Why “South of Heaven” may be the best metal album of all time

slayer-south_of_heavenArthur Schopenhauer once wrote that there were three kinds of authors: those who write without thinking, those who think as they write, and those who write only because they have thought something and wish to pass it along.

Similarly, it is not hard to produce a decent heavy metal album. You cannot do it without thinking, but if you think while you go, you can stitch those riffs together and make a plausible effort that will delight the squealing masses.

But to produce an excellent heavy metal album is a great challenge. It’s also difficult to discuss, since if you ask 100 hessians for their list of excellent metal albums, you may well get 101 different answers. Still, all of us acknowledge that some albums rise above the rest.

South of Heaven is to my mind such an album because it hits on all levels. Crushing riffs: check. Intense abstract structures: check. Overall feeling of darkness, power, evil, foreboding and all the things forbidden in daylight society: check. But also: a pure enigmatic sublime sense of purpose, of an order beneath the skin of things, resulting in a mind-blowing expansion of perspective? That, too.

Slayer knew they’d hit the ball out of the park with Reign in Blood. That album single-handedly defined what the next generations of metal would shoot for. It also defined for many of us the high-water mark for metal, aesthetically. Any album that wanted to be metal should shoot for the same intensity of “Angel of Death” or “Raining Blood.” It forever raised the bar in terms of technique and overall impact. Music could never back down from that peak.

However, the fertile minds in Slayer did not want to imitate themselves and repeat the past. Instead, they wanted to find out what came next. The answer was to add depth to the intensity: to add melody — the holy grail of metal has since been how to make something with the intensity of Reign in Blood but the melodic power of Don’t Break the Oath — and flesh out the sound, to use more variation in tempo, to add depth of subject matter and to make an album that was more mystical than mechanical.

Only two years later, South of Heaven did exactly that. Many fans thought they wanted Reign in Blood: The Sequel (Return to the Angel of Death) but found out that actually, they liked the change. Where Reign in Blood was an unrelenting assault by enraged demons, South of Heaven was the dark forces who infiltrated your neighborhood at night, and in the morning looked just like everyone else. It was an album that found horror lurking behind normalcy, twisted sadistic power games behind politics, and the sense of a society not off course just in politics, economics, etc. but having gone down a bad path. Having sold it soul to Satan, in other words.

The depth of despair and foreboding terror found in this album was probably more than most of us could handle at the time. 1988 was after all the peak of the Cold War, shortly before the other side collapsed, but Slayer wasn’t talking about the Cold War. For them, the problem was deeper; it was within, and it resulted from our acceptance of some kind of illusion as a force of good, when really it concealed the lurking face of evil. This gave the album a depth and terror that none have touched since. It is wholly unsettling.

Musically, advancements came aplenty. Slayer detached themselves from the rock formula entirely, using chromatic riffs to great effectiveness and relegating key changes to a mode of layering riffs. Although it was simpler and more repetitive, South of Heaven was also more hypnotic as it merged subliminal rhythms with melodies that sounded like fragments of the past. The result was more like atmospheric or ambient music, and it swallowed up the listener and brought them into an entirely different world.

South of Heaven was also the last “mythological” album from Slayer. Following the example of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” Slayer’s previous lyrics found metaphysical and occult reasons for humanity’s failures, but never let us off the hook. Bad decisions beget bad results in the Slayer worldview, and those who are happiest with it are the forces of evil who mislead us and enjoy our folly, as in “Satan laughing spreads his wings” or even “Satan laughs as you eternally rot.” The lyrics to “South of Heaven” could have come from the book of Revelations, with their portrayal of a culture and society given to lusts and wickedness, collapsing from within. (Three years later, Bathory made the Wagnerian counterpoint to this with “Twilight of the Gods.” Read the two lyrics together — it’s quite influential.)

Most of all, South of Heaven was a step forward as momentous as Reign in Blood for all future metal. We can create raw intensity, it said, but we need also to find heaviness in the implications of things. In the actions we take and their certain results. In the results of a lack of attention to even simple things, like where we throw our trash and how honest we are with each other. That is a message so profoundly subversive and all-encompassing that it is terrifying. Basically, you are never off the hook; you are always on watch, because your future depends on it.

Slayer awoke in many of us a sense beyond the immediate. We were accustomed to songs that told us about personal struggles, desires and goals. But what about looking at life through the lens of history? Or even the qualitative implications of our acts? Like Romantic poetry, Slayer was a looking glass into the ancient ruins of Greece and Rome, onto the battlefields of Verdun and Stalingrad, and even more, into our own souls. Reign in Blood broke popular music free from its sense of being “protest music” or “individualistic” and showed us a wider world. South of Heaven showed us we are the decisionmakers of this world, and without our constant attention, it will burn like hell itself.

I remember from back in the day how many of my friends were afraid of South of Heaven. The first two Slayer albums could be fun; Reign in Blood was just pure intensity; South of Heaven was awake at 3 a.m. and existentially confused, fearing death and insignificance, Nietzschean “fear and trembling” style music. It unnerved me then and it does still today, but I believe every note of it is an accurate reflection of reality, and of the charge to us to make right decisions instead of convenient ones. And now with Slayer gone, we have to compel ourselves to walk this path — alone.

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Metallica – Hardwired… to Self-Destruct (2016)

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Review contributed to Death Metal Underground by the Peckerwood Boys. The audio review may be heard here.

Yep, just me here. A new Metallica album of all 45 rpms of pure American metal! 180 grams, limited to 500 copies. I’m gonna spin this bitch like NASCAR!

Lookin’ under the hood here, you got your Black Album riffs, you got your Pantera, and that sir, that’s gonna get you over to your cousin’s house faster than her boyfriend so you can propose to her. Now this album right here has really got me saying, “I’m glad, I’m glad it was Cliff!” That Master of Muppets there album had a lot on it I couldn’t understand in it. It was like tryin’ to make sense of one of them pieces of paper with scribbles on it, them black scribbles man.

