Play It As It Slays
Slayer hasn't stopped giving the devil his due.
BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
There's an unwritten rule in American society that once you grow up, you don't listen to metal anymore," says Kerry King, guitar mutilator for Slayer. "And that seems to happen in bands, too. I don't consider Metallica to be a metal band anymore, or Megadeth. But this is still the music I want to make, and that's probably why it comes across to the fans. Because I am still really into it."
That's putting it mildly. Even after nearly two decades of sonic dismemberment, King reacts to the subject of heavy music like a starving dog responds to roadkill: by sinking his teeth into it and getting messy. Moreover, his enthusiasm for such mayhem seems completely unaffected by commercial considerations. If the members of Slayer had softened up their sound over the years (and reduced the thematic body count), they'd probably be headlining arenas right now. But, no: King, vocalist/bassist Tom Araya, guitarist Jeff Hanneman and drummer Paul Bostaph continue to utilize bloodthirsty riffing, screaming solos, lightning-quick tempos and couplets about death and what leads to it, just as they always have. And King insists that the act's next album, due for release in early 2001, won't significantly change that equation.
"It's pretty much along the lines of what we've done in the past," he notes. "If I wanted to do a departure, I'd do a side project or something. But the fans say, 'Stick to your guns,' and that's what we're doing. We evolve a bit, but we do it within the realm of the Slayer sound. I mean, I could go out and write Bon Jovi songs all day, probably, but I'd get laughed right off the stage. And it'd take a fucking long time, too, just coming up with those sappy lyrics. Who needs that?"
Not King, who initially describes himself as "the Stephen King of metal" before reconsidering. "Actually, that's probably not bad enough," he says. "Whoever the worst guy is out there right now, that's me."
And so it's been for a long, long time. King, Araya, Hanneman and original drummer Dave Lombardo co-founded Slayer in Huntington Beach, California, just south of Los Angeles, in 1982. They soon evolved from a brawny cover band (Iron Maiden tunes were a staple) to an act with a distinctively nasty streak. A track on Metal Blade Records' Metal Massacre III compilation led to a contract with the company, which issued Slayer's debut, Show No Mercy, in 1983. It wasn't pretty, which is precisely why the kids in the grimy SoCal metal underground so readily clasped it to their collective bosom.
A couple of EPs (1984's Haunting the Chapel and Live Undead) and another long-player (1985's Hell Awaits) broadened the cult, but it took 1986's Reign in Blood to make Slayer notorious. Co-produced by Rick Rubin, the Def Jam honcho who helped push hip-hop into the mainstream via his work with the Beastie Boys and many others, the disc is an aural blueprint of the relentless amphetamine roar that's being made by basement-dwelling malcontents to this day. Better yet, it avoids many of the stereotypes that would come to define the genre in later years. For instance, Araya's singing is passionate and brutal, yet lacking in the sort of Lurch-meets-Cookie Monster growling that turns so much death metal into a parody of itself. It's no wonder that Kerrang magazine christened it the best thrash-metal album of all time.
But, oh, those words. Beyond some of the most violent imagery ever committed to vinyl, Reign, reissued in an expanded edition by the American imprint two years back, juxtaposes "Altar of Sacrifice," an ode to the dark side of the force ("Learn the sacred words of praise: 'Hail Satan'"), with "Jesus Saves," which takes numerous straight-to-the-fly shots at Christianity ("You spend your life just kissing ass.../In an invisible man you place your trust"). And that's not to mention "Angel of Death," a gruesome portrait of Dr. Josef Mengele, the butcher of Auschwitz, that sports such lines as "Destroying without mercy/To benefit the Aryan race/ Surgery with no anesthesia/Feel the knife pierce you intensely/Inferior, no use to mankind/ Strapped down, screaming out to die."
Because of such verbal bouquets, Columbia, Def Jam's distributor, balked at circulating the album (in the end, Geffen Records did the job), spawning a controversy that brought Slayer even more attention. Before long, the majority of the press coverage implied that, as King tells it, "we were neo-Nazi devil worshipers." Today he laughs off this interpretation, indicating that Reign's topics were chosen mainly because they provoked such extreme reactions among the Mom-and-Dad contingent. But the reputation follows the band to this day, with at least one fan Web site declaring that King remains affiliated with the Church of Satan. King hoots at that contention, too.
