Words: Joe Stannard
Photography: Cat Stevens
If you’re ever desperate for a concentrated hit of
anti-fun, I recommend you attend a photoshoot
with Californian metal legends Slayer. Today, we’re
down a grubby, piss-stained London alley watching
four stern, mirthless men in their forties lean against
a black metal gate. Plan B photographer Cat Stevens
is attempting to get them to loosen up and act
natural, but I honestly don’t think they know how.
“Do you guys talk to each other?” she jibes. “Ever?”
Cue a ripple of subdued laughter, spiked with a
subtle pang of discomfort. She hit a nerve there.
“I put our longevity down to compromise,”
confides Tom Araya (bass, vocals and greying
beard). “And in all honesty, I think I’m the one
who’s been doing the compromising. This could
have been through a long time ago. It’d be really
easy to break this band up. People ask me, ‘How
have you managed to stay together for so long?’
It’s because I’ve allowed it.”
Guitarists Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King are
men of considerable girth, if you take my meaning.
They wear sunglasses all the fuckin’ time, even
in their luxurious but actually rather drab and
dispiriting hotel rooms. Together, they stride around
like the finalists in a Big Bad Wolf contest. Araya
and drummer Dave Lombardo are impeccably
polite and cheerful. That is, when they’re not
around Hanneman and King.
“Another thing,” adds Araya, “is that you’re
bound by obligations. You have contracts. At the
beginning it wasn’t like that. But now everything is
paper and signature. ‘This says here that I own you.
Until you’ve met your commitments, you’re stuck
with me.’ So, you learn to avoid all that rather than
shoot yourself in the foot and have people start
telling you, ‘It’s your fault this is all going to hell
– you gotta pay!’
“But,” he sighs. “I really believe in this band.
That’s the biggest part. I believe in the music
“I live it every day/Don’t know another way”
Slayer’s new album Christ Illusion is being hailed as
a ‘return to form’ for the band. Those transmitting
this particular meme may have missed 2001’s utterly
savage God Hates Us All, but more about that later.
In any case, Christ Illusion isn’t a return to form, nor
is it a case of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ laziness,
as suggested when it was reviewed in September’s Plan B. Listen to the ouevre from 1983’s Show No
Mercy onward and two things become evident.
First, Slayer never lost their form. Second, no two
Slayer albums sound alike: the AC/DC of thrash
they ain’t. Christ Illusion represents yet another
shift in the band’s sound, being blunter and more
claustrophobic than any of its predecessors.
Everything sounds a little too close for comfort,
a little too real. If, as Plan B’s George Taylor states,
“The real magic has left the stage”, then it’s
perfectly consistent with where Slayer are right
now. In 2006, they have no use for magic. No
time for illusion. No mercy.
Constant throughout all this mutation has
been the furious howl of vocalist and bassist Tom
Araya. Much of the attention devoted to Slayer has
concentrated on King and Hanneman’s riffs and
their wayward, almost harmolodic soloing, or
Lombardo’s formidable drumming. But Araya’s
vocals are an indispensible element of Slayer’s
sound, hidden in plain view, yet immediately
recognisable and distinct from the generic ‘cookie
monster’ style that predominates in the world of
“When I go back and listen to Show No Mercy,
Haunting The Chapel and Hell Awaits,, you can
hear that I’m trying to sound really angry and
aggressive,” Araya smiles. “But on Reign In Blood,
I started singing differently. It just came naturally.
I guess it became very distinctive. I’m amazed I was
able to sing the way I sang on those first three
records, because singing that way can really fuck
up your voice. Maybe in the studio I was doing
that, but when I sang the songs live, I was belting
them. So when people say, ‘You’re a singer!’ I say,
‘No, I’m more the screamer in the band. I scream
He’s also a consummate character actor,
inhabiting each lyrical role with genuine conviction.
Songs concerning serial murderers are a staple of
metal, but few are invested with the humanity and
empathy Araya brings to ‘Dead Skin Mask’ (an ode
to Ed Gein) or ‘312’ (a tribute to Jeffrey Dahmer).
On putrescently psychedelic numbers such as
‘Seasons In The Abyss’, ‘Bloodline’ and their cover
of Iron Butterfly’s ‘Inna Gadda Da Vida’ it is Araya
that brings the weirdness, his multitracked vocal
lines slipping and sliding over King and Hanneman’s
riffs with queasy lubriciousness. Lombardo
graciously acknowledges Araya’s contribution
to the band’s rhythmic impact.
“When Tom sings,” remarks the drummer,
“the guitars become just a floating sound. It’s not
something that I follow. But there’s something
between me and him, the vocals and the drums,
that sets this pulse. It’s amazing. I heard a recent live
recording, it was one of the slower ones like ‘South
Of Heaven’ or ‘Dead Skin Mask’ and man, we were
just dead on! Tom’s vocals were locking into the
drums and it grooved so well, I was just blown away.
I kept playing it over and over again, telling my kids,
‘Listen to that! Listen to that! Listen how he locks
into the drums!’ Everything else didn’t matter.
What mattered was the vocals, and the beat.”
