"I thought maybe Mercyful Fate might come knocking, but no." Inside the rebirth of Slayer legend Kerry King

Kerry King
(Image credit: Future (Cover shot: Travis Shinn))

On November 29 and 30, 2019, Slayer brought the curtain down on their 38-year career with the second of two consecutive shows at the 17,500- capacity LA Forum. It was a momentous occasion, but Kerry King, guitarist and co-lyricist since the very beginning of the band, shed no tears before, during or after the show. “I don’t think I had time,” he says today, casting his mind back. “I was busy. Was it overwhelming? Yeah, probably. But tears? No, I don’t think one came out.” 

The managers of the Forum had extended the curfew until 3am to facilitate a fabulously messy after-party, but even as family members, friends and VIP guests including Kirk Hammett, Scott Ian, King Diamond, rapper Post Malone and actor Jason Momoa offered their congratulations and best wishes on the night, Kerry had already mentally clocked off, eager to make his next move. 

Not only had he already discreetly assembled a new band, and earmarked which unreleased songs from sessions for Slayer’s 2015 Repentless album this as-yet-unnamed group would re-record for his debut solo album, he had even thrown out a handful of bespoke plectrums at the end of each gig on Slayer’s 19-date Final Campaign victory lap. 

These picks, collectors’ items today, displayed a silhouette of King playing guitar in front of a wall of flames on one side and the words ‘Reborn 2020’ on the other. With this simple declaration of independence, Kerry King made it clear that, post-Slayer, he would still be taking care of business on his own terms. “I knew what my future was, and I knew what that future would sound like,” he says now. “I just hadn’t envisaged a pandemic putting the future on hold for so long.” 

The global shutdown did at least afford Kerry additional space in which to perfect his plans. He was rarely idle. In fact, the lyrics for two songs on his album were completed during one 36-hour quarantine period spent in a hotel room after testing positive for Covid-19. All the while, he kept details of his new project locked down. “I’m dragging my feet on letting the world know what I’m doing because there’s no rush,” he told Hammer back in October 2021. “But you will see me in the future. It will be fucking good.” 

As of May 17, you can decide for yourself whether his debut solo album, From Hell I Rise, lives up to that promise. But trust us, if you’re a Slayer fan, you will not be disappointed. Having previously described it as “an extension of Slayer”, the guitarist is fully aware that From Hell I Rise will be judged against one of the most formidable catalogues in the history of metal. 

“I feel this record is some of the best stuff I’ve ever done,” he says with the quiet confidence of a man who knows that the work needs no hype. Elevated by career-best performances from his new all-star band - Death Angel vocalist Mark Osegueda, former Vio-lence/Machine Head guitarist Phil Demmel, ex-Hellyeah bassist Kyle Sanders and long-time Slayer drummer Paul Bostaph - the album’s 13 songs are all thrillingly intense, unrelentingly aggressive and fearlessly uncompromising.

That ferocity is enhanced by scathing lyrics that rage against intolerance, bigotry, hypocrisy, corruption, feckless politicians, brutish warmongers, the church and the state. Two songs – the title track and apoplectic state-of-the-nation address Rage – are holdovers from the Repentless sessions. Everything else sounds like it could be, albeit with Phil Demmel’s classic metal melodicism and Mark Osegueda’s expansive range adding texture and dynamics.

Is it Reign In Blood good? Don’t be ridiculous, no metal album will ever be Reign In Blood good again. But, song-for-song, From Hell I Rise effortlessly crushes almost everything Slayer have released since Seasons In The Abyss in 1990. 

“Did I feel like I had something to prove?” Kerry considers. “I think I felt that more on the last Slayer album, because it was the first album without Jeff [Hanneman, King’s fellow guitarist and songwriter in Slayer, who passed away in 2013, aged 49]. I think I had a chip on my shoulder because I knew people were saying, ‘Ah, Hanneman isn’t there, it’s not going to be that good.’ But then Repentless came out and they were like, ‘Huh, King can do it on his own.’

“This is completely on me, so I knew that I had to come up with some great stuff. I think of myself as a fan first, so if I’m into it and I think it’s something really special, I think my fans are going to think it’s awesome.”

Kerry King - Toxic (Official Music Video) - YouTube Kerry King - Toxic (Official Music Video) - YouTube
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The guitarist’s beautiful Manhattan home, located in the hip, upscale Tribeca neighbourhood, is the type of apartment for which the expression ‘property porn’ could have been coined. Purchased in 2022 by Kerry and his wife Ayesha for a reported $3.65 million, its minimalist decor – all white walls and gleaming surfaces – is a world removed from the chaotic, blood-soaked hellscapes his music evokes. 

“The white walls mean you can put out any kind of painting or sculpture,” he explains politely when this contrast is mentioned. “And while we’re certainly not fine art collectors, it’s nice to be able to create your own vibe.” 

While the Los Angeles-born Kerry never expected to end up living on the East Coast, he concedes that New York has “a different but super-cool vibe”. He credits Anthrax bassist Frank Bello and Skid Row guitarist Dave ‘Snake’ Sabo as easing his relocation to the Big Apple, and talks up the area’s restaurants.