"I've never been part of the Church of Satan," he says. "I couldn't even get halfway through the Satanic Bible, because it's worded in a way that would make anyone think they were Satanists. It's propaganda bullshit."
Such distinctions were lost on many of Slayer's boosters, including the small percentage who had a tough time recognizing the line between the fantasy world and the real one: All of the featured guests on an infamous episode of Geraldo about "kids who kill" named Slayer as a personal fave. Given that, it's no wonder the band became a target of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a de facto censorship group overseen by Tipper Gore, whose husband, Al, was then a senator from Tennessee.
King admits to being a little unnerved by the thought that Tipper, whose efforts led to the "parental advisory" stickers that are now so commonplace that most consumers don't even notice them, may wind up as America's First Lady. "That's how wacky this country is," he says. "I couldn't believe it when Al became vice president. I thought, man, that's getting a little too close to the top." But King doesn't anticipate that Mrs. Gore will use either the campaign or a possible move to the White House to jump back on the suppression bandwagon. "If she does become First Lady, I don't think she'll want to come across as Superprude. I think she'll weigh her decisions better. Besides, we don't get hassled for the things that we used to get hassled for ten years ago. We're pretty much the same band, and we still get the parental-advisory stickers on everything we do. But now nobody cares."
Indeed, the rise of gangsta rap shifted the focus of cultural cops away from Slayer, allowing the combo to keep on keeping on -- albeit with fewer overt Beelzebub and Third Reich references. Some aficionados were disappointed by 1988's South of Heaven, mainly because some of the numbers moved at the sludgier speed of Black Sabbath, but most ultimately came around thanks to the putrid vigor of the title track, "Mandatory Suicide," and the King-and-Hanneman penned "Ghosts of War" ("Violence inflicting of pain, savage morticians deny/Drive the salt in the wound"). That was followed by 1990's Seasons in the Abyss, which MTV actually chose to promote -- the first and last time that's happened.
"Anymore, I think they're afraid of the sponsors, the people that buy the advertising time," King says. "If the sponsor doesn't like your format, the sponsor will have you change it or they'll pull their sponsorship." After a pause, he adds, "Plus, I think they lost their 'nads."
The same can't be said of Slayer, whose subsequent discs -- 1991's Decade of Aggression Live, 1994's Divine Aggression, 1996's hardcore-covers collection Undisputed Attitude and 1998's Diabolus in Musica -- varied in quality (Divine is the most solid, Attitude the biggest mistake), but not in overall hostility. The players' resistance to mellowing has inspired metal mavens to describe Slayer as the most principled and dedicated of the early thrashers, which both pleases and amuses King. "I wanted to make up T-shirts that'd say, 'I'm the Only Role Model You'll Ever Need,'" he declares, guffawing.
Still, no one's likely to confuse him with Ward Cleaver. When asked the age of his only child, Shyanne, he says, "That's a damn good question. I'm thinking maybe...six?" (He's been out of touch because of negative feelings for the girl's mom, his second ex-wife: "I don't talk to that woman anymore.") But such rock-and-roll behavior only seems to endear him more to the younger musicians joining Slayer on the current Tattoo the Earth tour. "They react to me like I react to [Sabbath's] Tony Iommi," he points out. "Like the Slipknot guys. I'm hanging with them every day now, but they were a little dodgy around me when we first hooked up. You know, I'd hear them whispering, 'Man, Kerry fucking King's here.'"
Slayer's been spending so much time on the road that King has had to cut back on everything non-music-related. He once bred Akitas (rather than sacrificing them, as his critics might have expected), eventually winding up with several dog-show champions, in large part because he was smart enough not to put them through their paces himself: "I hired somebody else to do that. If I'd done it, they wouldn't have won a fucking thing." But anymore, his schedule doesn't permit him to do as much hanging with the lower species, which is also why he's winnowed down his collection of snakes; the slithering herd he keeps in his home in Paris, California, near Riverside, is down from 400 to 60. Pretty much the only time he slows down is when he's ready to retire for the night. He usually listens to the Eagles because, he says, "it puts you to sleep, don't it?"
Mostly, though, King prefers to keep pumping out the evil, if only to dirty up a music scene that's too squeaky-clean for his taste.
"I think people are ready for reality music again," he declares. "A lot of them just go with the trends -- like, 'I guess I should buy Britney Spears or listen to 'N Sync.' And I'm not saying that shit's gonna die, but people will get sick of that and say, 'Man, I want to hear something angry today.' And that's what we're here for."