The Difficult and Overrated Legacy of Slayer
February 16, 2018 | by Jeffrey Thiessen
And then there were three.
A few weeks ago, one member of the somewhat arbitrarily titled “Big Four” (Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, Megadeth) threw in the towel. Slayer released a formal statement announcing they would be embarking on one final juggernaut of a tour. The statement was a little vague in regard to the band’s future, as there were no outright condemnations of future music or one-off shows, but for all intents and purposes, most metalheads are assuming this is Slayer’s white flag.
If there was any betting action being placed on which of those bands would bite the dust first, the smart money would have to be on Slayer. Losing demi-drumming-god Dave Lombardo for the second time in 2013 should’ve been the knockout punch resulting in the same band fate as Zeppelin when Bonham choked on the gallons of vodka he threw back that fateful day in 1980. Not to shit on Paul Bostaph (really, he was about as ruthlessly competent as the fans could’ve hoped for when they soldiered on), but there was no denying Lombardo’s influence in forming the chaotic aggression and identity the fans so closely identify as Slayer. Sure Bostaph was an extremely technically proficient drummer, but was that ever really the point with Slayer? Blood and soil was the point here, not streamlined power.
If that wasn’t enough, in 2013 Slayer’s guitarist Jeff Hanneman tragically died of liver failure after years of chronic alcoholism (not to mention a serious case of necrotizing fasciitis likely caused by a spider bite and his refusal to seek a physician’s help for these things). Considering he was responsible for writing their biggest songs (“Angel of Death,” Raining Blood,” and “War Ensemble”), one could be forgiven for assuming the loss of Hanneman was truly the death rattle. Inexplicably, and almost against lead vocalist Tom Araya’s immediate words after Hanneman’s death, Slayer pushed on. Not that it really shifted directions a whole lot — they sporadically toured around with Exodus’ Gary Holt taking on Hanneman’s place, and released one entirely forgettable album (2017’s Repentless) before calling it quits. Then again, the original lineup was in place for one of Slayer’s weakest efforts, 2009’s World Painted Blood, so it’s unfair to blame Bostaph and Holt for the lame predictability of Repentless, even if it did have the feel of a band blatantly attempting to placate their fanbase by whatever means necessary. This has sort of been Slayer’s safety-net approach to all their releases since the (minor) fan backlash towards highly underrated Diabolos in Musica released in 1998. But Relentless seemed… just oddly boring, a description that, for all Slayer’s faults, couldn’t really be applied to the majority of their releases (save for the achingly dull South of Heaven misfire following Reign in Blood).
Assuming Slayer is now toast, how do we properly look back on their legacy? I’ve never really known what to make of their fanbase, one of the most fiercely loyal out there. Having been to a lot of shows put on by the Big Four, Slayer gigs are the only shows I can count on for the same amount of chaos and brutality found at their mid-’90s shows. Does that say a lot about them, or their army? Slayer’s music didn’t exactly evolve (or, devolve for that matter) over the last few decades, but their brand continued to show astonishing amounts of strength and perseverance, existing solidly in the mainstream, even as their ruinous musical approach remains as uncompromising as ever. Their autonomy was basically unprecedented in the metal genre, which is both strangely impressive and sadly isolating.
Reign in Blood and, to a lesser degree, Hell Awaits are considered absolute classics and perhaps two of the most important early incarnations of thrash metal. Looking back on that time period, it’s clear Slayer developed a sustainable brutality, aggression, and most importantly, a workable aesthetic their fans have developed a never-ending thirst for. It goes without saying that I could spend this whole piece articulating all the different ways Slayer assaulted our stereos and mosh pits, but that would be pretty redundant, as almost all of their albums are reworked versions of Reign in Blood. In fact, Slayer has more than flirted with self-parody for quite some time now. Take 1994’s “Dittohead,” one of their most brutal offerings, which was totally squandered by a featured track supporting the voice of Rush Limbaugh. I actually love the song itself, and Divine Intervention is by far the most consistently impressive Slayer album, but by that point in their catalog diminishing returns had begun to set in. Ultimately the song remained the same, and seemingly so did fans lining up to buy these records.