(more…)

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Scythian – Hubris in Excelsis (2015)

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Following the example of Kreator in Phantom Antichrist, Scythian unite riffing approaches from different metal subgenres under the banner of traditional heavy metal and growled or barked vocals, with a result along the lines of the so-called melodic death metal.  In contrast with the noteworthy release Thy Black Destiny, by Sacramentum, Hubris in Excelsis does not coalesce into a thing of its own but just floats around as the result of spare parts being put together to form an undefined, impersonal and disparate heavy metal record. In this, and its revolving around the vocals it is more akin to the Iron Maiden – inclined heavy metal which sets one foot on hard-rock land, using disconnected riffs only as rhythm and harmony to carry the voice.

We hear doom metal proceedings and textures typical of black metal, but these are usually encapsulated within sections. These sections are used in conventional rock-song functionality. What determines this rock versus metal approach? Basically, the total relationship of riffs and sections to voice and in between themselves. Rock (and hard rock after it) carries the music after the vocal lines (thus we can see the slight influence of hard rock over Slayer in South of Heaven even though it doesn’t fully give in to the tendency to disqualify it as a metal record). The key tell-tale sign after this is the lack or at least a downplay of motif-relation between parts of the song, the support for main melody or vocal line becoming the most important and prominent element. The effect of this often results in something similar but in the end different from metalcore: disparate parts tied loosely by a certain background consistency (usually harmony for rock and rhythms or motifs drowned in an ocean of contrasts for metalcore).

The plentiful references to many different genres extending all the way to cliche-ridden pagan black metal may throw off the attempts of most to nail down what Hubris in Excelsis actually is, what it consists of and what its essence ultimately is. Hubris in Excelsis is indeed a title that reflects this album beyond their intended concept. Hubris, an excess of self-confidence, often at the expense of prudence and seemliness, is placed in a position of glory, giving way to veiled expressions of ego that disregard any sense of coherence and little consistency beyond the most superficial.

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Slayer retrospective

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01:  Photo of SLAYER  (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

UNITED STATES – JANUARY 01: Photo of SLAYER (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

Some people find it odd that Slayer attracts such fanatical devotion from its fans, even 27 years after the last album most people consider classic from the band, South of Heaven. The answer for me is that Slayer stands for something: not just what metal should always be — unsociable, powerful, intense and pushing beyond all boundaries — but what metal should do, which is tell the truth in a realistic but mythological way. Almost all people fear truth and spend most of their time distracting us from it. Slayer turns it into a battleground which inspires the listener to want to get in there and fight it out.

I rank Slayer up there with other heroes like William S. Burroughs, early James Joyce, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Fred Nietzsche, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Michel Houellebecq, Plato, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, William Blake and other absolute saviors who brought some clarity to a life that started enmeshed in lies and that had to gradually claw its way toward clarity. These people gave much of their lives so that humanity has a shot at survival. (Note present tense). Like those literary warriors, Slayer took a look at the world of human denial and shattered it, grasping instead the raw currency of nature: power, conflict and predation. Their goal was not solely to become popular, but to do so by telling the truth that people suppress every day.

For those like me who grew up in a time of denial, such an approach was not only refreshing but became clear it was the only approach worth tolerating. Back in those days, what really scared us was the Cold War and the threat of possible if not probable nuclear annihilation. Humanity finally had enough missiles to do itself in, and had wired those to increasingly hair-trigger decisions which would decide the fate of not just us, but the future. 30,000 years of nuclear winter and death by radiation seemed very final. In addition, our society was torn apart, with the Reaganite big hair Christians on one side and the spaced-out, gibberish-spewing 1968 hippies on the other.

Most importantly however Slayer was what everyone always felt heavy metal should become. Heavy metal is music that rejects social pleasantries for a study of power itself, including the awesome power of nature manifested in death, disease, predation and violence. Slayer sounds like mechanized warfare with the patterns of a summer hurricane. They threw out all the rules and started making heavy metal like punks, with no reliance on traditional song structures, and expanded its vocabulary infinitely. On top of that, Slayer never backed down from being the ultimate hard line of reality. When people started talking about Jesus or how peace would save us (maaaaan), Slayer was the antidote. It drowned out the insanity and replaced it with cold, hard reality.

Walking through the years of classic Slayer:

1983

Show No Mercy corrected the previous fifteen years of metal by summarizing it and turning it up to 11. Using the techniques of hardcore punk and a Wagnerian sense of riff structure, this album took heavy metal from the looping song structures of the late 1970s back to the experimental, prog-style outlook of Black Sabbath. This reduced the rock influence, and brought primacy back to the riff from where it had been languishing with the voice in glam and later NWOBHM. The term “heavy metal” means two things: the genre as a whole, and the sub-genre of music which is still roughly blues influenced (itself passing down the English and Germanic popular music in a form the music industry invented to sell more records). While still the second type of heavy metal, this album showed Slayer developing the techniques that they would later use to — along with Hellhammer, Sodom and Bathory — invent death metal from the ashes of speed metal which died as soon as it was born.

1984

Haunting the Chapel was the weird little EP that came along with the other Slayer albums I bought when I could find them. I put it on and heard “Chemical Warfare” and thought, this sounds exactly like society and why I hate it: the pain of tedium, the sure destination in collapse and self-destruction, the ignorant removal of nature, and the misery of all trapped within it. Other heavy metal tried to be apocalyptic, but this song showed an actual destruction of humanity by our own hand, which was and still is the most likely scenario. Like “War Pigs,” it contrasted a mythology of demons and wizards with the motivations of people in real life, which were every bit as good/evil as the epics of Tolkien. As a high school kid, I was thankful some adult finally told me the truth about something — and it was Slayer!