“My main worry here is knowing what to eat without sitting around and getting fat, because I gotta get back to work soon,” he says, referring to his debut solo shows later this year. 

In conversation, the 59-year-old is relaxed and good-humoured, much less brusque than he sometimes comes across as. But you won’t get that impression from reading his furious lyrics throughout From Hell I Rise. He singles out a line from the song Toxic - ‘Too many people spend too much time forcing their opinion on other people’s lives’ - as pivotal, admitting that much of his disgust throughout the album comes from his anger at seeing how America has become more polarised in the wake of Donald Trump’s rise to power midway through the last decade. 

“Of course there are places in the world that are far worse off than America,” he says, “but since 2016 it’s gone bad here, it’s been… [long pause] a nutty ride, how’s that?” 

Before Slayer split, Kerry made no secret of his opposition to Tom Araya’s vocal support of Trump, and while it wasn’t the pair’s divergent political views that led the band to break up, he acknowledges that the opportunity to call out shit exactly as he sees it in his lyrics now is liberating. “I knew that I wasn’t going to get any backlash saying what I felt,” he says. 

By his own admission, he was totally blindsided, and not a little irritated, by Tom’s decision to call time on Slayer. “We quit too early,” he stated bluntly in 2021. “Fuck us.” 

In an interview with Rolling Stone on February 5 this year, the same day as the album’s first single, Idle Hands, was released, Kerry admitted that he hadn’t spoken to his ex-bandmate since the post-gig party at the Forum. 

“Not even a text. Not even an email,” he said, then casually added: “But I don’t wish him dead at this moment”. Which made what happened next even more surprising. Just over two weeks later, it was announced that Slayer would be reforming to play a headline show at the Louder Than Life festival in Louisville, Kentucky on September 27 (more festival date announcements followed). 

It’s difficult not to view the timing of the Slayer reunion announcement as weird at best and damaging at worst. Media attention switched in an instant from one of 2024’s most eagerly anticipated metal albums to the most unexpected reformation of the year. Days before our scheduled interview with the guitarist took place, an instruction was received from the guitarist’s camp that the subject of Slayer’s return would be off-limits in this conversation, with his UK publicist monitoring the interview to ensure this directive is followed. 

It’s odd, given the guitarist has never been one to duck a difficult question. He cheerfully admits today to being “a little bit surprised” that he didn’t receive a single approach to join another band after rumours of Slayer’s planned retirement were confirmed, expressing mock indignation at this industry-wide snub. “I got a reputation! I don’t suck!” he protests. “I thought maybe Mercyful Fate might come knocking, but no. I was like, ‘What the hell is going on here?’” 

More seriously, he confirms the rumours that he entertained the possibility of collaborating with Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo. “He heard some material, but honestly that was about it. We talked, emailed, texted, off and on, he’s a hard guy to get on the phone, a hard guy to get responses from,” he says, insisting that he harboured no regrets when those discussions petered out. 

Read between the lines here, and there’s a distinct sense that while an alliance with Anselmo would have delighted some industry big-hitters, Mark Osegueda was always the man Kerry wanted fronting his band. “I knew, at the end of the day, what the right decision was,” he says tactfully of his final choice of singer. “I was just waiting for it to fall into my lap.”

Kerry King 2024

(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

The first person Kerry played his new album to was Brian Slagel, the founder and CEO of Metal Blade Records, a neat full circle moment ahead of his second act. It was Brian who introduced Slayer to the world in 1983 when he included their song Aggressive Perfector on his label’s Metal Massacre III compilation, and Metal Blade released the band’s first two albums, Show No Mercy and Hell Awaits, as well as the Haunting The Chapel and Live Undead EPs. 

He remains one of only a handful of people whose opinions Kerry values, and the guitarist makes no effort to temper his delight with the feedback Brian offered when he heard an early playback of From Hell I Rise. “I don’t even think we got past the third song before he told me that the hair was standing up on his arms,” says Kerry with a chuckle. “I said, ‘Well, I guess it’s a hit!’” 

The prospect of being involved with hit records was far from either man’s thoughts when Brian offered Slayer that slot on the Metal Massacre III album after watching them opening for the Metal Blade band Bitch in Anaheim, California. Which is not to say that the teenage Kerry King or his bandmates lacked ambition, focus or drive.

After the guitarist purchased the first Metal Massacre compilation, which featured Hit The Lights by ‘Mettallica’ [sic] as the closing track on side two, his own band’s collective opinion was, “We can come up with something better than this shit.” 

Today, he recalls that even when they were filling out their setlist with Iron Maiden and Judas Priest covers, Slayer never doubted their own potential. “We’re talking about teenagers,” he says, “and teenagers think they can do anything. We knew we had something good. We hoped and believed that the world would come around to heavier music, and so it proved.”

