THE SLAYER PHENOMENON
“SSSSSSLLLLLAAAAAYYYYYYEEEEERRRRR!!!!!” I hear someone a few dozen feet behind me yell; instinctually, I lower my voice several octaves and scream in my best death metal growl “SSSSSSLLLLLAAAAAYYYYYYEEEEERRRRR!!!!!” Suddenly, I hear dudes all around me yelling: “SLAYER!” “SLAYER!””SLAYER!” And now, someone begins to sing a few lines from the thrash metal titan’s classic song “South of Heaven.” “Before you see the light,” the strangers begins, and I and pretty much everyone around me finish in unison: “YOU MUST DIE!”
I’m standing in the middle of a crowd of a few thousand metal heads at the Roseland Ballroom here in NYC, and now, within an instant, Slayer-mania has swept through the audience like a plague, people from all the over the floor shouting the band’s name, the metal equivalent of calling for “Freebird” at a classic rock show or doing the wave at a baseball game. And here’s the weird part: we’re not actually at a Slayer show.
The band’s fanbase is so rabid that opening acts infamously have a hard time completing a set without getting booed off the stage, and one particularly ardent admirer, Mike Meyer, famously went so far as to carve the band’s logo into his arm with a razor; bands as unmetal as the Beastie Boys and Blink 182 have hired guitarist Kerry King to solo on their albums; Chimaira were so proud to hear King say they reminded him of a young Slayer they included the interview on their DVD, The Dehumanizing Process; Brent Hinds from Mastodon called them “the most metal band ever” and Lars Ulrich declared Dave Lombardo to be “the best drummer in the world;” the stand-up comedian Brian Posehn does a bit in his act now where he proclaims that getting a blowjob from another man isn’t gay, so long as he occasionally stops slurping long enough to give a mighty battle cry of “SLAYER!” What is it about Slayer that inspires such fervor amongst their hardcore fans and makes them perhaps the only universally revered amongst metalheads everywhere?
It would be easy to chalk it up to respect for one’s elders; last year marked the 20th anniversary of their seminal album Reign in Blood (on the date 06/06/06, no less), and the record seems no less important today than it was then; the incredible speed, the Satanic (Slaytanic?) riffs, the lyrics concentrating on humanity’s worst atrocities… this is an album which sounds one hundred percent legitimately… unhinged. The ensuing albums, South of Heaven and Seasons in the Abyss, are no less vicious or brutual; if these three recordings were all we had to remember Slayer by, they’d still most like be rivaled only by Sabbath, Metallica and Pantera as the most influential metal act of all time- there could be a drinking game based on doing a shot every time a young band “borrows” a Slayer riff on their latest disc.
But the Slayer phenomenon goes beyond their place in our childhood and adolescent memories, when we first discovering metal; my guess is that is has something to do with the fact that Slayer are possibly the most consistent band in metal. They never broke up, don’t have some album with an alternative line-up that they now no longer play live, never made a non-metal album or suddenly started playing ballads, never changed very much about their sound. God Hates Us All may be crunchier than Divine Intervention, South of Heaven may be slower than Reign in Blood, Dave Lombardo and Phil Bostaph may come and go and the songwriting might be stronger on certain recordings, but the basic package has remained essentially the same for more than two decades. For a metalhead, only three things in life are assured: death, taxes, and Slayer.
And now the band is experiencing something of a renaissance; as if to school on these metalcore punks and would-be heirs to the throne, this past summer they put out their best album in 15 years, Christ Illusion (when even The Village Voice praises a metal album, you just know the band was onto something). Reuniting with Lombardo didn’t hurt- the album sounds more spontonaeous, more “live,” than anything they’ve done since he left- but the truth is, King and his partner in crime, Jeff Hanneman, stepped up the songwriting a notch, too. The riffs that power “Jihad” and “Catatonic” sound as menacing as anything the band has ever done; “Supremist” features the band’s first ever blast beat and a breakdown which puts any of this past year’s Ozzfest bands to shame (in fact, they raided all the best bands everyone expected to last year’s Ozzfest- Lamb of God, Mastodon, and Children of Bodom- for their own Unholy Alliance Tour); the anthemic “Cult” has fans around the world sticking their horns up in the air and shouting “666!” along with Tom Araya ’til their vocal chords bleed. Hell, the band just won a Grammy- not that it means very much- for their song “Eyes of the Insane,” which, even by Slayer standards, has pretty much the creepiest video I’ve ever seen.
Christ Illusion may be the most socially and politically relevant piece of work Slayer have ever done; when God Hates Us All was released just before 9/11, it seemed prophetic, but Christ Illusion is a desperate, furious cry for the violence committed in God’s name to cease. Slayer don’t just examine life’s horrors- they inhabit them, completely, totally, and reflect them back out at society, a giant middle finger raised to all who would be their opponents.
Slayer play the Hammerstein ballroom in New York City tonight with Unearth as support.