Although this was a live in studio album designed to promote the band, it has many beauties. It is the ultimate 4 AM after a profound night waiting for the sunrise music. A friend of mine refers to it as his “day drinking” album, but I have never heard a more ridiculous term than day drinking. Alcoholism knows no clock.

1985

Back in high school, some friends of mine and I would cut class and sneak off to the woods to smoke cigarettes and talk about metal. We used to refer to Hell Awaits as LLEH STIAWA to disguise our communication from authority figures, when passing notes in class. This was where Slayer really began, for me. They refined the aesthetics on the first album and changed song structure from the rock/blues/folk origins to the free-form style of hardcore punk bands, which let the riffs take over and guide the development of the song, a compositional technique which is the basis of death metal. Ornette Coleman, who recently died, once said, “I think one day music will be a lot freer. Then the pattern for a tune, for instance, will be forgotten and the tune itself will be the pattern, and won’t have to be forced into conventional patterns.” Slayer was the first pattern-oriented heavy metal band and discovered what free jazz tuned into, but took it to the next level. Thinking about the difference between this album and the first Slayer album started my career as a music writer (such as it is).

1986

I started out as a hardcore kid, cranking more Amebix, DRI, Cro-Mags and the Exploited than heavy metal. All of that changed when I discovered Slayer. Reign in Blood showed me hardcore taken to its logical conclusions: a society ridden by a deep spiritual disease, corrupted and scapegoating as it spirals toward collapse. Facing the emptiness and literality of reality is our only hope, but even that requires a mythos of some form. Not only was Reign in Blood written on the most hardcore topics ever, except put through the mythological filter of metal, but it was written like hardcore if the bands decided to be good at their instruments and compose epic opera-style clashes between good and evil instead of Songs To Hate The Man From Your Squat. Sandwiched between two epic tracks that called to mind the intensity of black metal that came later, this album roars through atonal masterpieces of pure rhythm and structure, using the power of the musical phrase to create metaphorical associations in the mind of the listener. Some bands sing about things; Slayer made music that sounded like those things, come to life as demonic meth-driven zombies created by humans and now returned to destroy them. This album took that sound to the furthest extreme, and nothing since has topped it.

1987

1988

This album first made me fall in love with Slayer. I was blown away by the other material, but here Slayer added a layer of dark poetic sensation like they had on the bookend tracks on the previous album, but they let the whole album carry that vibe. The result is the first really nocturnal album in metal: a meditation on nothingness, a howl of the Steppenwolf, from within a lonely darkness where to avoid the lies is to see the truth that puts the individual on a collision course with society. When your civilization denies reality, your own choice — if you have what my old gym coach called “intestinal fortitude” a.k.a. “the guts” to do so — is to oppose the fantasy with hardcore reality, but like a good heavy metal band to make it epic by turning it into a mythology of itself. South of Heaven did that in an inventive album which sounded like night raids on a dying world. Poetic, dark, apocalyptic and yet it makes you want to strive. Healing and motivational.

https://youtu.be/NbGqPRFyHtg

1989

I remember Slayer being in Thrasher magazine as a big event this year. At that time, music was still divided between the big labels and the type of music they would promote, which were the big decade-long trends that were sort of like genres, except they were musically very much the same as everything else. Mainstream magazines simply did not mention Slayer and barely would cover Metallica because they disliked the threat to their power. You could find Slayer in the record stores, which were either mainstream like Sound Warehouse or independents that barely made it by, and maybe in zines but otherwise the media kept mum on this new threat, just like they did at first with hardcore punk (as opposed to punk rock). I think I saw Slayer several times over this year and the past, and almost died on a few occasions but that failed to diminish my enthusiasm.

http://www.thrashermagazine.com/articles/magazine/march-1989/

1990

I remember Seasons in the Abyss coming to record stores on the same day as Megadeth Rust in Piece, and sneaking out of school every period to go to the local Sound Warehouse to see if they had it on the shelves yet. Finally an employee pointed me to a cart with new albums not yet stocked, and I saw my prizes and seized them, paid (and was carded — these were the PMRC days! — also the days of low-cost “novelty” Missouri DLs) and got out of dodge. This was where Slayer and I began to part ways, because Slayer actually headed back toward rock music on this: the vocals led the songs, they were more verse/chorus, and the focus was on harmony rather than clashing riff patterns. Much of this material continued where South of Heaven left off but added the more powerful vocals and the confining necessity of certain basic harmonies that always shifts songs back toward the sound of three-chord rock. While the transition never completely occurred, the sensation remained. Still some great material on this LP however.

https://youtu.be/PEHzU3iRl9Y

1991

Finally, Slayer hit some big time and what did it was computers. In the late 1980s, the Macintosh made desktop publishing very easy because it had a built-in graphical interface. More zines started popping up, and the big music magazines felt the heat. I first heard the term “niche genre” at this point, and realized the new strategy was to sell something different to everyone at all times, kind of like postmodernism is an attempt to see any object from all angles. Although Decade of Aggression includes the slower and more emotional Seasons in the Abyss songs, it was a great time for Slayer to release a live album using the production values and performance standards of Reign in Blood on their older material as well. They decided to have very clear production for this live album, and to pan the guitars to opposite extremes so wannabe shredders could tab all the stuff out at home. The result is one of my favorite albums to listen to for outdoor activity and other trying times. I have probably fixed 100,000 machines to this album and, where I can enjoy the Seasons in the Abyss material, it is on this two-CD set.