Such was Kerry’s commitment to the cause that when his father, employed as an aircraft parts inspector, offered to find his musician son a position at the same company, the proposition was met with the enquiry: “Will I be able to go on tour?” Told “Probably not”, the guitarist responded: “Then thanks, but no thanks.” 

“Back then I never had a job that I’d have been upset to lose,” he recalls. “I worked at a jewellery store, and a minigolf place, and a pet store, but I always said that if a gig came up, and I couldn’t get the time off, then it was, ‘See ya!’” 

To their credit, Kerry’s parents remained supportive of their youngest child’s ambitions. After Brian Slagel informed Slayer that he didn’t have the money to release a full-length album on Metal Blade, it was Mr and Mrs King who, along with Tom Araya, chipped in to finance the recording, pressing and releasing of Show No Mercy

Today, Kerry admits that it wasn’t until the release of Reign In Blood, at which point Slayer got to tour in a bus, that he felt the band’s future was secure. “I’m pretty sure I didn’t consider us rock stars,” he says, “but if I look back, I think I probably thought, ‘Well, at least we’re in the brotherhood now.’” 

He singles out Slayer’s first appearance at the Monsters Of Rock festival at Donington Park in 1992 as highlight of the band’s storied career. “That was really big for me, a dream come true, because we’d always read about these incredible bills featuring incredible bands, and it took us a long time to get there. Plus I got to meet Venom that day!” 

Despite the bullish persona, he says it took him far longer than it should have to be able to talk to his heavy metal heroes without feeling like a total fanboy. “Tony Iommi is a total idol to me, so to be able to talk with him like a normal person would blow my mind,” he says. 

It’s here that you get a glimpse of the sweet, polite and rather nerdy Kerry King that existed before the discovery of a) Van Halen and b) girls derailed his studies, and before an obsessive love affair with heavy metal led to the formation of Slayer and the 38-year journey that brought him to this point. It seems like an opportune moment to address the elephant in the room. 

When the realisation hit that Slayer would not last forever, what was his first thought? “That I wasn’t done.” 

Timing-wise, is it not odd now to be doing promo for your record, when literally weeks ago it was announced that Slayer are coming back to do these shows? There is the briefest of pauses before he answers. 

“Yes, it was not my favourite timing. In Kerry King world, would I have wished that that announcement had taken place a few months later? Absolutely. But that was out of my hands. The announcement came, and people got all excited or all pained about it, but hopefully when I release another song, the attention will switch back to my record.” 

So are you looking at these shows as basically a good promo opportunity for your record? “I think that’s my manager’s idea, and my promoter’s idea, that’s how they look at it,” he says. “[The Slayer reunion] is not going to translate into recording and it’s not going to translate into touring. For me, it’s three shows marking five years since our final shows, a fun, ‘Hey, remember us from before the pandemic?’ celebration.” 

Have you spoken to Tom since the news broke? “No.” 

Is that not a bit unusual? “What’s usual? There’s no textbook for this stuff. It’s not like I’m angry with him or anything, we’re very different people, and we evolved into business partners at the end of the day. He has very different interests from me, and very different outlooks. Does that make me hate him? No. But I don’t need to talk to him every day.” 

We’re not trying to stir up shit here… “Oh, I know.” 

…but how is this going to work, practically? Will you wait for management to force you into a room together to rehearse? “It’s not weird. We just don’t have much in common. When it comes time to rehearse, I’ll have no problem showing up. We’re professionals, and that’s what we do.” 

At this point, a muffled interjection from another voice on the call indicates discussion of this particular topic is now closed.

Kerry King - Residue (Official Music Video) - YouTube Kerry King - Residue (Official Music Video) - YouTube
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Before our conversation closes, Kerry mentions that today he’s dressed “in camo, my zip-up boots, and a band t-shirt”, same as ever. It’s a neat visual reminder of just how little he has changed after four decades, even if the world around him is almost unrecognisable from the one in which he and his teenage buddies set out to form the darkest, fastest, heaviest and nastiest metal band the world had ever seen. 

“There is no Kerry King ‘character’,” he says at one point. “What you see is what you get. You all know me. I have no reason to lie.” 

From Hell I Rise was never intended to change that. Whatever ‘So begins my revolution’, the teasing opening lyric of Idle Hands, may imply, Kerry King isn’t seeking to break free from his own history. 

“If I had any craving to deviate from the path - trying out some sensitive singer/songwriter shit or showing off a new-found interest in jazz - this would be the time to do it, right?” he says, chuckling once more. “But that’s not who I am. I’ve been playing the kind of music I love for most of my life, and while I think what I’ve done on this record has a mildly different spin on it, there’s no question when you turn it on who you’re listening to. 

“Is that enough for everyone? It’s enough for me. I still write riffs that make me lift my guitar over my head and do a little victory dance because I’m so stoked with how they sound. There’s a whole new energy to this record, and a whole new excitement, but it’s not a whole new me, because I’m not finished being me. And if you like what Kerry King does as much as I like what Kerry King does, you won’t be disappointed.”

From Hell I Rise is out now via Reigning Phoenix. Kerry King plays Download Festival this weekend. 

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.