When I was growing up, I was mostly into what they (not I) call hair bands, my favorites being Motley Crue, Poison, Stryper, Bon Jovi and KISS. (Yes, KISS was a hair band at the time. No make up, just very big hair.) I did listen to some thrash, too, especially the artists that we now call The Big Three: Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax. And people could argue for hours about who was the best of those; Metallica versus Megadeth debates were practically a weekly ritual in my town. But, out outside of The Big Three, there was another thrash band of massive popularity, one that was so dark and brutal that you really couldn’t put them in the same category as The Big Three. Maybe that was partly because The Big Three always seemed like they were making music to have fun and this other band seemed like they were doing it to spread evil or worship Satan or, at the very least, freak people the fuck out. In any case, I didn’t like them. Of course, this other band was Slayer, and ten or so years later I finally became a fan. I remember that time quite vividly because I was living in the Los Angeles area and depressed and wanted to listen to something that would match my mood, so I bought a Slayer album, Seasons In The Abyss. Not only did it provide a nice soundtrack for my miserable existence, it made me realize that there were worst things in the world than having a troubled girlfriend.
Around this time, a friend gave me a Dimmur Borgir CD and that became the new thing that rattled me too much to listen to, although I cherish them now. Funny how things change like that; now I’m into death metal, black metal, metalcore, etc. If you would’ve played any of that for me in 1986 I would’ve started reciting the “Our Father.” Funny how music always seems to grow more horrific as time goes on. (I’m not sure it can get any darker than black metal though.) Now, Slayer aren’t even the heaviest band on the planet. Not for lack of trying though. Their last couple of albums were pretty brutal. I’m sure they felt pressured to grow darker and heavier in order to compete with the much more shocking new bands. And those albums served them well enough, the only problem being that even their new, young fans seemed to think that their older albums were better. Maybe for that reason, Slayer decided to return to their roots, or at least it seems that way, on their new album Repentless.
The thing about Repentless is, it sounds like it should have come out during the first half of their career, and that’s something that anyone will tell you is a good thing. I mean, yes, it’s a NEW album and sounds fresh accordingly. But it sounds more like a follow up to Seasons in the Abyss and South of Heaven than a follow up to their last couple of albums. A true return to form.
It’s really amazing that Slayer has pulled off making their new album, their 12th, sound like such an instant classic. After all, founding guitarist and songwriter Jeff Hanneman passed away from cirrhosis of the liver in 2013. The same year, founding drummer Dave Lombardo quit, supposedly due to financial matters. But, at least Slayer’s ’90’s drummer Paul Bostaph returned to the fold to join the two remaining members, bassist/vocalist Tom Araya and guitarist Kerry King. (I should note that Araya and King appear to have conflicting thoughts about Slayer’s future. See Slayer: Metal Heroes Divided and Devoted on Radio.com: http://radio.com/2015/05/14/slayer-interview-tom-araya-kerry-king/). Meanwhile, Gary Holt, the Exodus guitarist who’d filled in for Hanneman live when he contracted necrotizing fascilitis (thanks to a lousy spider), was able to become a permanent member of the band. So, it’s not like they wound up with a couple of talentless nobodies to replace Hanneman and Lombardo. Not that anyone can 100% fill the shoes of those guys; they’re metal gods, but they’re excellent players and I don’t feel like anything is missing when I listen to Repentless — except, maybe, Hanneman’s slightly more laid back solos — and I hope fans will give the album a proper chance instead of just saying things like “it won’t sound like Slayer anymore without Hanneman,” etc. If you want to look at it like that, hey, that’s your right. But then you’ll be missing out on one hell of a fantastic album.
“Live fast / On high / Repentless / Let it ride,” screams Araya on the hook of the blistering title track, the first song on the album following the opening, moody instrumental “Delusions Of Saviour.” “Repentless” is a song that finds the band at the end of their proverbial rope, in a fighting mood; “My songs relive the atrocities of war / Can’t take society any fuckin’ more / Intensity, anarchy, hatred amplified / Playing this shit is all that keeps me alive.” Clearly, they haven’t lost their ability to coin razor sharp lyrics that smack you like a whip.
Next, “Take Control” kicks off in true speed metal fashion, the band making a return to their early roots, though parts of the song also sound like gritty thrash. “Voice is a weapon; bombs are away / Mind’s a trigger, fire away” begins the first verse with Araya sounding slightly less angry than he does on “Repentless,” though his voice maintains its deadly gravity. Sometimes I listen to this song and it sounds perfect, but other times I admittedly wish it stayed in that speed metal vein it begins with throughout the entire song. (Remember, before Slayer were titanium thrash, they were speed metal aces.)
“Vices” opens with an addictive guitar hook that mimics the sound a chainsaw makes when it first touches wood. It’s not about the sort of vices you might guess, though. See the spot on chorus: “Life drags on, and we watch it bleed / On controversy and madness we feed / It’s a rush you can’t deny / A little violence is the ultimate drug / Let’s get high!” And, damn, when he sings “let’s get high” you feel like throwing yourself straight into a mosh pit and punching someone in the face.
Applause must be given to producer Terry Date, whose production here is as flawless as can be. The vocals sound raw and live, the guitars like buzzsaws, the bass humming like a flying wasp, and the drums hitting your subwoofers so hard they’re liable to burst.
Mid-record, “When The Stillness Comes” would seem to invoke the band’s classic song simply called “Stillness,” which is just fine with me because that’s one of my favorite Slayer songs. That said, the slow, sweet yet melancholic guitar part that begins the song does not drive it throughout, as it eventually surrenders to a slightly faster, caustic riff before the truly grinding guitars crash the party and the mammoth drums signal the grim reaper to slice your throat wide open. Parts of the vocals are done spoken word style, other parts are screamed as though Araya is telling you to get out of a building just before it explodes. The lyrics here are downright evil, too, the band apparently summoning Satan once more: “This violence finally sets me free / Bring demons back to torture me / There’s no god pulling at my strings.”
Hanneman contributed to the writing of “Piano Wire,” which finds your apparently dead body hanging. “If war is lost, you will die before I / Without dignity for all to see,” ends the second verse. Listening to the song as I write this, it occurs to me that it could be used by terrorists while training their recruits. Chorus: “Take the war / Taste the blood / Attack and continue / Never surrender / We shall be victorious / Attack / Never surrender.” Of course, it’s more likely to be used to get a rise out of our soldiers before sending them into wherever they’re going to kill terrorists.
The album ends with “Pride in Prejudice,” which packs guitars worthy of head banging (if you can remember that). And the drums, well, they’re as ferocious as they are all over the album, like baseball bats crushing people’s skulls. Yes, it’s a real bone-crusher, this album-ender. The lyrics here are especially fitting for a closing track, too: “I’m right / You’re wrong / In number / I’m strong / Violence is proof enough that I am.”
Yes, the Slaytantic will have the final word.