Slayer: One of the few people who gave me a vision of reality and yet added to it a layer of inspiration in metaphor. You lived ten lifetimes in the one you endured here, like all greats. Slayer also brought heavy metal back to the table after it wimped out and then took a false step with speed metal, which while great in its own right, was not far enough from the herd to gain its own voice and quickly got assimilated (1992). Slayer lived on by birthing much of the underground metal to follow, and being an influence on virtually all of it. As long as I live, you will not be forgotten, and then others will carry on the magic of what you did…

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Slayer unveils new sound with “When the Stillness Comes”

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Slayer has introduced a new track, “When Stillness Comes,” from their updated 2015 lineup sans Jeff Hanneman (RIP) and Dave Lombardo, with Paul Bostaph (Forbidden) and Gary Holt (Exodus) filling in on drums and guitars. The track begins with what sounds like an attempt to make a simplified version of the introduction to “South of Heaven” or “Reign in Blood,” but it moves at an oddy pace designed for more comforting rhythm than confrontation. Then the track launches into a sort of Nine Inch Nails tribute with offbeat guitar chords appearing to accent the beat, and lots of chanting vocals. In its final minute or so, the track launches into an appreciable but formulaic impression of older Slayer while not dropping the somewhat groove-oriented approach of newer Slayer

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Stargazer – A Merging to the Boundless

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One of the great divides in metal music separates those who approach album making as holistic artworks in the tradition of European classical music, and those who view an album as a collection of songs in the tradition of old and new popular musics. If one takes the former route a certain artistic liberty is acquired that allows the artist to leave songs that occur in the middle of the album open to the possibility of continuation through incomplete conclusions.

Great Death Metal albums with work-oriented organizations like At the Gates The Red in the Sky is Ours and Morbid Angel Blessed are the Sick strategically position songs early in the album to serve as introductions to the album as a whole. An excellent and illustrative example outside metal is Ludwig van Beethoven‘s String Quartet Opus 132. Conceptual works also require a strong topical orientation, often including different styles or even wholly different genres which can be united under a topic that is not only general (music has no direct mappings to our mundane world) but also specific (music can evoke precise moods and auras that some might say lie in the world of ideal forms) and clear (so that it is apparent to the listener). Undefeated masterworks in this area are Johann Sebastian Bach‘s Mass in B Minor and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. This can be seen in the barely satisfactory conceptual realization of the otherwise great and inspiring The Voice of Steel by Nokturnal Mortum, more effectively (and miraculously, given the wildly different genres associated) solidified in Peste Noire’s L’Ordure à l’Etat Pur and more recently in the young Colombian effort of a more poetic nature and epic proportions Nadia by Cóndor.

If a band chooses the more simple song-collection method, it must again abide certain rules in order to maintain any semblance of reason because proper music, inspired, must go through the filters of reason to attain their greatest expression. These are born out of the whole of the mind, not just uncontrolled emotion, but rather harnessed emotion. Songs must be self-sufficient. Each song must be brought to satisfactory conclusion by both harmonic and rhythmic means appropriate for the nature of the song and of proportionate dimensions in relation to the rest of the song so that it wraps up the musical content as the ending of an essay brings the topic to a rational resolve. The song must have a parallel relation to that of the holistic conceptual artwork. The simplest way of attaining this independence is by simple Rondo form, or popular verse-chorus song as Iron Maiden does in unforgettable albums such as Powerslave or Slayer in South of Heaven. Epic Power Metal sometimes chooses to borrow a little of the concept-album emphasis of the former approach and effectively come to one type of middle-road arrangement; a good example of this is Rhapsody’s Power of the Dragonflame.

Despite all their technical competence, like many other modern metal bands StarGazer takes neither of these paths and instead attempts to aggregate random elements without linear order. Stylistically within the metal universe, A Merging to the Boundless draws from the old school technical death metal such as Atheist (especially in the way the bass is handled within the jazz-metal framework, although they let it get out of hand into more explicitly jazz-like outbursts) and pre-Covenant Morbid Angel (a stark reference to Morbid Angel’s Brainstorm can be found in the fourth track of this album, Merging to the Boundless). Under the guise of Avant Garde, which is essentially a claimed right to disavow any of the conventions of the genres from which they derive their music, StarGazer use these genres as a container for unrelated, distracted riffing.

What this and other modern bands fail to realize is that certain conventions are in place as essential part of the genre and are inextricably related to the aesthetics that superficially define it, and when you forcefully rip the latter from the former, you end up with a non-functional husk that can only serve as wallpaper. StarGazer still shows much more local-level coherence and sense than most in its neighborhood and certain structuralist conventions of old school death metal are followed, such as the use of a motif to unite a song, although this occurs only in the first two tracks with looser instantiations in other tracks. The band can be credited with generally being able to fuse influences into the the particular Avant-Garde sound they want to reflect, even if to a connoisseur of the genre the influences are a little too obvious, with the jazz and post rock limbs sticking clearly out amidst the clear and separate death metal ones like a Frankenstein monster whose stitches are clearly visible.

The other major genre that surfaces in this album is a form of lite jazz that results from bringing jazz into post-rock/metal. This is unified under the pretense of making progressive music. This progressive element is sometimes pulled out with a hint of the old (late sixties and early seventies, peaking in bands from England) real prog-rock art of smooth, logical transitions and clear progression (as in track five, “The Great Equalizer”) at least in some stretches of the songs. Unlike the old prog-rock art and the classical music it emulates, StarGazer does not make a clear enough division of main and subsidiary material and thus it sometimes feel like it is lost and wandering in its own compositions. “The Great Equalizer” stacks random ideas and unnecessary out-of-hand variations within the post-rock-sludge territory in lieu of composition, joining a long line of poorly realized music that purports to be progressive. A Merging to the Boundless crosses the line into pure jazz with metal overtones in sections of tracks (“Old Tea” features soloing jazz bass), and in this same thought goes beyond that and into post-rock ambiance which consists of strumming or picking chords once and again. In this same spirit the opening of “An Earth Rides its Endless Carous” is very reminiscent of Animals as Leaders in its plain and unrefined yet very affected obvious use of scales and arpeggios in a way that barely describes theme and melody but rather just runs up and down like a kid playing on a flight of stairs. In the last three songs, the more prog-attempted side of the album are rather inconclusive and feel overextended arising from what I can only judge is sloppy high-level design. After the fifth track, a return to simple, late Morbid Angel-style Death Metal with a pseudo prog twist brought on by interpolating Sinister-style riffs feels like going back to something that was already said in the album. If “Ride the Everglade of Reogniroro” were arranged before “The Great Equilizer,” it would probably only sound slightly redundant with what came before. I have this same impression of the last (poor-prog) track, “Incense and Aeolian Chaos,” that makes use Animals as Leaders plainspoken use of scale that morphs into old-styled prog/tech death metal that is wordy (faster notes) yet not more dense in content.

