Music

Less Is More Satanic: A Prescription of Restraint and Subtlety for Slayer

Who writes lyrics more menacing than those of thrash-metal legends Slayer? Pretty much everyone.

I have always thought it would be funny to put together a musical group to perform thrash-metal anthems in a sort of feminist-folksy manner while simultaneously producing covers of Lilith Fair ballads in the style of aggressive bands such as Anthrax and Pantera. I used to joke with friends that we could call the band Slayer McLachlan.

This wouldn't require as much of a stretch as you might expect. Lilith Fair founder Sarah McLachlan actually wrote a somewhat Slayeresque lyric of her own in "Hold On,” from 1993’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy: “Hold on to yourself, for this is gonna hurt like hell.”

It features the words “hurt” and “hell”, but McLachlan’s lyric has also got a direct, understated quality that makes it more powerful and somehow almost more threatening than most Slayer lyrics, even though it’s meant to be beautiful and dramatic, not menacing. This has happened for years now: artists keep doing Slayer better than Slayer ever could, usually by accident; Sarah McLachlan out-Slayers Slayer on an album that includes the lyric “your love is better than ice cream”.

Likewise, 4 Non Blondes produced pop music at its most accessible and least aggressive, and yet they managed to convey the effects of drug use (or perhaps simple lunacy) more convincingly than Slayer. A highlight of 1992’s Bigger, Better, Faster, More! is “Drifting,” wherein Linda Perry croons, “I reached for my hand, but it was already there.”

Compare this clever, knowing, subtle charmer of a lyric to a typically ham-fisted attempt by Slayer to describe a sense of unreality:

Close your eyes and forget your name

Step outside yourself and let your thoughts drain

As you go insane

Go insane

Again, the legendary Slayer (“loud, aggressive, and violent”, according to Rolling Stone) is not just undone, but undone by someone who was only trying to be cute; that 4 Non Blondes track also features the lyric “I fell out of a tiny raindrop that lost its way when it decided to roam.”

Though the narrative usually consists of nothing richer or more ambitious than a boy wanting to have sex with a girl, most songs manage to tell a story of sorts. If a character in a novel or film or any other kind of story is developed properly, he needn’t yell or curse in order to scare us. Lonesome Dove’s Captain Woodrow Call beats a man nearly to death, and his justification isn’t wild threats or deranged profanity, but instead this calm concession: “I hate rude behavior in a man. I won’t tolerate it.”

Similarly, anyone who followed Joss Whedon’s Firefly for its dozen or so episodes on Fox knew to expect some seriously wicked doings in the show’s big-screen continuation, Serenity. In the trailer, Captain Malcolm Reynolds doesn’t need to bathe himself in blood or brag about the size of his penis. He just says “I aim to misbehave,” and since he’s a well-developed character, we know that he means it, and we are chilled and giddy at his four quiet words. (The film’s villain is no less subtly chilling; when Mal taunts him with the angry criticism “I don’t kill children,” the villain calmly replies, “I do.”)

This admirable creative restraint comes only to those writers who take the time and who have the skill to develop their characters. Here I’m thinking of Batman in the Justice League animated series, replying to Doctor Destiny’s threat of “I'll be able to go in your brain, even if you're wide awake” with, “My brain’s not a nice place to be.”

I’m thinking of the Undertaker telling the Rock, “I may not dress like Satan anymore, but I'm still down with the devil.”

I’m thinking of Doyle, the villain from Sling Blade, asking simple-minded Karl, “What'cha doin' with that lawn mower blade?” And I’m thinking of Karl’s simple, modest answer: “I aim to kill you with it.”

The problem with Slayer, lyrically, is that they have never known how to pace their meager narratives or develop the characters that inhabit them. Nothing ever escalates in a Slayer song, for the simple reason that there’s nowhere left to go when you start out by screaming “Fuck Hell Die!” at the top of your lungs. (It will become clear by the end of this essay just how minimally I have exaggerated with this parody of a sample Slayer lyric.)

Slayer’s lyrics are also staggeringly repetitive. I haven't listened to a new Slayer album since 1996, on account of popular culture having passed me by over a decade ago (don't tell my editors), but since this essay is a study of Slayer’s lyrics rather than their music, I simply let Google direct me to lyrics from the band’s more recent albums; for all intents and purposes, I could have simply copied and pasted the lyrics with which I was already familiar.

For example, I noticed during my research for this essay that the words “dead” or “death” appear fourteen times in the band’s debut album, Show No Mercy. You might argue that the band was in its infancy at the time (Show No Mercy was released in 1983); I would counter with this damning observation: the word “dead” or “death” appears more than 40 times in Slayer’s latest album, World Painted Blood, released in 2009. And not a single instance is as haunting or perceptive as this 1998 gem, from Beck’s decidedly non-satanic “O Maria”: “Everybody knows that death creeps in slow, ‘till you feel safe in his arms.”

