! There were several things that made me change how I lived my life. I had a one-man car wreck on the freeway because of drinking and driving, that’s where it began. We all approach life differently, and that’s what I chose to do. Jeff passing wasn’t something that I expected. I knew he had problems, I knew he was seriously ill, but I didn’t think he’d fuckin’ die. I thought he’d pull through, I thought he’d get better.”
Through the brash front which forms part of the Slayer uniform, Araya shows a rare glimmer of vulnerability. “I was at a point where I needed him back in the band for it to work. I didn’t care to what extent his abilities were at their best, I just needed him back. So I was reaching out to him, leaving messages, but he wouldn’t return my calls. He’d decided he wanted to disappear. That was really hard.”
And so the band were forced to reconsider their way of working. The first stop was to build a relationship between Araya and King that Hanneman had previously worked as a conduit for. “Me and Jeff were always closer than me and Kerry,” Araya admits. “We were more on a personal level, we could talk, we could hold a conversation. Not so much with Kerry.” He laughs. “But we sat down and we communicated, which we haven’t always done.”
When we’d pinned the pair down for a photo shoot in London, a month or so prior to my conversation with Araya, this change had been palpable. The two bounced off each other with ease – though stopping short of our photographer’s admittedly ambitious request to play-fight for the camera (“I ain’t fuckin’ doing that” came King’s gruff shoot-down).
“We had a talk, a serious talk,” says Araya. “We had shit to talk about, before we went in and decided to finish what we’d started – this record. It’s the cliché, but a relationship works on communication, and maybe we hadn’t always been able to think that way.” There’s one obvious starting point for King and Araya’s long-standing difficulties in reaching a level: a fundamental clash in personalities. While King was the mastermind behind Slayer’s signature controversy-baiting Satanic/anti-Christian angle, Araya holds deep-rooted spiritual, even Christian-sympathising beliefs. So has Araya ever felt King’s words went a little too far, even for him? Did he ever feel uncomfortable being the voicebox for songs like 2001’s Disciple (“I never said I wanted to be God’s disciple / I’ll never be the one to blindly follow”)?
“No,” he insists, “because [King] writes some pretty heavy shit. When you approach it in a creative sense, the only one way for me to think is: ‘fuck, this is really good.’ I’m the singer in this band, how can I not sing that? That’s how I approach it. I’m not gonna sit there and say something sucks cause it’s not something I believe. The thought process goes like this: it has to be fuckin’ awesome, or it doesn’t make the cut. If it’s not fuckin’ awesome, then it’s not Slayer.”
This band came together 35 years ago with a simple truth in attitude: we don’t give a shit what people say
But there’s no denying that what Slayer consider awesome rarely tallies what mainstream culture thinks is awesome. Be that the early accusations of Nazi sympathy linked to Angel Of Death – a song which has joined Minor Threat’s Guilty Of Being White in being entirely misinterpreted and adopted by far right groups on literal terms – or God Hates Us All’s explicit message, one of the philosophical idea of the ‘Problem Of Evil’ – that if a God exists, how can atrocities be allowed to happen – which wasn’t exactly aided by the album’s grimly prophetic release date: 11 September, 2001. Factor in songs like 1985 cut Necrophiliac, which would push even the most iron-stomached death metal gore-lover to double-take, or the band’s consistently subversive lyrical content and artwork, which saw Bob Slagel, owner of the band’s first label, Metal Blade, barraged by letters from Tipper Gore’s infamous PMRC (Parents Music Resource Centre) movement – the people you can thank for Parental Advisory stickers – and saw 2006’s Christ Illusion album recalled from every record store in India and destroyed. Factor in the song Jihad, which addressed 9/11 from the perspective of the terrorists themselves, and it’s difficult to argue that Slayer haven’t basked in their role as arch antagonists, playing public opinion with the same deft technical brilliance as King’s guitar or Lombardo’s double-kick drums.
But Araya insists they’ve never indulged in controversy for controversy’s sake. “I’ve said this a million times, buddy,” he says, his grating voice intensifying. “We don’t cause controversy, OK? We see something we like, something we think is cool. It’s not there to cause controversy, it’s just our taste. We’re here to keep doing what we’re doing. It’s not about controversy, it’s about being Slayer. Then everybody else stirs up the shit pot. So that’s controversial, huh? Well, if you fuckin’ say so.”
True to form, Araya – the (relatively) good conscience to King’s demonic bad – makes one lyrical contribution to Repentless, closer Pride in Prejudice, a song with an undoubtedly provocative title which hides a depth of social commentary. “That song is something I wrote a long time ago, around the time of the Rodney King LA incident,’” he reveals. “It was something that struck a chord with me.
I’m an immigrant, we migrated to the US [from Chile] at a time when there was a lot of chaos in LA in the 60s, when we had the Watts riots. I was able to witness a lot of discrimination, even though we weren’t black, we still went through a lot of the discrimination that come with being different in America. I saw that first hand with my father, a lot of things that he had to deal with, things he had to overcome.”
“Abuse of power, civil unrest / Guarantee we blood the same blood red / Inner rage waiting to ignite / Blood of the innocent unites”, the song orates.
“So when [Rodney King] happened, there’s a lot of things that I felt were wrong,” Araya continues. “I’ve learned that, growing up in America – growing up, period – nobody owes you fuckin’ anything dude, know what I mean? Nobody owes anyone anything, and you have to take the life that you’re born with and make the best of it and not make excuses as to why you are what you are.”
It’s this idea that keeps raising its head throughout our interview, and throughout Slayer’s latest statement: a spirit of refusing to accept fate, of refusing to bow to the pressures of time, or outward dissidence. It’s an attitude Araya sees manifest in the band’s notoriously spartan fanbase. “I love them, they’re fuckin’ loco!” he chuckles. “You hear stories about that guy at a show, any show, a band’s playing and one voice screams ‘Slaaaayaaaargh!’ It’s that one raisin in the bowl of oatmeal, screaming in everybody’s face, then standing there with the attitude: ‘what you gonna do about it?’ I have no words to describe the feeling it gives me, it’s really cool that they feel that way about us. And I feel like I have to say this: we share that passion. No one carries that Repentless attitude like they do.”
It’s as if, from these most torturous of circumstances, a new momentum has been found. Slayer are no strangers to emerging from the fiery depths, victorious and galvanised, but Hanneman’s loss has been their greatest challenge of all. On several past occasions, Araya has voiced the opinion that the band may be approaching its conclusion, both prior to and following his bandmate’s death. But no more. This doesn’t feel like a band with the end in sight. So do Slayer feel like the underdogs, yet again? Do they have a point to prove?
“Honestly, I don’t think we have anything to prove,” Araya insists. Laughter chugs. “We’re fully aware of how people are and what people say and these people all claim to be ‘fans’.” He laughs once again, wearily, knowingly – laughter born from a lifetime of fighting against the tide; of defending the indefensible; of being the lead singer of Slayer. “There’s a lot of people who think we have something to prove. But this band came together 35 years ago with a simple truth in attitude: we don’t give a shit what people say. We’re gonna do what we do.”
Repentless is released 11 September via Nuclear Blast. Slayer tour the UK and Europe this November