In the end analysis, A Merging to the Boundless wanders everywhere and thus goes nowhere. Songs suffer from clever low-level (local) arrangement and poor high-level (long distance relations and overall progression) design, which results in their structure being entirely cyclic or not having a clear direction in the long run and being inconclusive. Cyclic songs have rather forced endings while the more prog-oriented ones just dissipate into nothingness. This last thing feels as if someone takes you to a walk in the forest, strays from the past and just disappears, leaving you in the middle of the forest with no purpose or direction.

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A brief retrospective of Slayer

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Slayer blasted their way into the underground metal scene in 1983. Metal had just shifted; the genre of Black Sabbath got taken over by the Led Zeppelin fans, resulting in glam and arena rock, and was just being taken back by a DIY movement via speed metal. Inspired by that speed metal movement, Slayer took their music in a slightly different direction.

“Heavy metal and British punk, that’s what we are.” The four young men from Southern California shaped their music by instinct, applying the techniques of punk to the most intense moments of heavy metal. Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motorhead, Angel Witch, GBH and Discharge. It all went into the blender and the result emerged more vicious than ever before.

Woodstock – Los Angeles, CA – March 28, 1983

The Keystone – Berkeley, CA – January 27, 1984

The Country Club – Reseda, CA – September 1, 1984

Heavy Sound Festival – Poperinge, Belgium – May 26, 1985

Dynamo Club – Eindhoven, Netherlands – May 28, 1985

The Ritz – New York City – June 12, 1986

Felt Forum – New York City – August 31, 1988

Clash of the Titans – Genk, Belgium September 22, 1990

Show No Mercy reflected more of a heavy metal bias, still hanging on to the grandeur of the 1970s. By Hell Awaits, Slayer forged their own style, inspired in part by the minimalism of the Haunting the Chapel EP. Even more, the band discovered a mythology in Satanic rebellion against a world where the term “good” meant obedient, oblivious and zombie-like in pursuit of individual pleasure at the expense of realism. They hated this world, and branded it with an inverted cross in rage at its existence. This outlook was healthier than the pleading resentment of the protest rock bands and less dead-end apathetic than what punk became. Metal had a new voice.

With the next album, Reign in Blood, Slayer pulled out all stops and most melody to create the ultimate hardcore album. The metal elements infused riff structure and song structure but its energy was pure hardcore punk, the raging album that The Exploited and Black Flag always had wanted to birth. In the 1980s, endorsing Satan and singing about the dark underbelly lurking beneath our happy commercial Utopia was in itself a life sentence of exclusion. Slayer wore it with pride and as people caught on to the new music, the most extreme band in underground metal headed toward the dead center of the genre.

In response, Slayer did what few bands have the guts to do: they backtracked from their nihilistic extreme and made a melodic album, but kept the melody constrained to a sense of dark atmosphere that would not be revisited until black metal exploded four years later. South of Heaven immersed the listener in pure mood and then manipulated it to create an unnerving experience of getting in touch with emotion by leaving behind all that is human. This was the peak of Slayer and represented the end of their emotional involvement with their own music, thus afterwards they pursued ideas that others had made popular and successful, hoping to make their own form of the alien.

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Death metal albums of which I will never tire

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Early death metal (Bathory, Slayer, Hellhammer, Sodom, Master) emerged as an aggregate of the past, comprised of speed metal (Metallica, Exodus, Nuclear Assault, Testament, Megadeth), late hardcore (Cro-Mags, Amebix, Discharge, The Exploited, GBH), classic heavy metal (Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Motorhead) and thrash (DRI, COC, Cryptic Slaughter). As a result, most death metal bands exhibited some tendencies more than others, although the founding early death metal bands tended toward the type of tremolo-powered phrase-based riffing exemplified by Slayer.

For example, Deicide on its second album Legion arguably made the album that …And Justice For All wanted to be, with lots of choppy percussive riffing forming intricate textures from which a melody emerged. Early Master sounded more like a punk band with its simple song structures and emphasis on droning, protest-like vocals. Second-wave death metal like Death and Possessed had a tendency to apply speed metal song structures and riff styles. Even advanced death metal like Pestilence often sounded like a more technical and complex version of early speed metal.

But focusing on death metal requires we look at what was unique to it. Getting past the vocals and the intensity, what distinguishes it musically is its use of that tremolo-strummed phrasal riff. This in turn forced bands to escape from riffs integrated strictly with drums, and to as a result put more riffs into the song to drive changes that previous would have been done by the drums. That in turn forced bands to make those riffs fit together, what Asphyx call “riff-gluing,” so that songs avoided the “riff salad” plague that captured later speed metal.

These bands exploded onto the world from 1983-1985, inspired in part by Discharge’s Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing which hit the ground in 1982. Slayer in particular stitched together classic heavy metal and ambient hardcore like Discharge and GBH and ended up with its particular formulation, taking the tremolo and riffs independent of drums from Discharge and matching them to the complex proggy structures of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden with Motorhead speed and aggression. This was what launched death metal free from the shadow of speed metal, which was the first metal genre to break out of underground status despite being — for the time — fast, aggressive and dark.

