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

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.)

After Screaming “Fuck Hell Die!”, Where Else Is There To Go?

Just as Trent Reznor’s “I wanna fuck you like an animal” is neither as subversive nor as sexy as “I wanna hold your hand” by the Beatles or “I wanna hold your little hand if I can be so bold” by the White Stripes, Slayer’s “Strangulation, mutilation, cancer of the brain / Limb dissection, amputation, from a mind deranged” isn’t half so unsettling or persuasive as Johnny Cash’s stark, mean “Folsom Prison Blues” highlight, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”

That “strangulation, mutilation” bit is from a Slayer track called “Necrophobic,” which ends in a bit of satanic haiku so comically inept I find it endearing:

Necrophobic

Can’t control the paranoia

Scared to die!

But wait, there’s more!

Here’s a lovely bit of poetry from a track called “Black Seranade,” off 2006’s Christ Illusion:

Your repulsiveness reminds me of dead flesh

Rotting corpse the smell of your putrid fucking soul…

Destroy the empty shell

Smash away the haunting fear

I hate your endless stare

Watching as I fuck your corpse

Now, think back to Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue’s “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” from Murder Ballads. It’s narrated by two characters: a young woman named Elisa Day, and her first lover, who also proves to be her killer. It is a soaring, beautiful piece of music, and it’s also more chilling than Slayer’s “Black Seranade,” not least because the Elisa Day character narrates the tale in the past-tense, and yet she doesn’t seem to understand what has happened to her; each character begins a verse by detailing “the second day” of their courtship, but while the killer moves on to say “On the last day I took her where the wild roses grow,” poor Elisa says only “On the third day he took me to the river…”

Nick Cave’s murderer character doesn’t scream his triumph or spew profanities or throw an impotent tantrum. He kisses her goodbye and gives her a flower.

Compare, then:

Slayer:

Rotting corpse the smell of your putrid fucking soul… Watching as I fuck your corpse

Nick Cave:

I kissed her goodbye, said, “All beauty must die”

And I knelt down and planted a rose between her teeth

At this point, I needed a break from Slayer’s lyrics, and so I visited their website: http://www.slayer.net/us/home. And what did I see?

Something evil. Chilling. Creepy. Godless. Behold, if you dare:

Celebrate the release of Slayer: Pinball Rocks. THIS WEEK ONLY: $7.99 Slayer catalog sale on iTunes.

Slayer is about to enter the app age with the launch of Slayer: Pinball Rocks, a new pinball game app.

“As a life-size pinball player, this looks so awesome,” said Slayer’s Kerry King. “It looks really fun and entertaining, with a shot of evil, and it could definitely keep me up all night with a few shots for myself.”

Slayer: Pinball Rocks continues the rich legacy of iconic metal and rock bands making pinball tables. In Slayer: Pinball Rocks Slayer meets the king of arcade games in one loud, fast, flipper-thrashing frenzy. With hyper-realistic pinball gameplay set to a backdrop inspired by the band’s latest head-banging masterpiece, World Painted Blood, the game includes multi-ball play, and a full tap-along mini-game in a pinball environment straight out of your worst nightmare featuring spinning razor blades, guitars, amps, concert lights, and a skull that eats your ball and spits it out through its eyeball.

Yeah… let’s look at some more lyrics.

For proof of how little Slayer have matured as lyricists in nearly thirty years, I have compiled the opening lyrics from the opening track of each of Slayer’s studio albums. Here they are, in order:

“Evil Has No Boundaries” from Show No Mercy (1983):

Blasting our way through the boundaries of Hell

No one can stop us tonight

We take on the world with hatred inside

Mayhem the reason we fight

“Chemical Warfare” from Haunting the Chapel (1984):

Frantic minds are terrified

Life lies in a grave

Silent death rides high above

On the wings of revelation

“Hell Awaits” from Hell Awaits (1985):

Existing on damnation’s edge

The priest had never known

To witness such a violent show

Of power overthrown

“Angel of Death” from Reign in Blood (1986):

Auschwitz, the meaning of pain

The way that I want you to die

Slow death, immense decay

Showers that cleanse you of your life

“South of Heaven” from South of Heaven (1988):

An unforseen future nestled somewhere in time

Unsuspecting victims no warnings, no signs

Judgment day, the second coming arrives

Before you see the light, you must die

“War Ensemble” from Seasons in the Abyss (1990):

Propaganda death ensemble

Burial to be

Corpses rotting through the night

In blood laced misery

Scorched earth the policy

The reason for the siege

The pendulum it shaves the blade

The strafing air blood raid

“Killing Fields” from Divine Intervention (1994):

You know the feeling

When adrenaline takes control

Can’t beat the rush

That leaves a suicidal hold

Instinct spares no one

Destroying the human heart

The taste of blood

Can rip your soul apart

“Bitter Peace” from Dioabolos in Musica (1998):

Initiate blood purge

Coalition in massacre

Mechanized high tech

Wholesale death in effect

Mutually assured

Destruction will occur

Genocide revised

Same pain through diverse eyes

“Darkness of Christ” from God Hates Us All (2001):

Mankind in his insatiable search for divine

Knowledge has discarded all biblical teachings

Realizing that the strength of religion is the repression of knowledge

All structures of religion have collapsed

Life prays for death in the wake of the horror of these revelations

(God Hates Us All earned Slayer the tag of Loser of the Week in Entertainment Weekly for bad timing; it features a track called “God Send Death,” and it was released during the week of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York. Oops.)

“Flesh Storm” from Christ Illusion (2006):

Take a deep breath

‘Cause it all starts now

When you pull the fuckin’ pin

The shrapnel burns

As it tears into the skin

Ever wonder what it takes

To be questioning your faith

This is what it’s like

When it happens every goddamn day

“Cult” from Eternal Pyre (2006):

Oppression is the Holy Law

In God I distrust

In time His monuments will fall

Like ashes to dust

Is war and creed the master plan?

The Bible’s where it all began

Its propaganda sells despair

And spreads the virus everywhere

“World Painted Blood” from World Painted Blood (2009):

Disease spreading death

Entire population dies

Dead before you’re born

Massive suicide

Vicious game of fear

It’s all extermination now

Poison in your veins

Global genocide

Clearly, just as there is no arc or escalation in a given Slayer song, there has been no arc or maturity or development or growth throughout Slayer’s career.

In scouring the band’s lyrics to tally each appearance of “dead” and “death”, I noticed other words that recur often enough to qualify the band’s entire catalog as an exercise in self-parody. In Slayer’s eleven studio albums, these are some of the words that appear most often: “decay” (appears 10 times), “evil” (appears 24 times), “soul” (84), “Satan” or “satanic” (27), “scream” (28), “god” or “lord” (50), “blood” (78), “insane” or “insanity” (35), “rot” (13), “die” or “died” (56), “hell” (55), “lie” or “lies” (47), “kill” or “killing” (58), “burn” (34), “war” (37), “night” or “tonight” (46), “eyes” (51), “fight” or “fighting” (28), and “fear” (19). Finally, “dead” or “death” appears 195 times in Slayer’s songs.

I was surprised to note that “fuck”, “fucked” and “fucking” only boast a combined 12 appearances throughout Slayer’s entire catalog.

Still, Scar the lion never had to sing it even once.

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