[14 November 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In the wake of the death of founding guitarist Jeff Hanneman this past summer, bandmate Kerry King wasted no time in asserting that the great American thrash band would continue. It came as no real surprise. Slayer had already been performing for years with Exodus guitarist Gary Holt as Hanneman sought treatment for necrotizing fasciitis. This past February original drummer Dave Lombardo was fired over a pay dispute, replaced by Paul Bostaph. Fans reacted strongly when the supremely talented Lombardo was shown the door. Then when Hanneman died, even though he hadn’t performed with Slayer for years, many claimed it was the last straw. Of the classic lineup that yielded such seminal heavy metal albums as Show No Mercy, Reign in Blood, and South of Heaven, only two original members remain, King and bassist/vocalist Tom Araya.
It’s not as if Slayer has been branded as a pariah, but without one of the best drummers the metal genre ever produced and one of the greatest riff writers in metal history, the prevailing sentiment as of late is that Slayer is starting to show signs of teetering towards self-parody. It seems as if King, the band’s de facto leader, sensed that public perception in recent weeks, too. In a very clever attempt to generate interest in their fall/winter North American tour, and to give Slayer’s sagging credibility a boost, he and the band promised an “old school Slayer” setlist, playing nothing but selections from the band’s classic period 1983 to 1990.
More than any other genre, metal fans sentimentalize their favourite bands’ early work to an obsessive degree. It wasn’t a surprise this announcement was met with enthusiasm. As this new incarnation of Slayer rolled into the Prairieland Park convention center in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan Tuesday, not only was the set list shrewdly arranged, but they couldn’t have found better replacements for Hanneman and Lombardo.
This is the trend in metal these days. Package tours get the people out, and teaming up with French up-and-comers Gojira was a very smart decision. Fresh off a successful headlining tour of North America, Gojira is on the cusp of becoming one of the biggest acts in the genre. While they have no business playing opener anymore, who would turn down a tour with Slayer? So along with Australian thrashers 4ARM, who are making their North American debut, Gojira put on a good supporting performance. The set was a taut and pummeling run through selections from their last four albums, including 2012’s excellent L’Enfant Sauvage.
Promptly at 9:30 the house lights went down. Four figures ambled onstage silhouetted behind a white curtain to launch into the legendary “Hell Awaits”. Looking like a happy grandfather yet spewing evil lyrics like, “Your souls are damned, your God has fell, to slave for me eternally,” the grey-bearded Araya was practically beaming. He was flanked on stage by the conversely imposing, chain-clad King on his left, and the headbanging Holt on his right. Backed by the workmanlike Bostaph the foursome increased in ferocity as the performance wore on.
Their pace was breathless, befitting of one of the most unrelenting bands in rock ‘n’ roll history. The Show No Mercy classic “The Antichrist” gave way to Reign in Blood deep cut “Necrophiliac”. The live staple “Mandatory Suicide”, followed by the rarely played 1984 gem “Captor of Sin”. Bostaph proved his worth on “Postmortem”, replicating Lombardo’s swinging beat which is so integral to the multifaceted song. Two more Reign in Blood tracks, “Altar of Sacrifice” and “Jesus Saves”, followed the 1985 epic “At Dawn They Sleep”. Afterward they played their very first classic song, 1983’s “Die By the Sword”, to cap off an exhilarating 45-minute first half.
The second half of the show was loaded with crowd pleasers: “Seasons in the Abyss”, “Raining Blood”, “South of Heaven”, but was not without surprises. “Spirit in Black”, from 1990’s Seasons in the Abyss was a curveball after so many straight down the middle strikes. However, nothing compared to the inexplicable cover of Exodus’s 1985 song “Strike of the Beast”, a wonderful tip of the cap to Holt, who did yeoman’s work replicating Hanneman’s classic rhythm riffs and dive-bombing leads. Show No Mercy favorite “Black Magic” was carted out, pleasing all the old-schoolers in the venue, and set closer “Angel of Death” united with its blazing speed, inciting mayhem in the expansive mosh pit and bringing the night to a thrilling climax.
The show was simple and to the point. Very little banter and song after classic song. The only props were four gigantic, majestic upside-down crosses. There was no encore. Slayer came on, eliminated all doubts of whether or not they still had it, and annihilated their fans for 90 straight minutes. The real test of Slayer’s metal will be whether or not the much-anticipated 11th album can sound credible without the input of both Hanneman and Lombardo. This tour proves beyond a shadow of doubt that at least the live aspect of Slayer is just as fine as it has always been whether that cohesion can transfer into the studio remains to be seen.