If you want to get to the core of death metal, these albums might help. They’re albums I keep returning to year after year because they have enough complexity and that unquantifiable quality of having purpose and being expressive, perhaps even emulating the life around them and converting it into a beast of mythological quality, which makes them interesting each time I pick them up. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, the players….

Slayer – Show No Mercy

While Hell Awaits has more expert composition, South of Heaven better control of mood and melody, and Reign in Blood more pure rhythmic intensity, Show No Mercy captures Slayer flush with the fervor of youth and the belief in big concepts. As a result, it is an intensity mystical album, uniting a narrative about war between good and evil with the actions of people on earth. It is not like Hell Awaits more solidly situated in a single mythology, nor like Reign in Blood and after an attempt to explore the dark side of modern existence in a literal sense. Instead, it is a flight of imagination mated to an apocalyptic vision of a society crumbling from within. As a result it is musically the most imaginative of Slayer albums, creating grand constructions of visions of worlds beyond that stimulate the fantasy dwelling within our otherwise obedient minds.

Massacra – Enjoy the Violence

Another early album in very much the style of Slayer but with intensity cranked to the ceiling, Enjoy the Violence shows a band intent on conveying intense energy through their music. To do this, they rely on not only near-constant breakneck speed but also vivid contrasts between the types of riffs that are used in a song, welding a rich narrative from riffs that initially seem simple like the scattered twisted bits of metal left after a battle. The result is closer to epic poem that punk music and blows conventional heavy metal and speed metal out of the water with the sense of unbridled aggression and lust for life that surges through its passages. In addition, it carries on the mythological tradition of Slayer but adds a Nietzschean spin whereby constant war for supremacy and domination is the only path not only to victory, but to personal integrity.

Morbid Angel – Abominations of Desolation

Most prefer the more refined versions of these songs from Altars of Madness and Blessed Are the Sick, but my ear favors these nuanced and unsystematic detail-heavy songs which feature more of a blending of textures into what sounds like a communication from another world heard underwater or through the croaking voice of a medium. Trey Azagthoth’s solos were best when he used his half-whole step leaps to make solos that sounded like the creation of gnarly sculptures, and these songs powered by Mike Browning’s drums and voice have more of an organic jauntiness to them than the later mechanistic tanks-crushing-the-shopping-mall sound of the full albums. In addition, this combination of songs strays from the later more interruption-based riffing this band would attempt and instead brings out their inner desire to rip all ahead go at all times, creating a suspension of reality like war itself.

Incantation – Onward to Golgotha

When the idea comes to mind of death metal at its essence, this album will be mentioned because it creates a sound unlike anything else. Incantation took the Slayer riff and song formula and slowed it down, doubled the complexity, and focused on alternating tempos and riff styles to create a building mood of immersive darkness. The result was not only aggressive, but melancholic and contemplative, like a warrior looking out over an abandoned bullet-pocked city. Detuned riffs collide and deconstruct one another, resulting in a sound like the inexorable flow of black water through underground caverns as civilizations collapse above. This rare group of musicians achieved a triumph here that none have been able to repeat individually, suggesting this album was born of a magic confluence of ideas more than a process (ham sandwiches on a conveyor belt).

Carnage – Dark Recollections

If you want “the Swedish sound” at its most powerful, Dark Recollections offers every component synthesized into a package that has not yet had time to become self-critical and neurotic, and thus is an unfettered expression of the thoughts of precocious adolescents translated into sound. The components of Swedish death metal are the modified d-beat, the use of melody to expand song development, a gritty electric explosion of guitar sound, and a tendency to write songs that are half searing budget riff and half horror movie sound track.

Sepultura – Morbid Visions/Bestial Devastation

The first EP in this two-EP package is the more classic death metal version and packs a solid blast of inventive riffcraft staged with theatrical precision into songs that form narratives of the topics denoted in their titles. But the riffs are instant creations of their own, shaped from raw chromaticism and whipped into fury by two levels of rhythm, both in the change of chords and the texturing of the sounding of them. The result owes quite a bit to Slayer, Bathory and Hellhammer, but also to the punk hardcore underlying those acts and a good knowledge of dark metal of the time, and yet is still its own animal. Nothing sounds like this except it, and by giving itself a unique voice, it conjures a power of revelation that endows these songs with lasting enjoyment for the listener.

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Interview with D.X. Ferris, author of Slayer’s Reign in Blood (33 1/3)

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The second of May makes many of us uneasy because we remember the death of Jeff Hanneman, composer and architect of the Slayer approach to mythological alienation. The world isn’t the same without him, and many of us felt like we had lost a parent, since when adults refuse to grow up and speak honestly about life, children have to turn to other sources of information. Hanneman made sense of the modern world, no matter how apocalyptic the outlook ultimately turned out to be.

We are fortunate to get a few words in with D.X. Ferris, author of the books Slayer’s Reign in Blood (33 1/3) and Slayer 66 2/3: The Jeff & Dave Years. A Metal Band Biography. Ferris has spent the last several years writing about Slayer and understands the importance of this historic act not just to metal, but to the society around us all. Read on for the inner truths of writing about Slayer on this day we commemorate Hanneman’s life.

You’ve written two books on Slayer. What’s your relationship to Slayer? When did it begin?

My life is very clearly divided into Before Slayer and Since Slayer. I tell the story in my first book: Over the years, I had edged toward metal. I thought Metallica was as hard & heavy as it got. Then I read a review of Hell Awaits, and the review talked it up like a thrash masterpiece. So bought it. The first time I played it, it started with that big three-minute slow intro. I thought I had bought a bad album based on a bad review. But then the track kicked into the thrash part, and it was the universe cracked and a new dimension opened. And almost 30 years later, here I am, talking about Slayer.

