Slayer: Beyond the Pyre
Slayer bequeaths Repentless, which delivers an assault of machine-gun riffs with an underlying message.
“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”).
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.
“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.”
Slayer frontman and bassist Tom Araya plays his signature ESP model, which has an alder body, maple neck, ebony fretboard, Gotoh tuners and bridge, and EMG 35DC pickups. Photo by Ken Settle
That resolution did not come easily. “For the first time in my life,” King continues, “everything was a question mark after Jeff got sick and had to be replaced—we’d hoped temporarily—by Gary, and then died. The last few years have been stupid hard as we’ve tried to figure out if we wanted to keep going, if the music still translated onstage and in the studio without Jeff, and if the fans were still going to be into it.
“Touring with Gary for the two years before Jeff died answered our questions about the fans, who’ve stuck with us. But it wasn’t until I wrote ‘When the Stillness Comes’ that I could stop holding my breath.”
Repentless makes the case that Slayer is Slayer on every track, whether Araya’s taking the bully pulpit in the anti-racist “Pride in Prejudice,” which glides on a deep head-banging groove, or King and Holt are setting fires with their tag-team approach on compositions like “Take Control,” a sonic joyride that starts with a “Misirlou”-meets-metal intro and speeds into a tidal wave of riffs that stills just long enough for the two string-slingers to trade solos—Holt going for a hot melody and King sculpting an anthemic crescendo.
The album’s title number was also composed as an ode to Hanneman, who cofounded the band with King after they met at an audition and jammed on tunes by Def Leppard, AC/DC, and Judas Priest.
“I wanted to write a song about the way Jeff looked at the world,” says King. “He was repentless, just like Slayer is repentless. Jeff shared my views on religion. He believed we make our own destiny. No regrets. The challenge was working the aspects of his playing into the song, letting the riffs evolve in little variations as it goes on. And then me and Gary just let the solos rip.”
Ripping solos have been Holt’s specialty for as long as Slayer has been Slayer—albeit mostly with a different band: Exodus, which he joined and then led in 1981. And he’s got plenty of experience in guitar partnerships. Kirk Hammett was Holt’s fretboard foil in Exodus for two years, until Hammett departed for Metallica in ’83.
On Relentless, Holt blazes in “You Against You,” playing rapid-fire melodies over King’s chords. And on “Take Control,” he delivers an essay in high-speed single-note chromatic soloing, whipping the song’s instrumental break to an ecstatic level.
Like King, Holt is fond of his wah pedal. Both frequently use the classic effect as a transitional flag, announcing new sections of a song or a solo with its sweep. And Holt, in particular, uses the device as a treble boost, snapping it down to make his tone more cutting. It’s a move first mastered by such old-school guitar heroes as Hendrix and bluesman Albert Collins, and still a reliable attention getter a half-century later.
Holt also sidesteps thrash clichés, using space for dramatic effect—a concept learned from influences that include Robin Trower and Ritchie Blackmore—and avoiding sweep arpeggios. “I was sweeping my ass off years ago,” he explains. “I was way into Yngwie when he came along. But I’ve consciously moved away from that with Exodus and with Slayer.
“Since my playing in both bands is essentially the same stylistically—except I play more chromatically with Slayer and use more scales with Exodus—going into the studio with Slayer for the first time was really natural. And while Kerry was writing new songs and we were making Repentless, I was also working on a new Exodus album, Blood In, Blood Out. So there wasn’t a lot of time to overthink things. I played from the gut.
“The trickiest thing about Slayer was adjusting to the way Jeff and Kerry write chord changes,” Holt adds. “It takes a while to get inside their heads by analyzing the songs and watching Kerry play, and it’s only after that happened that I could learn their note selection and preferences, which dictate where I need to go.”
Bassist Tom Araya (left) and guitarist Kerry King are the only original members in the current Slayer lineup.
Photo by Ken Settle
King, who was the primary songwriter on Repentless, also helped with that. “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.
“One thing a lot of people don’t know about Kerry is how hard he works,” Holt continues. “We’d have a day off on tour and I’d just want to see the insides of my eyelids. Kerry would disappear into his room with his guitar and write songs all day.”
Much of the album was composed during Slayer’s 2013 European tour. “I like to think visually, and I get a lot of inspiration for song ideas from movies and things I see in everyday life,” says King. “So I think of the songs on Relentless as 11 mini-screenplays.”
Riffs are typically King’s opening reel. “I have two acoustic guitars at home, and I don’t think they’ve ever seen the outside of their cases,” he laughs. “But I play my electric guitar unplugged when I’m writing songs and when I find a riff, I record it on my iPhone. I put the phone on my knee so it’ll pick up the sound of the strings. I may come up with an intro riff, a chorus riff, or whatever. But after I come up with that first riff, my job is to find its ‘friends.’ A new riff doesn’t have friends yet, but when I come up with another riff that works with it, and another one that works with that new riff, and they all start to connect, that’s when I know I’ve got a song. It’s all about finding riffs that are each other’s friends and putting them together.”
Sometimes King’s “friends” stay lonely for a while. The chorus riff for Repentless’ “When the Stillness Comes” was written 20 years ago.
“I’d mess with it from time to time, and put it away again,” he says, “but this time it started to have friends. After I got the riffs and chords for the song together, I wrote the lyrics during a three-hour van ride through bum-fuck nowhere to get to the next gig.”
The result is one of Repentless’ most melodic, dynamic, flowing numbers. It starts with a subtle guitar melody supported by gentle cymbal strokes from Bostaph, then relents to a chugging and slashing wall of guitar that builds to a sonic pyre, while Araya smoothly croons about violent death ... proving yet again that Slayer lives on.
“With every album, we do grow musically and lyrically as a band,” says Araya. “But this time, just managing to move forward was the goal, and we did it one step at a time.“Originally the band was four parts,” he continues. “Then Dave left, and it was three. Now it’s just two of us, and me and Kerry have come to terms with the idea that as long as we can continue to approach things in the right way, Slayer will be Slayer.”
This live video from a 2014 German concert displays the current Slayer lineup tackling a band classic, the song “Angel of Death” from 1986’s Reign in Blood. The interplay between Kerry King and Gary Holt heats up at about the 1:30 mark, when they tear into unison riffs that straddle melody and rhythm. Two minutes later Holt proves why he’s such a capable replacement for the late Jeff Hanneman. It’s a textbook performance by this thrash metal institution.