But, of course, Reign in Blood started it all. It’s a blitzkrieg assault that never blinks, never offers even a second of compromise, and (at 28 minutes) never threatens to overstay its welcome. It also has some of the smartest sequencing I’ve seen on a metal album, with two of thrash’s most memorable tracks bookending it. “Angel of Death” and “Raining Blood” don’t sound dated in the least, and still retain all the ridiculous power that stormed the gates of the metal community in 1986.
There is the unfortunate issue of the songs in between “Angel of Death” and “Raining Blood.” While tracks like “Jesus Saves” and “Altar of Sacrifice” are serviceable placeholders between those two leviathan songs, no metal fan could really look at those objectively as meaningful contributions to the genre. Certainly didn’t advance it, something we did see in later releases like the aforementioned Diabolous in Musica (“Bitter Peace,” “Point,” and “Screaming From the Sky” all put a twisted, interesting stamp on thrash) or especially “Bloodline” on the re-energized but wildly inconsistent God Hates Us All. Every song on Reign in Blood, other than those two staples of heavy metal, are razor-thin augmentations to the Slayer continuum being systematically pushed into the mainstream. The Reign in Blood flyover songs stink in almost every conceivable way imaginable, displaying none of the creativity or theatrics resonating so strongly in “Angel of Death” and “Raining Blood,” sharing only the blunt-headed visceral trauma. Which maybe, with hindsight, is all the fans wanted anyways. The riffs on most of these middle tracks push forward at breakneck speeds without any attention to actually taking the music to interesting places, and the frenzied solos on “Piece by Piece” and “Necrophobic” are completely wild, out of control, and more than a little masturbatory.
Is Reign in Blood one of the most overrated albums of all time? Certainly on a musical level when studied from start to finish. Slayer certainly put out an unprecedented album chock-full of metal being played at some pretty wild speeds, but if you’re gonna hold it up against Master of Puppets and Number of the Beast, to name a couple, there has to be actual good songs and not just raved-up madness. Power dynamics pushed to such high octanes sure did bulldoze a lot of accepted quotidian trends seen in metal during that time, but sooner or later all power structures crumble, and in the case of Reign in Blood, there isn’t a whole lot of meaningful remains beyond the initial blast. The ripple effects did carry over for 30 years though, so it’s probably wise to not downplay how seismic it really was. This trend carried Slayer for the rest of their career: Almost every studio album had two or three extremely effective offerings, and the rest just mindless thrash filler.
“How did this happen?” is an entirely fair question to ask, and a good starting point would be giving immense credit to the enormous level of self-awareness this band possesses (other than the content of “Dittohead,” of course). It’s not a slight; Slayer understands what they’re good at and aligning that recipe to what their fans expect from them. It’s a very rigid relationship between the two, but who are we to judge if it’s worked for this long?
Here and there Slayer do stumble onto a randomly catchy riff — we know they can when we turn on something like “Disciple” or “Cult” — but they also have some really annoying tendencies. They love riding the opening 6th string, and that gets horribly repetitive with every album (although it must be said this is very common in thrash). Their solos are almost always nonsensical, existing unto themselves without any real regard to the rest of the track’s structure — fast, random scaling paired with aggressive whammy bar fuck-arounds. Araya's vocals are distinctive, but have been pretty tame the last few releases. Overall, the vast majority of their songs sound almost exactly the same.
So that brings us to the present. It’s tough getting here since, from Reign in Blood on, there isn’t exactly a beginning and an end, just a bunch of people walking around in Slayer shirts. One aspect about Slayer that was surprising was the timing of their breakup. Slayer has always been extremely adept at latching onto the inner, unexplainable anger of the white male. They might actually have a chance at a real voice in the country in 2018, as ugly as this collective hateful roar has proven to be in many cases, and it sure didn’t hurt their chances when Araya threw his support behind Donald Trump. The convenient aspect of Slayer’s M.O. as it pertains to the current U.S. climate, is they always sort of hedged their bets. This ensures they really never run the risk of alienating chunks of their fanbase. They hate war (sort of, we think, who the fuck knows), they hate organized religion (sure of that one), and they seem to be sort of indifferent about Nazis/white power (jury seems to be out there but it’s not exactly working in their favor).