Over the ’90s, I wasn’t as into metal as I was and am, but Slayer always stayed with me. My college notebooks are filled with Slayer lyrics and pentagrams. After college, when I’d sit in meetings, I looked like I was taking notes, but half the time, I was sketching Slayer logos — that’s one of the reasons why the new paperback looks like it does.

And the older I get, the more the band means to me. I think it’s curious how people get old and forget about metal. When you’re younger, metal is great music for when you’re pissed off. But when you get older and you have to deal with questionable coworkers and pinhead middle managers, that’s when you really need angry music. Slayer is always here for you!

How did you become a writer?

Writing is my one rare ability. I have tried doing literally everything else I though I could do: being a businessman in a suit, bartending, entering a doctoral program for corporate communication. Writing just keeps dragging me back to it. I wrote for school newspapers. I used the school newspaper as an outlet for record reviews. And gradually parlayed those clips into paying gigs as a writer.

Are you a metal fan “in general,” a Slayer fan or a writer who found this topic intriguing?

I primarily identify as A Metal Guy. I love a lot of other music. In high school, I was deeply into hardcore and punk, too. But I had long hair and the metal outfit: denim and some leather. In the picture I sent, that’s my same Anthrax back-patch from high school. The last three albums I bought were Triptykon, Behemoth, and High School Musical 2. Hey, I have kids. I could have scored free promo copies, but those dudes deserve my money.

What do you think is Slayer’s cultural impact?

Great question. Early in the book, I say “This is Slayer’s world, and we’re just living in it.” Look around is: The Twilight series is a phenomenon. It’s about vampires. There are four vampire shows in primetime TV — well, three now that NBC canceled Dracula. Walking Dead is the most popular TV show with young audiences. Game of Thrones is the most popular HBO show since The Sopranos, and it is metal as hell. In fact, I write weekly Heavy Metal Reviews of it for a website called Diffuser.fm, where I evaluate how metal the episode was. Since the days of Hell Awaits, long hair, violence, the undead, and the supernatural have saturated society. And that’s just the fantasy aspect, not to mention the fact that we’ve been at war over a decade.

Can you trace all that directly to Slayer? Maybe not. But they sure were ahead of the curve.

Your first Slayer-themed book appears to be Slayer’s Reign in Blood (33 1/3). What can you tell us about this book, and how did you end up being the one to write it?

I was a fan of the series. Each book is by a different author, writing about a single classic album, from the Beach Boys to the Beastie Boys. And something about it just called me and made me think “Go write a Slayer book for it.” I would have liked to write the Beastie Boys one, but Dan LeRoy beat me to it. When I looked down the list, I saw there was no metal in the series. So I pitched Reign. I knew it was a stretch. But, one, I thought there should be some metal. Two, if you look at the people who made the record, the album is an intriguing nexus in the history of rock: It was produced by Rick Rubin, who was known strictly as a rap guy at the time. It was his first rock record. And he would go on to work with about 10% of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee groups. Engineer Andy Wallace mixed everybody, basically, from Nirvana to Guns ‘N Roses. It was released on the rap label Def Jam. So it was the perfect metal choice, because the album reaches beyond metal.

Did writing this book change how you viewed Slayer?

It did. With pretty much any group, when you really dig into the credits and start crunching numbers, you realize that your impressions of the band aren’t necessarily right. Like, there are a lot of Who fans who assume Roger Daltrey wrote the words, because he’s the singer. I thought I knew a lot about the band, but it was really interesting to see how the leadership roles changed over the years, and how the artistic division of labor changed over time. And with the splits between Dave Lombardo and the band… Well, when I started the second book, I was partial to one side of the division. And when I was done, I had switched sides.

Last year, you unveiled Slayer 66 2/3: The Jeff & Dave Years. A Metal Band Biography. This looks to be more of a historical book. How did you come up with material, and what’s in it?

It’s a combination of new research, material that was breaking news at the time, and great stuff that wouldn’t fit in the first book: They wanted 25,000 words, I wrote 67,000, and they took 42,000. The new book is 110,000 words, with 59 chapters, 33 photos, 3 indexes (2 in the paperback), and 400 footnotes. Its full title is Slayer 66 & 2/3: The Jeff & Dave Years, A Metal Band Biography. From Birth to Reborn, Including Slaytanic Profiles, a New History of the Thrash Kings’ Early Days, Reign in Blood Tours, a European Invasion, the Palladium Riot, the Seat Cushion Chaos Concert, the Whole Diabolical Discography, Newly Unearthed Details From Dave Lombardo’s Turbulent History With the Band, Artwork and Some Photos You’ve Probably Never Seen Before, Jeff Hanneman’s Hard Times, the Big Four’s Big Year, Lombardo’s Final Exit, the Top 11 Hanneman Tributes, the Mosh Memorial Service, Untold Stories, Updates, Relevant Digressions, and More Scenes From the Abyss.

What prompted you to write a second book on Slayer?

Lombardo left the band for the third, and finally final, time in February 2013. Well, he didn’t exactly leave. But he was gone. It was a fresh shock in the metal world. And it should have been. But Slayer fans who knew history knew he had left twice before. So I decided I would write a short e-book about his trouble with the band: He was never in step with the rest of them. The first time he quit was during the Reign in Blood tour. And their relationship never recovered.

I figured it would be a 12,000-word e-book. I wanted to have it out by the end of April. All spring long, I kept getting sick. If I wasn’t sick, one of my kids was. I just couldn’t get the book done. April ended, the book wasn’t out, and I was pissed. Furious. May 1, I was fuckin’ pissed. May 2, I was even more furious. Then the evening of May 2, word breaks that Jeff Hanneman died. And there I was, with a Slayer book halfway written. So for the rest of the year, as the story unfolded, it grew from a little project to a full-on rock biography. One thing after another stopped me from getting it done, and every time, the delays helped, until at the very end, famous metal photographer and musician Harald O found some amazing photos that he had totally forgotten about. And that’s where the cover came from.

