When the latest incarnation of Slayer walked onto a stage full of Marshall stacks and upside-down crosses, it was a chance to see how a band long obsessed with death was coping with its aftermath.
What does it mean to see a Slayer show? Up until a few years ago, this wasn’t a question: it meant you were going to experience the most resilient and principled members of the '80s thrash metal awakening, a band still roiling and relevant after 30 years. But that reputation ended in May 2013, when lead guitarist and principal songwriter Jeff Hanneman died of liver failure, leading fans to wonder how the band could endure, or if it should even try. Hanneman arguably held the keys to the Slayer sound; in a 2013 interview with Loudwire, singer/bassist Tom Araya called him “90 or 95% of the band, musically”. So when the latest incarnation of the group took the stage at the State Theatre in Portland last week, with former Exodus guitarist Gary Holt attempting to take over for his old, fallen friend, it was a chance to see how a band long obsessed with death was coping with its aftermath.
It should be said, first off, that they blew my scalp back. Before Araya said a word to us, Slayer had torched its way through five songs. The setlist tells me that several of these were tunes I know and love. But standing there, having to process that many decibels being thrown at me that fast, I didn’t have the faculties to recognize anything. I couldn’t take notes. My pen might as well have exploded. Hell, everything else was.
Holt and on-again off-again drummer Paul Bostaph (who also spent time with Exodus) did their jobs beautifully; if you closed your eyes and erased your memory, you’d have no reason to think it wasn’t Hanneman and original drummer Dave Lombardo up there. Kerry King’s wildfire riffing was the same as ever, and ditto for Araya’s thrumming bass and clipped, infernal screams.
“Thank you very much. I hope you guys have a good time,” was the extent of Araya’s banter after this initial assault. But it gave us enough time to catch our breath, wipe the mosh-sweat out of our eyes, and focus.
“War Ensemble” came next, accompanied by an old-school metal show tapestry change (the skeleton warrior in a Slayer helmet shifted to some kind of ancestral pagan shield graphic). I was thrilled to realize that I knew it was “War Ensemble”. Like a monk finding salvation in silence, I had reached a higher plane of understanding in the noise.
The rest of the show was more of the same. One vintage thrash classic after another, executed with relentless energy that belies the age of these musicians. During “Spill the Blood”, I thought my phone was buzzing. It was my chest cavity. “Hell Awaits” ended with an abrupt, thunderous chord, like Satan had shut off the world. “Seasons in the Abyss” was epic, and “Raining Blood” even more so.
As someone who loves this band (and was admittedly seeing them for the first time), it was impossible to complain about this. But it does call into question what kind of act Slayer is going to be moving forward. Are these nostalgia-heavy sets just a temporary lark? Or is the band on the way to becoming a thrashin’ to the oldies revue?
The set did include “Implode”, the track released last year to tease the band’s 11th LP, Repentless (set to come out in September). Maybe that album will be great. Maybe Hanneman’s absence will force them to evolve in new and interesting ways. Maybe not. Regardless, I know what it meant to see Slayer last week. It meant that the more this band screams at me about dying, the more they make me feel alive.