Dave Lombardo rejoined Slayer in 2001 after
a nine-year absence, but Christ Illusion is the first
album to feature his unmistakable double-kick work
since 1990’s Seasons In The Abyss. During his time
away from the band he established himself as one of
the world’s leading avant-rock drummers, working
with John Zorn, Mike Patton and DJ Spooky. While
his replacement Paul Bostaph did a fine job of
keeping the heartbeat of Slayer speeding into the
(blood) red, Lombardo brings a non-metal dexterity
and suppleness to their music, incorporating the
exploratory zeal of the dedicated improviser.
“I always wing it,” he nods. “I make it up as
I go along and even live, I try to add a little bit more.
Because I’ve learned the songs so well, it’s like,
‘Wow, I should have done this in the recording
session!’ But I can never go back. It’s an increased
courage. I’m more positive and more confident
about what I’m doing now. It’s good to be back.”
Lombardo’s stupefying, rapid-fire battery was
instrumental in making 1986’s Reign In Blood
a serious contender for the title of The Greatest
Metal Album Ever Recorded. Around 28 minutes
of concise brutality and relentless morbidity, Reign
In Blood is the album most owned by people who
only own one Slayer album. And perhaps rightly so.
But while Reign’s place in the canon is secure,
I’d argue for God Hates Us All as Slayer’s greatest
achievement on their own terms. A grand
dramatisation of Kerry King’s bitter disgust at
everything, God Hates Us All essays alienation on
a galactic scale. It’s a sonic invocation of the secret
part of us that identifies with the suicide bomber,
the serial killer, the extremist…The part of us that
wishes the whole world would just fuckin’ burn,
because that’s all we deserve. We’re all complicit
in the endless cycle of human misery, whether
through inaction, malice or plain human weakness.
It doesn’t matter. We’re all the same. Guilty as fuck.
“I hate everyone equally…just me in my world of
enemies” – ‘Disciple’
It isn’t solely a case of Slayer – or Kerry King – versus
the world. The band’s rage is equally capable of
turning in on itself. But while the internal conflicts
experienced by contemporaries such as Metallica
and Megadeth have resulted in dismembered lineups,
substandard music, or both, Slayer are peculiar
in that the antagonism that lies just beneath the
surface seems not only to fuel the band’s creativity
but also ensure their continued survival. During our
interview, Tom Araya implies that his unhappiness
with King and Hanneman’s tight grip on the
songwriting credits almost led to his departure.
However he claims to have learned how to use
this dissatisfaction as a motivational tool. It sounds
debilitating in theory, but check the guy’s track
record – it works.
“I have to find an outlet for it,” chuckles Araya.
“And it seems to work well for me. It’s that constant
drip of oil, fuelling the fire.”
There’s no better indication of negativity
fostering creativity than ‘Supremist’, the last song
on Christ Illusion. It’s a damn near perfect illustration
of why Slayer are still a vital creative force after 20-odd years. ‘Supremist’ is a musical scourge, a purge,
a holocaust. Sure, you’ve heard that before. But this
song is genuinely horrifying, more so than anything
death metal or grindcore has to offer and on a par
with the rampant nihilism of Norway’s black metal
elite, minus the cartoonish Satanic posturing.
Beginning as a waspish hardcore speed-fest, the
song warps through various riffacious permutations
until it bursts into the final movement, at which
point everything just goes off. Tom – frenzied yet
excruciatingly human – intones, “Must maintain
control of the weak/Must contain the minds of
the free”, while Kerry and Jeff lay down an electric
hellscape somewhere between classic Celtic Frost,
Godflesh and early Swans. Shards of feedback
descend like fire from heaven and guitar strings
whine like the human spirit crushed under the
yoke of tyranny.
I tell Tom that this is the most chilling song on
the album, and add that its effect is less to do with
velocity or heaviness, but the creation of an
atmosphere that is uniquely Slayer-ish.
“When you hear a riff, it’s not a question of
whether it sounds like it should be a Slayer riff or
whatever,” he agrees. “It’s about creating an
atmosphere. It’s got nothing to do with speed,
it’s got nothing to do with the cookie monster
voice. It’s got everything to do with the mood
that you’re creating.”
That old chestnut from George Orwell’s
Nineteen Eighty-Four about a boot stamping
on a human face, forever…Well, it’s been a little
overused. But fuck it, it applies here. ‘Supremist’
is a stark vision of humankind’s final subjugation
and subsequent extinction. In a world where
you might be worried about stepping on a bus,
train or plane for fear of being blown to bits by
homemade explosives, or about the increasingly
stubborn weirdness of American foreign policy,
or about the stifling climate of fear that we’ve
been plunged into over the last few years, this is
potent, relevant stuff.
Meanwhile, the rictus grin ‘culture of the
monoform’ as described by filmmaker Peter Watkins
(Punishment Park, The War Game, The Gladiators)
grows ever more firmly entrenched. As the world
collapses around our ears, we’re encouraged to
keep smiling, keep fucking, keep shopping. Yet
also to be afraid. Very afraid. It’s a mad world, for
sure. And if any band articulates that madness more
accurately than Slayer, I’ve yet to hear them.
This article first appeared in Plan B issue 15