It’s disconcerting, taking a piss, and finding your next-door neighbour at the pee trough suddenly breaking into an animalistic roar. Shouldn’t they be focusing more on the task at hand? We are men, and yes, we must roar, but we also have garden sprinklers for genitals and such things require fierce concentration.
It’s a kind of ‘who’s here?!’ call, we guess. A rumble emitted from the bellies of beasts; a verbal locking-of-the-horns to assert your status in the herd. There seems to be a rule that the larger the roarer is in girth, the louder and more tremulous the ‘SlaaaayRARRR!!’ must be. Outside the toilets, while struggling through a sea of semi-naked, sweat-slicked male bodies, Slayer’s female UK PR is routinely ass-slapped and felt up. Loud bastards. Fucking morons.
“There’s too many smiling faces!” gushes Slayer singer/bassist Tom Araya, and I’m wondering if he’s been at the same gigs as us. “You look out in the crowd and you don’t see angry faces. You see smiles! They’re all like…” Tom breaks into a huge, exaggerated cheesy grin, chuffed to bits with the audience reception on Slayer’s Unholy Alliance world tour. “They’re just smiling away, makin’ faces at you. Y’know, if someone smiles, I’ll smile at them. To make them aware that we connected.”
The Unholy Alliance tour is, in spirit, a return to the 1991 Clash Of The Titans tour, which Slayer co-headlined with Megadeth and Anthrax – thrash’s victory parade. Featuring Lamb Of God, Mastodon, Children Of Bodom and Thine Eyes Bleed, these are the thrash babies grown up.
It’s a great package tour, but, a couple of dates in, it’s unbelievably depressing to find Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom a 95 per cent male-dominated sweatbox, where the few girls are repeatedly groped and harangued. It’s a Neanderthal attitude, seemingly sanctioned, with spotlights picking out girls in the balconies between bands, the whole crowd jeering and bullying them to flash their tits or arse. It’s something you would’ve expected from a Mötley Crüe show in the 80s, not Slayer in 2006.
What does Slayer mean to you in 2006, Tom?
The friendly, permanently chuckling frontman frowns hard and gazes out of the window of his St. Louis hotel. There’s a long pause. “A full life,” he answers at last. “I’d have to say that it’s a means to make a living.” He chuckles. “Or at least that’s what it’s turned out to be in recent years.”
Does it feel more like a job now?
“Yeah. Yeah, I think it’s like that with every band,” he sighs. “The playtime is when we’re onstage – that kind of erases all the shit that goes on in between. That’s not a job.”
The Unholy Alliance tour marks the Los Angeles band’s 24th year. The Slayer of today are barely recognisable as the amphetamine-fuelled teen headbangers of the 80s, clad in brilliantly silly spiked leather armbands, whose frantic live performances you should check out on YouTube. These days they don’t move as fast, but they still play fast. And they still look fucking cool – guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman flanking Araya like machine gun snipers who’ve got his back, and Dave Lombardo reigning over all of them on his towering drum riser, blasting out artillery beats. Araya is recovering from a gall-bladder operation so he stands back, letting the audience belt out the opening verses to live favourites like South Of Heaven and Angel Of Death, grinning incongruously at the carnage in the pit.
“In our younger years we were pretty crazy! But then you were young and invincible!” Tom laughs. “Then you grow up and find out that you’re not! You get older and you mature, but that certainly doesn’t mean that you stop loving what you do.”
At this point in our interview, a giggling pair of small children – healthy looking, honey-skinned Californian kids – come running over, hesitating at the sight of Hammer’s microphone. They’re Tom’s kids.
Tom beams and you can see the pride in his eyes. “Yeah, they’re mine,” he nods. “Seven and 10. My boys actually sit behind Dave on the drums and copy him. Going bezerk! That’s a good sign. They both have little drum sets.”
