Reviews

Slayer - 5 November, Saskatoon, SK

When faced with the task of restoring one's credibility, cranking out the old stuff always works.

Slayer

Slayer

City: Saskatoon, SK
Venue: Prairieland Park
Date: 2013-11-05

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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