[5 November 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Ask any metal fan what the most significant thing that happened to the genre was in the last ten years, and you’ll probably get a different response each time. While the 1980s yielded a bevy of seminal pieces of music, and the ‘90s spawned unprecedented growth in metal’s most extreme forms, one thing this past decade has proven was just how ageless metal music is. It was always a youth-oriented sound and always will be, but the more the years go by, the more those of us in our late 30s and early 40s who grew up on early to mid-‘80s metal realize that the music never, ever leaves us. It pulls us back in, time and again.
Especially fascinating is just how many veteran bands have found a second wind as they hit their 40s, 50s, and in a few cases, 60s, as a new generation of metal fans has latched on to those old-school sounds, while at the same time those geezers have held the interest of their older followers by putting out albums that sound positively revitalized. And you can definitely count Slayer in that group. After a lengthy run of middling releases, 2001’s God Hates Us All was a step in the right direction, but it wasn’t until 2006’s Christ Illusion that notice was served that Slayer was officially back. Easily their most passionate-sounding work since 1990’s Seasons in the Abyss, the album succeeded by simply having Slayer be (‘scuse the French) fuckin’ SLAYER and nothing more, keeping the approach simple and direct, never trying too hard to do anything too audacious. Catchy staccato riffs, dive-bomb solos, swift double-time beats, provocative lyrics, and a clean, ferocious mix. Deliver all that in full, and you’ll have a winner every time.
So it’s great to hear that the much-anticipated follow-up World Painted Blood doesn’t change things one bit. If anything, it’s a slight improvement on Christ Illusion, as more than on any of their previous five albums, the foursome of guitarists Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King, bassist/vocalist Tom Araya, and drummer Dave Lombardo find themselves revisiting the seminal styles of their 1986-88 heyday. It hits us immediately as we hear the title track fade in ominously and settle into a wicked, crunching groove: this is straight out of South of Heaven. Not so much tempo-wise, but the similarity in production is uncanny—a dry, crisp mix with Lombardo’s kicks and snare right up front alongside the guitar tracks, Araya’s voice prominent, his bass almost an afterthought. While it’s a sound that some might find peculiar compared to today’s more immaculately, almost robotically produced and mixed metal records, it lends World Painted Blood a blunt ferocity that perfectly enhances Slayer’s compositions.
As for the songs, the biggest difference between this record and the last is the more prominent songwriting role played by Hanneman, who wrote the music for six of the 11 tracks, as opposed to the mere three he provided for Christ Illusion. The mastermind behind the classic riffs on such seminal songs as “At Dawn They Sleep”, “Angel of Death”, “Postmortem”, “Raining Blood”, and “South of Heaven” (to name but a few), the importance of his contributions cannot be underestimated. And not surprisingly, every one of Hanneman’s six tracks is a knockout. At nearly six minutes, the title track is a veritable epic, the longest Slayer song since “Seasons in the Abyss”, and old-school fans will be thrilled to hear the band returning to that more dynamic style, as the track shifts gears brilliantly.
On the other side of the coin is the two and a half minute “Unit 731”, a swift exercise in classic Reign in Blood-era speed metal as Araya, ever the great enunciator, spits out your typical Slayer lines with gusto: “Vivisection, live dissection / Repulsing to the core!” “Beauty Through Order”, the stomping “Human Strain”, and the creepy “Playing with Dolls” explore the band’s more melodic side, reflected in both the riffs and Araya’s vocals, while “Psychopathy Red” is a masterstroke, Hanneman’s twisting main riff and those ultra-tight rhythm riffs a sound that can only come from this great band. Quintessential Slayer.
Despite the fact that King’s compositions were central to the success of the last two albums, and he contributes a truly great one on World Painted Blood in the inflammatory “Hate Worldwide” as well, it feels like he’s on the precipice of self-parody. Always the more caustic and misanthropic of the band’s two primary songwriters, King’s shtick does get predictable, whether in the groan-inducing song titles (“Americon”, “Public Display of Dismemberment”) or his subject matter, which is generally about hating stuff, be it politics, religion, or humanity in general. However, his riffs win out over his choice of words this time around, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that the entire band absolutely cooks on every track, especially Lombardo, who brings his trademark swing and fluid fills to “Hate Worldwide”.
It’s all part of Slayer simply being the band that we all love: we take the perceptive with the seething, the ferocious with the brooding. There’s no need for drastic reinvention anymore. As long as expectations are met, we’ll be happy. And with World Painted Blood, we’re happier than we’ve been in some time.