What’s an interesting Slayer fact most people don’t know?

Man… They just split with Rick Rubin after almost 30 years. And they were his only client from the 1980s. I don’t know how many younger metal fans realize how influential Dave Lombardo was for all metal percussion. He gets respect in the metal world, but rock fans don’t realize he’s one of the all-time great drummers. When Lars Ulrich was sick and Lombardo played two songs with Metallica, Ulrich was actually nervous. He said something like, “You try sitting in a hospital bed while Dave Lombardo is playing with your band.”

Writing the second book, though, the biggest thing I learned was how little Slayer has toured over the years. I mean, they’re a regular presence on the touring world. But the South of Heaven tour was something like, if I remember right, 60 shows. They took a lot of time off.

Do you write on other things besides Slayer? If so, what and where do we find them? If anonymously, can you tell us why?

I transitioned from music writing to news journalism a few years back, and I won some awards for journalism. But lately, I mostly teach college. I write some popular-culture stuff for Diffuser and The AV Club. And I’m working on a couple non-fiction projects I can’t talk about yet; one is a collaboration, so it’s not mine to talk about. I write a terrible webcomic called Suburban Metal Dad that’s not as autobiographical as you’d think, for a website called Popdose.

Have you visited the “International Day of Slayer” website? What did you think of that?

International Day of Slayer organizers Dag Hansen and Jim Tate are great! Hansen is among the people I interviewed for the book. I just heard on the radio that today is actually the International Day of Prayer, which was the original inspiration for International Day of Slayer. Last year, I thought it was really something when Kerry King took time to acknowledge Slayer Day and talk about Jeff’s absence. As I discuss in the book, I think it’s about as emotional as we’ve ever seen him in public.

What do you think Slayer’s lasting influence on metal has been?

Like I said, Lombardo practically invented modern metal drumming. They’ve been the standard-bearers for thrash. Metallica are huge, but Slayer has been the Big Four band that stayed true to their original sound and style. They never tried to cash in or cross over. They’re the gold standard for a credible long-term metal career.

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Happy 50th birthday, Jeff Hanneman

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Today, Jeff Hanneman would have been fifty years old. The man who helped invent the sound that underlies all of underground death metal did not, as the people around him in the LA suburbs tend to do, waste his life away in repetition. Instead, he forged his own path and we celebrate him for it and the results of it.

Way back in 1983, as now, the holy grail of alienated music was the fusion of any two of its genres: metal, punk and industrial. Specifically there was great interest in using its guitar-based genres to create a new sound. Many people attempted to fuse metal and punk, and many credible sounds came out of it. One path was speed metal, which Metallica unleashed with Kill ‘Em All. Another was thrash, which DRI cut loose with Dirty Rotten LP. But still another was the foundation of death metal and black metal which was introduced by Slayer and refined the following year by Bathory, Hellhammer and Sodom.

Slayer took two things from punk and injected them into the prog-influenced songs structures of NWOBHM: they borrowed the constant tremolo strum, used by punk for drone, and the open drum patterns that allowed guitar to take the lead. Now a new style of music emerged. Rhythm guitar became the lead instrument, rapid-firing changing riffs at the audience while drums framed but did not lead the development. Riffs did not have to perfectly fit the drums which kept going in the background as a kind of timekeeper but not, as in most bands, a way of signaling the guitar to change. Further, riffs became phrasal, building on the longer chord progressions of Black Sabbath to become fully small melodies, developing in response to on another like classical motifs.

Music teachers, who were raised in the rock/jazz idea that drums lead and riffs should emphasize harmonic and a static melodic role, with the primary melodic role and lead instrument (and thus impetus for song “development”) being the voice, found Slayer to be unmusical. The record industry was appalled at this creation that unleashed the demonic side of life in such clarity; they make their money from selling happy illusions, not grim realities translated into elaborately conceived mythologies.

And yet it is this mythological tendency, dating back to “War Pigs,” that saves metal from self-consuming and burning out like hardcore punk. It is not literal; it is imaginative. It turns our focus from ourselves to the nature of power, history, nature and other forces larger than the individual, and then lets us imagine the greatness of participation in those. Where punk turned reality into a protest weapon and source of alienation, metal has turned it into a source of individual desire to do something epic with our lives. Slayer gave that mythological tendency a new voice, not just by singing about demons, vampires and The Holocaust, but by translating the sound of raw power into something you could throw on your bedroom hi-fi and be transported to a different world.

For this reason, Slayer captured the imagination of a generation and continues to enthrall us today. The early albums, which are completely written in horror movie mythology, incite in us a desire to see the hidden possibly occult underpinnings of a society gone insane. The Reign in Blood and afterwards material shows us a more punk-like grasp of all that terrifies us and sends us searching for reasons why, and if not why, how to use such things as war, murder and sadism in some constructive way. Slayer is not protest music; it acknowledges the horror, but doesn’t want to band us together into a drum circle to “stop” these horrors. It recognizes they are eternal. Instead, like the religion it loathed, Slayer drives us to find a way to accept these things as part of life itself, and look for a philosophy that shows us a reason to survive despite all these horrors.

Jeff Hanneman’s influence pervades the Slayer story. He wrote many of the band’s most epic and enduring songs, contributed the mythological outlook, and invented the musical changes described above. While he may be slighted by the Grammy’s, or ignored by a world of people seeking Shakira tunes instead of imaginative but realist metal, to those who can understand his trip — already a naturally elite group — Hanneman’s work is not just a source of wisdom, but of inspiration. In a world asleep, he stayed awake. In a world of imitation, he took his own path. Where most just wanted to participate for reward, he took on life at its most basic level and triumphed. For that reason, we’ll always celebrate his life and work.


Chaos rampant,
An age of distrust.
Confrontations.
Impulsive sabbath.

On and on, south of heaven

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