Speed-metal can be summed up in so many ways: guitar riffs that erupt like machine-gun fire, drumbeats on nonstop blast, singing that spews like the devil’s own breath.
Or you can spell all this out with six simple letters:
A yell of “Slayer!” is a siren call to heavy-metal maniacs, a heads-up that it’s time to start moshing or get the hell out of the way.
Slayer is the speed-metal band that’s never slowed down. Metallica? They enlisted a touchy-feely therapist to help the band finish its “St. Anger” album. Very unmetal. The once-mighty Anthrax is pretty much an afterthought.
But Slayer keeps aiming for land speed records. The band’s two-decade career, a “vast sadistic feast” as Slayer would say, has produced some of the heaviest moments in all of metal: “Show No Mercy,” Slayer’s statement of purpose from 1983; “Reign in Blood,” the 1986 thrash classic produced by Rick Rubin; the relentless death-crunch of such tracks as “Dittohead,” “War Ensemble” and “Chemical Warfare.”
The group’s latest album, “Christ Illusion,” is archetypal Slayer. The demonic themes are there, shout-outs to Satan and all, and an overall mission to out-metal the competition. These speed demons are on an eternal mission to push their songs faster and faster, sometimes feeling a little unsatisfied.
“I listen to that record and it doesn’t sound fast to me,” says Slayer bassist-singer Tom Araya with a laugh, on the phone from his Texas home. “But it’s just something the four of us enjoy. We enjoy aggressive and just fast, energetic stuff. We’re not doing it on purpose. That’s just how stuff comes out.”
Slayer is like AC/DC in a way: Both bands found a groove and simply stuck to it, album after album. But in the case of Slayer, those rhythms run at 200 beats per minute and up, an all-out crush.
The early days weren’t so easy for the band that’s fond of pentagrams. Slayer formed in Southern California during the early 1980s, just as hair-metal was taking over the scene. Slayer was just too devilish in that sea of spandex.
“We tried to play a few clubs,” says Araya. “And at that time, if you didn’t have an audience, the club didn’t want you to play (there). You had to go out and advertise your show, so eventually we picked up on an idea of getting our own little hall, renting it ourselves and then making up these fliers and putting them around the neighborhood (and) hitting the high schools, the areas where kids would be. For $5 you could come watch us play. Yeah, in order to get ourselves heard, that was an uphill struggle.”
Devotion now runs so deep for Slayer that some fans carve the band’s name into their bodies with razor blades. You can see an example of this in the liner notes in Slayer’s “Divine Intervention” album. The picture was taken backstage at a Slayer concert, but even the voice behind “Raining Blood” felt freaked out when he saw the fan with “Slayer” carved in his arm.
“That’s crazy!” says Araya. “He was like, `Look!’ and we’re like, `That’s crazy, dude. Go see the emergency med guy that’s here.’”
Some might see Slayer as evil incarnate, like a bunch of Lucifers with guitar picks and drumsticks. The band has sung of Satan and Nazi Germany and never met a theme of death and destruction that it didn’t like. So of course there’s been some fallout: The “Christ Illusion” album was pulled from stores in India after protests from Christian groups. Back in the United States, promotional bus-bench ads for “Christ Illusion” in Fullerton, Calif., were yanked by city officials who found them in bad taste.
And what does Araya say to the parents who don’t like their kids listening to songs such as “Altar of Sacrifice”?
“I don’t think they should be too concerned, as long as they’re paying attention to what their kids are listening to,” says Araya, who has children of his own. “And if they have questions, ask. Don’t deny. Don’t try and take something away, because it will only widen the gap. You don’t take away, you become part of their world and part of their life.”
Slayer continues to speed forward. “Christ Illusion” debuted at No. 5 on the album charts, the best opening week of the band’s career. One track from the album, “Eyes of the Insane,” is nominated for best metal performance at the upcoming Grammy Awards. And after all these years, Slayer made its network TV debut earlier this month on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”
And could it be now that the family that listens to Slayer together stays together?
“There’s a whole new generation of kids now in the audience,” says Araya. “There’s a lot of young faces. You see the ones in between there. And then you see the die-hard, the hard-core, the loyal and faithful. They’re still there. Nothing has changed.”