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:
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
Tags: 2015, retrospective, slayer
4 thoughts on “Slayer retrospective”
Great article, Brett.
To those who missed it, go back and read the Thrasher interview linked to under 1989. Some insightful stuff in there:
Insightful. What makes underground metal work is that it is a communication between riffs, not fills based on note progressions.
“This [‘Seasons in the Abyss’] was where Slayer and I began to part ways” – same thing happened for me.
I wanted ‘Seasons…’ to grip my imagination like any of its predecessors, but it never did. Death Metal was flourishing at that time, so it wasn’t too much of a wrench to give up on new Slayer albums from that point onwards.
‘South of Heaven’ was my first Slayer LP, followed by ‘Live Undead’. These are still the two albums I invariably reach for whenever I feel the need for Slayer.
A few interesting things happened on that album: (1) Slayer lost its mythological topical approach (2) by rumor, Kerry King was taking music lessons, and focusing more on harmony (3) vocals took precedence over guitars. It never had the same intensity as earlier albums but was easier to half-ear listen along with like most of the mellower heavy metal.
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