How nice is Tom Araya? Tom Araya is so nice. I want Tom Araya to be my dad. How the fuck Araya and his bandmates managed to conjure such bile and bite on their new album Christ Illusion – a tightly-wound piece of nastiness that Hammer’s Features Ed described as sounding like a rattlesnake in a tumble dryer – then, is a mystery. On tracks like Cult and Jihad it seems that Slayer’s role is to list all of the evils in the world and spit it, cobra-like, back in the world’s face – the voice of immaculate sin.
Nick Cave once said of his time in Aussie destroyers The Birthday Party that he envisioned himself as the mouthpiece of an angry god: “All I had to do was walk onstage and open my mouth and let the curse of God roar through me… I was a conduit for a God that spoke in a language written in bile and puke. And that suited me fine.”
As the mouthpiece of Slayer, with all that concentrated nastiness flowing through him, is that how Tom Araya feels when he sings and plays?
“This is how I am,” he explains, patting his t-shirted chest, a ponytailed, gentle dad with a huge smile. “I’m like this, until show time. Onstage now I don’t portray the seriousness that I used to in the early days. It’s nice to smile. You’re singing about death and murder and killing babies… and you’re smiling. I want everyone to see that I’m having fun.”
“Tainted?” guitarist Kerry King cackles loudly. “Dave’s tainted?!”
Maybe not tainted, but Dave Lombardo is the only member of Slayer to have a profile outside of the band. He had to forge his own identity – forming his own metal band Grip Inc., playing with Mike Patton’s Fantomas and collaborating with myriad non-metal musicians – because he was thrown out of Slayer in 1992. In taking him back that must have concerned King, the perceived leader of Slayer.
“No, I think Dave knows exactly what is demanded of the drummer in Slayer.” Kerry turns to his drummer, with whom he fell out acrimoniously in the 90s, alleging that a cocaine habit had crippled his prodigious percussion skills. “And I think by you doing other things, you came up with some stuff that me and Jeff would never fuckin’ think of.”
Lombardo rejoined the band as a touring drummer in 2001, but Christ Illusion is the first music he’s written with King in 15 years. Immediately prior to writing, Lombardo announced that Kerry King didn’t want him to play on the album. Was there a difficult period of reconciliation afterwards?
“Yeah, no, nothing,” Lombardo twitches as Slayer’s two guitarists, sitting either side of him, observe impassively through mirrored shades.
There were some bitter words from both sides.
“Yeahidunnoiforget.” Lombardo rattles off quickly, and dismissively.
“We just picked up where we left off,” says Jeff Hanneman.
“Yeah, well maybe a year before we left off,” Lombardo corrects. “So, we’re fine, yeah.”
Kerry and Jeff, did you hear Fantomas’ Reign In Blood medley?
Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman’s heads turn sharply towards Lombardo.
“We did a medley,” Lombardo explains, looking slightly uncomfortable. “A Slayer medley. Where we play five or six songs together in very abrupt parts. It’s pretty neat.”
“So you’re making fun of us,” Hanneman says, nodding.
“No! Actually, it was honourable, honourable… uh… you know what I mean.”
In his decade long sojourn from Slayer, Dave Lombardo became a much sought-after musician – working in all genres of music, from avant-jazz to hip-hop and even classical. Slayer, meanwhile, with replacement drummer Paul Bostaph, alienated some fans with a less intricate, more hardcore-influenced direction. As Lombardo’s official Slayer comeback, fans have rabidly anticipated Christ Illusion.
Dave, what did you think of the albums that they made without you?
“Um…” he pauses. “I was very anal. On what Paul Bostaph was doing. And it was frustrating for me, so I just put them away.”
“When Dave wasn’t in the band it just wasn’t the same!” Jeff says. “We were still playing and it was still Slayer, but once he came back the chemistry was there again.”
