“SLLLAAAAAAAAAAYYYEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERRR!”. The name alone immediately sparks memories of some of my most glorious live experiences; punching a man in the face to secure Lombardo’s drumstick is one of the proudest moments of my life. As that moment was for me, I am sure the reverse was true for somebody else when justice prevailed with an incredibly bruised face at Download 2004 following their performance on the smaller tent stage, at the (frankly hilarious) cost of Taking Back Sunday, when travel issues delayed their slot on the main stage (I only recently noticed the poignant irony in their reclamation of the Lord’s holy day, not only in name alone).
For others though, the name Slayer almost certainly conjures visions of one of the finest thrash metal templates and recantations of some of the finest metal songs ever written. It also reminds us all of the official battle-cry of every metal showing globally.
Sure, as a band they’ve rarely broken the mold and everything they do is unmistakably Slayer. Kerry King once said of his trademark solos “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. And, true to his word, they’ve never really made any effort to change their direction (although ‘Diablos in Musica’ was a refreshing surprise). Simply everything they do is another example of metallic craftsmanship. Granted, that in itself could be considered somewhat boring. It may even be consider somewhat narrow-minded, but good luck to the brave enough to say that to Slayer directly…
Regardless of this, Slayer are not exactly a boring band, live or on record. Far from it. Even after all these years, few bands can continue to whip hordes of people into a frenzied swash of limbs and bodies with their brutal and often life-changing performances.
On record, however, they have had their moments of curiosity, just like everyone else. With a number of unbelievable benchmarks under their bullet-belts including ‘South of Heaven’, ‘Seasons in the Abyss’ and the mighty ‘God Hates Us All’, Slayer‘s back catalogue reads like a list of formidable albums each containing numerous classics and staples of their live showings. Of course, ‘Reign in Blood’ is arguably their most important and popular, but I don’t feel it’s their strongest.
Whilst their line-up has almost always remained the same, save for a fairly regularly switch around behind the drumkit, Slayer have always remained of a standard. The fallout(s) with Lombardo broke many a heart but the death of founding guitarist Jeff Hannemann in 2013 following acute cirrhosis was a completely unexpected and gutting loss to the entire community. How might a band like Slayer continue without a man like Hannemann?
Step up Gary Holt (Exodus); although his introduction to the band, in some way, simply allows them to perform live, he has proven to be an incredibly impressive and natural replacement. In truth, I don’t like the word ‘replacement’ in this context, but it’s an unfortunate reality.
So, fast forward through all the turmoil and we find ourselves here, in 2015, 14 years to the day since they released ‘God Hates Us All‘, faced with the blistering ‘Repentless’, their first without Hannemann. Whilst ‘Christ Illusion’ and ‘World Painted Blood’ were decent, but not great, this is a fucking solid beast. Notably, it also sees the return of Paul Bostaph, who’s drumming performance on ‘God Hates Us All’ still leaves me speechless. Although this is not the place for a debate on who’s the better of Lombardo or Bostaph, it should be noted that both are simply brilliant for the framework of Slayer. Both drummers fit so perfectly behind the music and the image that it simply doesn’t matter who’s better; they’re both hard as nails and both have contributed significantly to everything Slayer stands for.
I’ve digressed enough from my thoughts on Slayer as a band, so whilst I sit here listening to ‘Repentless’ for the 9th time, I find it hard not to get as emotional as I did when I first saw them over 15 years ago. Where I cried with joy when they released ‘When the Stillness Comes’ a few months back, I damn nearly suffered a cardiac arrest when I heard the title-track. Incidentally, when I first gave this album a full listen, I made the mistake of doing it at work. Cue sitting at my desk, air-drumming and grinning like a possessed lunatic… No work was done that afternoon, but it was all in the name of Slayer, so legally, I’m golden.
Whilst we here at Rock Sins are often offered pre-release versions of albums to review, I have always purchased a physical copy of the albums by the bands I really love. ‘Repentless’ was no exception, and the Special Edition not only contains a Blu-Ray / DVD of their powerful performance at Wacken last year but it unfolds into an inverted crucifix. That in itself is so amazingly brilliant that I could probably get away with a full-mark review owing to nothing but the geometry of the CD case!
As for the tracks themselves, how do I even start? Where ‘Cast the First Stone’ sounds as if it’s a Japanese bonus track from ‘God Hates Us All’ (it also contains one of my new favourite Slayer solos), ‘Atrocity Vendor’ sounds like Alex Skolnick and Scott Ian have paid the boys a visit for a jam. The incredible ‘Chasing Death’ sounds as if Hannemann has been directly channeled in from the afterlife. For me, I sense his presence all over this. It may be that it’s the result of a number of sessions or demos from before his death, but most likely it’s because 30 years of playing alongside the man have aligned King’s chops and mindset somewhat.
In a word, ‘Repentless’ as an album is jaw-dropping, though perhaps not mind-blowing. It’s definitely one of the finest Slayer albums ever released, though. You can pick out elements from every album they’ve released here; ‘Piano Wire’ sounds like it’s been taken from a demo made between ‘South of Heaven’ and ‘Seasons in the Abyss’ and ‘Implode’ sits somewhere between ‘Divine Intervention’ and ‘Diablos in Musica’. ‘You Against You’ has an almost hardcore vibe, but the swirling guitar solos and rhythmic castration of the drumkit leave me with a beaming Araya-esque grin.
Skirting the comedy of irony in those that object to the lyrical and conceptual conditions of Slayer, I suppose this is a poignant and important mile-stone for the band in more than one way; it’s the first without Jeff and it’s the first step into a brand new chapter. Whilst they continue to ride the wave of controversy, in today’s world religious objection and diversion is probably more dangerous than it’s ever been. Would (should?) that stop a band like Slayer? Would it stop men like Araya and King continuing the legacy they’ve carved for themselves? Sure as hell not. As I highlighted, there have been different mixes of members and each combination have resulted in varying results (both live and on record). Many may have written the guys off when Jeff died, but I personally feel as if THIS line up (and yes, it pains me to say it) is the Slayer that the current generation will and should know (circumstances, of course, considered). Araya, King, Holt and Bostaph. What a formidably menacing combination they make for.
The only criticism I have of the state of affairs is that, knowing King’s approach to such things, Holt is unlikely to have contributed that much to the writing process of ‘Repentless’. Bearing in the mind the reason he is involved in the first place, that’s not that surprising. Nevertheless, he left a respectable mark on the metal landscape with his involvement and having seen him perform with Slayer on more than one occasion, I genuinely feel his presence and personality are incredibly important to the sustainability of Slayer moving forward. A wise appointment.
I just hope the gods they’ve criticised in the past see it fit to allow Slayer to bring us more of this; I, for one, am incredibly excited and curious to see what might happen if Holt and King WRITE together instead of just play. Slayer have never needed anything more to cement their status; their back-catalogue and legacy is strong enough to carry them as-is for another 10 years, but I do genuinely believe we are about to see the rebirth of an ever-so dormant giant. It’s been a quiet 6 years since ‘World Painted Blood’, and I for one welcome back the King and his Company.
However you cut it and whatever does happen next, ‘Repentless’ can be considered another absolute belter of an album and a poignant, fitting tribute to Hannemann’s legacy. If this proves to be the last Slayer album, then it’s a truly fine ending. Slayer have been, and forever will remain, repentless * until the very end.
* I am aware that ‘repentless’ is not actually considered a valid word, but we all know what it means. Hopefully it’ll be in the dictionary once more… with nothing more than this album cover!
Repentless is out now via Slayer’s new record label Nuclear Blast Records.