I will hastily throw out the lyrics of “Angel of Death” as being outright pro-Nazi, as metal bands have always been embracing the macabre in a variety of ways totally acceptable within the metal genre. Singing about a Nazi doctor could pretty much be described as somewhat tame when you compare it to a lot of other acts in the death/black metal subgenres, for instance. But Hanneman did publicly did give the white power gesture (along with Holt), and he’s the first one to admit he has a huge collection of Third Reich memorabilia. Combine that with their astoundingly block-headed cover of Minor Threat’s “Guilty of Being White,” with the subsequent changing of MacKaye’s lyrics to “Guilty of Being Right,” and one could be forgiven for assuming Slayer might have the tools to properly set up camp in certain overly hostile sects within the rapidly mutating atmosphere of the U.S.
I don’t want to politicize Slayer too much, as like most metal bands, they have mostly just embraced an extremely vague laundry list of “acceptable metal topics” (hating god, singing about serial killers, 666 screams, etc.). And by extension, I obviously don’t want to politicize their followers, nor do I want to imply these oafish, racially charged statements are actions the majority of their fanbase subscribe to. Nobody is making the argument their fanbase is contaminated with this sort of odiousness, but like any extreme band, there will always be those who don’t know where fantasy ends and reality begins. I do hold Slayer accountable for coddling that small sect, even if it wasn’t done habitually.
Whatever you make of their muddled political statements, Slayer clearly painted themselves into a corner musically, and plenty of knowledgeable metalheads cannot find a way to take them seriously, and in that regard I do feel a little bad for the band. Say what you want about King and Araya, but I’m quite certain they’re smart enough to know their music won’t stand the test of time, as it’s already being replaced by metal that’s more brutal, faster, and just plain better (Dekapitator and Warpath to name a couple obvious ones).
Their impact was felt loud and hard at the birth of extreme metal, but even the strongest punch in the gut eventually is recovered from and forgotten. Slayer never seemed interested in truly taking their fans on a musical tour through hell, they just wanted to keep their boots on their throats as they routinely beat them into submission. With later straightforward curb stomping efforts like Christ Illusion and World Painted Blood, it’s tough to really argue the contrary.
Now that it’s all said and done, the Slayer brand exists essentially as strong as it ever has. I still see their merch everywhere, and it’s not uncommon to see young teens rocking Slayer attire, although it is difficult to say if it’s worn ironically or not. Their aggression hasn’t been diluted one iota, their unyielding speed is pretty much as savage as it was in their heyday, and many of their fans seem to be in a perpetual state of zombie-like worship. There is no crisis of identity in the 11th hour, Slayer is still Slayer. This tour will likely sell out most dates, and it will bring the band a lot of dough. They really did find something untapped with Reign in Blood, and the best thing they ever did was wiring into that and holding on with everything they had. As Naomi Klein famously wrote in No Logo, at some point the biggest of brands surpass the quality of the product they are offering. How well it’s designed or performs becomes besides the point, and more than anything, the logo becomes the desirable aspect, as it has become entrenched into a certain perceived image, or identity the consumer wants to publicly embrace.
Slayer did not create a great album with Reign in Blood, and they didn’t create a single great album following that one, but it was the beginning of a great brand in the classical sense of the term. The music didn’t really make sense, nor did the lyrics (lots to pick from here, but Araya screaming “It’s all about the motherfuckin’ oil!” in the vaguely anti-imperialist words of “Americon” could definitely be seen as a true low point for the band) — but that fit in perfectly with the listeners, whose silent scream was the only thing they could really make sense of. Ultimately, Slayer will always be chained to that same bowl of vomit, it’s just hard to say how long the stench will last, or if they’ll keep selling t-shirts.