The Slayer guitar partnership of Gary Holt (left) and Kerry King is working well. “Kerry picks the spots he thinks are well suited for me to solo,” Holt explains, “and after three years of playing together on the road, he knows my style well and those spots are usually exactly where I already have a cool part in mind. We’re really in sync.” Photo by Ken Settle

“Slayer is Slayer.”

The historic thrash-metal band’s current lineup of fret burners repeat this statement like a mantra in conversations about, well, Slayer. But the truth is, Slayer isn’t Slayer—at least not the same Slayer that played their first brutalized notes together in 1981 and dripped aural blood drawn by the horn of Satan all over their debut album Show No Mercy.

For one thing, cofounder Jeff Hanneman—a much beloved creative force in Slayer and a ferocious guitarist—is gone. Tragically, he died from liver failure in 2013, at just 49 years old.

And for another, already a decade into their career when they released 1990’s Seasons in the Abyss, Slayer evolved and has kept evolving. Songs about soul-sucking demons wreaking havoc were replaced—albeit not entirely—by observations about more real evils like nuclear war (“Skeletons of Society”) and rampant gang violence (“Expendable Youth”).

“The trickiest thing about Slayer was adjusting to the way Jeff and Kerry write chord changes.” —Gary Holt

And so without the late Hanneman, Slayer has gone on with guitarist Kerry King and bassist and singer Tom Araya penning numbers about the horrors of battle, the dangers of religious fanaticism, the oppressiveness of racism, and other societal schisms. And they’ve packed those messages with brass-knuckle precision and a very un-thrash obsession with hook-based songcraft that’s earned Slayer two back-to-back “Best Metal Performance” Grammys for 2007’s “Eyes of the Insane” and 2008’s “Final Six.”

The point is, the Slayer that wrote those prizewinners about war and moral corruption—and has just created the new album Repentless—is different in character from the band that recorded “Fight Till Death,” “Show No Mercy” and “Die by the Sword” on their debut berserker fest.

It’s true that today’s Slayer is indeed Slayer, in that the group remains as hook-conscious and cold-forged-sledgehammer hard as ever. And that’s regardless of lineup changes, including the arrival of Exodus guitarist Gary Holt in 2011, and drummers Dave Lombardo and Paul Bostaph swapping that gig back and forth, with Bostaph ruling the drum throne for Repentless.

But deep down in the DNA of Slayer 2015 there’s also a fat strand of Phil Ochs, Woody Guthrie, and Joe Hill, which means that despite Slayer’s standing as a foundational and durable thrash metal outfit, they’re also veteran protest singers. This social consciousness is often overlooked due to the band’s ceaselessly heavy musical pyrotechnics.

Tom Araya's Gear

ESP Tom Araya Signature model

Marshall VBA400s
Marshall custom 8x10 cabinets

dbx 160A Compressor/Limiter
MXR Bass DI+

Strings and Picks
Dunlop Stainless Steel mediums (.045 -.105)
Dunlop heavy picks

“You could look at it that way,” Araya says by phone from a hotel room outside Philadelphia where Slayer’s moored for a show in nearby New Jersey. “And we’ve all had our roles in writing songs that protest different things. Jeff covered the violence of war and its effects on society. I covered the psychological aspects of the evils that men do to one another. And Kerry is the anti-religious guy—he chronicles organized religion’s wrongs.”

King, the band’s other remaining charter member, concurs. “I guess the Slayer thing has been to get on your soapbox and give the listener a piece of your mind,” says the stocky tribal-tattooed metal titan, “and it’s been that way for a long time.”

Something else worth noting: On Repentless there’s not a single song about a serial killer—something of a specialty in Araya’s lyric-writing skill set. “Dead Skin Mask,” a song he co-wrote with Hanneman that was inspired by the notorious Wisconsin cannibal Ed Gein, remains one of the genre’s greatest paeans to a dark-hearted bringer of death.

Well, maybe there is just one: Repentless’ bright, biting “Atrocity Vender,” but its first-person meth-blast of vitriol is a little vague. Nonetheless, King’s and Holt’s fanged guitars charge through the tune like a pair of enraged Tyrannosaurus rex, panned left and right in the mix to better cut the air until a wiggy wah-wah solo jumps in.

Despite his absence, Hanneman’s ghost hovers over the new Slayer album. “When the Stillness Comes” is King’s musical tribute to his fallen friend. The intro is built around a few clean-picked, chorus-soaked notes that refuse to resolve, and the gnashing chord progression stays equally edgy and troubling.

“Jeff always played the moody guitar parts, so I decided that I needed to step up and take that role in addition to coming up with the riffs for the record,” says King. “Once that song came together, I knew that Slayer was going to be able to continue to be Slayer.”