I can remember in those formative years of mine it was taboo to listen to Slayer. It was bad enough getting caught listening to something like Megadeth’s “Good Mourning, Black Friday” or Metallica’s “The Four Horsemen” by yourself in your bedroom with the lights off, your comforter draped over you like a cape while praying over a bucket of chicken blood. I mean, the rules were ALWAYS never take a bucket of chicken blood in your bedroom. You could stain the carpet. Anyways, for me listening to Slayer was like a filthy little secret. It was tantamount to keeping Playboys under the mattress or worn copies of Faces of Death 1, 2, and 3 hidden under puzzle boxes and Hot Wheels in your closet. Those California thrashers were just so dark. You got the feeling there was very little laughter going on behind the scenes. I could be wrong, but the band that wrote songs titled “Crypts of Eternity”, “Aggressive Perfector”, and “Dead Skin Mask” surely wasn’t getting stoned on the tour bus and laughing at Tex Avery cartoons and singing along to “Penny Lane”.
I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.
You see, Tom Araya, Jeff Hanneman, Kerry King, and Dave Lombardo looked like dudes you did not cross. I imagined someone mouthing off at one of their shows and Araya pulling out a trident and forking them in front of the entire Palladium crowd. Maybe there were moments of levity in-between cases of Heineken and devouring the souls of virgins from town to town. But I’m sure those only lasted until the bloodlust returned and the band had to feed once again on the blood of the young. Okay, okay, so these guys weren’t monsters, but for the 16-year old me they scared the hell out of me. They were the musical version of those video nasties I always heard about. I knew a girl named Karrie in 10th grade. She was in my geometry class. She’d moved to our Republican stronghold of a town in 1990 from the east coast. I’m not sure exactly from where but I think I think maybe Massachusetts as she had a bit of a Bostonian accent. I may have had a bit of a crush on her as she dug metal and had teased bangs that were at least 8 inches long. She even sold me her VHS copy of Pink Floyd’s Delicate Sound of Thunder. How could I not be smitten? I was putty in her hands. Anyways, Karrie had told me a story about how she and a girlfriend had partied with Slayer and that her girlfriend slept with Tom Araya. Back then I was a little jealous, but now that I’m an adult and a dad with daughters I’m horrified at that story. I mean, she was 16. Ugh.
Point I’m trying to make is that Slayer were an infamous band in my mind. My junior year in high school I became a fan with Seasons In The Abyss, but my first true exposure to Slayer was actually the Beastie Boys. Both “Fight For Your Right” and “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” had Hanneman playing his famous squealing, all over the place guitar solo. I believe he was in the “No Sleep” video as well. I thought, “Hey, if the Beasties dig Slayer maybe I should too?” Of course that didn’t happen, but two years later my brother was inviting me into his bedroom so he could show me what he procured from Butterfly Records that afternoon. It was Slayer’s South Of Heaven. He put it into his console stereo and I was feeling like I did the first time I watched Henry : Portrait of a Serial Killer, which means I felt a little queasy.
South Of Heaven felt like this overwhelming of the senses. It was this perfect melding of their hardcore roots and what would become speed metal. But they weren’t singing about Stephen King books, drug addiction, or covering the Sex Pistols. Slayer seemed to be summoning Satan himself in their breakneck rhythms, speed-picked solos, and Araya’s manimal vocals. Songs about serial killers, devil worship, the horrors of war, and general depravity felt more like hearing a psychotic’s journal being read over death marches than four drunk California punks having a good time. You took these guys at their word when they sang lines like “Bastard sons beget your cunting daughters/Promiscuous mothers with your incestuous fathers.” Songs like “South Of Heaven”, “Live Undead”, and “Mandatory Suicide” were relentless. They seemed to push the boundaries of musical dexterity and human decency. But still, there was something about them that kept me wanting to hear a bit more. There was this lawlessness to their music that was appealing. I sort of looked past the lyrics about necrophilia, masks made of human skin, and wartime atrocities in order to appreciate what was going on musically.
All these years later and I feel like I’m having a bit of a speed metal renaissance. Last year I got a little overzealous on Discogs and located some first pressings of Hell Awaits, Reign In Blood, and South Of Heaven. Out of those I’d have to say that South Of Heaven is my favorite. It’s still that perfect mix of youthful aggression and disgruntled middle age, bashing each other into a bloody pulp. Lyrically they go for the jugular, but it’s more about shock value than actually summoning demons from Hell. I think Tom Araya had one of the best metal vocals in the 80s. It was this spitfire delivery. It was strong, upfront, and not to be stifled with. Rick Rubin’s production was near perfect. No overused effects or studio trickery. The songs were raw and in your face. Hanneman and King weren’t intricate players, but they’d built up their speed and could speed riff better than anyone. Their solos sounded like wounded animals or howling damned souls, which seemed to suit the songs well. And Dave Lombardo? Man, the best drummer of the era period. That guy’s double kick drumming was unlike anyone else. There was power and finesse, but he could also kick it old school and knock out some serious hardcore beats. Lombaro was Slayer’s secret weapon, and once he left for good they just weren’t the same for me.
I’ve learned to not fear Slayer, but embrace them. And I’ve learned that first pressings can be a little expensive. More expensive than a VHS copy of Pink Floyd’s Delicate Sound of Thunder? Hell yes. Worth every penny? Oh hell yes.