I could do this all day, as could most anyone. It is no great challenge to isolate a Slayer lyric at random and compare it pretty much arbitrarily to a lyric from nearly any other musical performer and find Slayer’s words wanting, not just as quality writing but as anything approaching menacing. Here are some examples that required nothing more than a half-assed stream-of-consciousness recollection of songs from my small iTunes collection:

Slayer Lyric (from “Hardening of the Arteries”):

Convulsions take the world in hand

Paralysis destroys

Nobody's out there to save us

Brutal seizure

Now we die

Danzig Lyric (from “Thirteen”):

I’ve got a long line of heartache

I carry it well

The list of lives I’ve broken

Reach from here to Hell

Slayer Lyric (“Dead Skin Mask”):

Incised members ornaments on my being

Adulating the skin before me

Ozzy Osbourne Lyric (“Diary of a Madman”):

Enemies fill up the pages.

Are they me?

Slayer Lyric (“New Faith”):

I won't be force fed prophecies

From a book of untruths for the weakest mind

I keep the bible in a pool of blood

So that none of its lies can affect me

Danzig Lyric (“Bringer of Death”):

See the devil kiss the hand of God

See the devil crying tears of flame

See the devil bite the hand of Christ

And know the devil is the work of God

Slayer Lyric (“Sex, Murder, Art”):

You're nothing

An object of animation

A subjective mannequin

Beaten into submission

Raping again and again…

The urge to take my fist

And violate every orifice

Toadies Lyric (“Tyler”):

I find a window in the kitchen, and I let myself in

Rummage through the refrigerator, find myself a beer

I can't believe I'm really here, and she's lying in that bed

I can almost feel her touch, and her anxious breath

I stumble in the hallway, outside the bedroom door

I hear her call out to me, I hear the fear in her voice

She pulls the covers tighter, I press against the door

I will be with her tonight!

Slayer Lyric (“Payback”):

I'm going to tear your fucking eyes out

Rip your fucking flesh off

Beat you till you're just a fucking lifeless carcass

Danzig Lyric (“Left Hand Black”):

Gonna bring you God in the palm of a left hand black

Slayer Lyric (“Live Undead”):

Night grows cold, twilight's near

On the edge of madness the wounds are sheared

Forms of hanging, flesh shredded carcass

No spared breath

Imprisoned in a shell, ready to explode

Dead soul

Stone cold

Out into the night

Michael Jackson Lyric (“Thriller”):

Night creatures calling, the dead start to walk in their masquerade

There's no escaping the jaws of the alien this time

This is the end of your life

(To be fair, that “Thriller” lyric isn’t anymore menacing than a given Slayer lyric. If anything, it’s pretty much exactly as menacing as a given Slayer lyric. But that’s kind of the point: it’s a Michael Jackson lyric!)

Slayer Lyric (“Criminally Insane”):

Branded in pain

Marked criminally insane

Locked away and kept restrained

Disapprobation, but what have I done

I have yet only just begun

To take your fuckin' lives!

Tim Rice lyric:

My teeth and ambitions are bared

Be prepared

(Tim Rice’s lyric above is from Scar’s theme, from Disney’s The Lion King. In other words, Slayer has been undone by a cartoon lion.)

Slayer Lyric (“Silent Scream”):

Silent Scream

Crucify the bastard son

Beaten and torn

Sanctify lives of scorn

Tom Waits Lyric (“We’re All Mad Here”):

Your eyes will die like fish

And the shore of your face will turn to bone

Here’s a Slayer lyric so staggeringly dumb that it comes right back around to awesome again:

Embryonic death

Embedded in your brain

Suffocation, strangulation

Death is fucking you insane

Compare it to this moody, atmospheric bit of babble from Tori Amos (who once covered Slayer’s “Raining Blood”):

Even the rain is sharp like today as you shock me sane

(Keep in mind, Tori Amos is responsible for such pulse-poundingly evil lyrics as “Hangin’ with the raisin’ girls” and “Caught a lite sneeze / Dreamed a little dream”.)

Slayer Lyric (“Mandatory Suicide”):

Lying, dying, screaming in pain

Begging, pleading, bullets drop like rain

Mines explode, pain sheers through your brain

Radical amputation, this is insane

Here is a Metallica lyric on a similar theme, from “One”:

Now that the war is through with me

I’m waking up, I cannot see

That there’s not much left of me

Slayer Lyric (“SS-3”):

Hunting

Fighting

Killing whore

Wade through blood and spill some more

Danzig Lyric (“Under Her Black Wings”):

See she comes

On the eve of dusk

In another form

With a scent of rain upon her neck

She brings the lust

Supernatural

Ceasing never

On and on and on

(You’ll notice I used several examples from Danzig, for the simple reason that Glenn Danzig is fascinated by occult themes, just like Slayer, and so it felt like a particularly apt comparison.)

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