The chemistry that the four members generate is unique. Slayer aren’t just an important metal band – the music they make sounds like nothing else. No one plays like Slayer. Slayer songs are almost mathematical – whirling grids of strange, shifting rhythms sliced up and down by King and Hanneman’s serial killer guitar solos and marshalled by Lombardo’s extraordinary drumming. Lately their music has been revered by the avant garde community, with even the Cologne Contemporary Jazz Orchestra attempting to interpret the Slayer oeuvre.
“Drummers are continuously playing like a metronome onstage or whatever,” says Dave, who insists that the other bands on the Unholy Alliance expedition don’t interest him.
“I think it’s really boring. I look at Slayer more like an orchestral thing where you have crescendos and diminuendos within the music.”
With no formal training, King, Hanneman, Araya and Lombardo began playing shows in their lunch hour at high school and essentially made up their own kind of music. It was labelled ‘thrash’ or ‘speed metal’ because it was lightning fast, and because King and Hanneman’s lyrics dwelt heavily, and almost childishly, on death, hell and the devil.
It’s a theme that hasn’t gone away, now updated on Christ Illusion into a broader, more socio-political swipe against organised religion. “The target’s fucking Jesus Christ/The one I’d love to sacrifice!” snarls Tom on comeback single Cult.
“Slayer and God aren’t best friends,” states Kerry, somewhat mildly.
Slayer seems blasphemous not so much for the lyrics (which, it’s fair to say, have always the weakest point in Slayer’s armoury), but for the actual sound of the music. The music is always fast, vicious, intelligent – like it’s a super-weapon designed to actually take down a deity.
“They use the notes that were banned in the time of classical music, that scare people,” Lombardo explains, referring to the discordant ‘diabolous in musica’ chord interval that gave Slayer’s 1998 album its title.
“When I come up with something that sounds dark or evil, it makes me think bad thoughts.” Jeff Hanneman smiles. “And I like that.”
Why do you like thinking bad thoughts, Jeff?
“OK, Spill The Blood. You know that opening riff? When I hear that I just wanna slit somebody’s throat!” The Aryan-blonde guitarist laughs. “Spill the blood!”
Do you think of your music as a kind of violence?
“More like a release than violence,” says Kerry. “I mean, we go out on stage and we thrash around for an hour. And when you get done, you’re just all, wow, that’s cool. Let’s have a drink. Chill out for a while.”
Slayer are at their most effective when at maximum speed and velocity. Maybe it’s because fast denotes danger. Things that can kill you are fast: fighter jets, sharks, cobras.
Listening to Slayer makes your whole body feel tense, your heat beats faster, you think faster – you don’t necessarily feel better for listening to it but you do feel faster and more powerful. If you walk down the street with Slayer on your headphones, no one can fuck with you. You feel like you’ve got secret razor blades stashed in your skull.
The Unholy Alliance rolls into the parking lot of a redneck truckers’ drive outside St. Louis. The crowd cheer and pump their fists in the air – and into each other – as projections of inverted crosses and holocaust skeletons scroll behind Lombardo’s drum riser, tastefully emblazoned with a huge flashing ‘SLAYER’ logo that drips blood.
‘SLAYER!!’ drips the logo all over Auschwitz’s skulls. Flashflash! Flashflash! “SlayUGHH!!” roar the crowd.
They’re fucking brilliant, Slayer. Live, the four of them are tighter than a squadron of F16s. They hack everything out at a pace that kills. It charges the brains and bodies of the slamdancing Missourians – we spot one tiny girl taking on a whole circle pit full of musclebound meatheads, kicking and flinging heavy metal truckers into each other like atoms.
“Hey boy, do you cry when you masturbate?” sneers a liquored-up gang from their pick-up truck, taking offence at Hammer’s bookish constitution and looking for a fight. We don’t give a fuck. We’ve just mainlined Slayer live and we feel fierce. Not angry, just wired and poised, like scorpions out on the town.
No other music makes us feel like this. Slayer are still the most killingest band on the planet.
Originally published in Metal Hammer #156