“I've got a cocktail in my hands,” says Slayer guitarist Kerry King, at a bar in Corona not far from his Riverside County home. “Life's good.”
For about two years, the phrase “life's good” was probably not something King said much. At the beginning of 2011, fellow Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman contracted a bacterial infection that ate away the flesh of his right arm, effectively ending his ability to play guitar. Then, in 2013, drummer Dave Lombardo left the band, under acrimonious circumstances that King and his bandmates still decline to comment on.
Then, just a few months after Lombardo's departure, Hanneman, still recovering from his bacterial infection, died of liver failure at the age of 49.
Fans likely would have understood if King and his fellow remaining original Slayer member, vocalist-bassist Tom Araya, had called it a day. Instead, they have regrouped with new guitarist Gary Holt — also of Bay Area thrash-metal greats Exodus — and drummer Paul Bostaph, who performed with Slayer from 1992 through 2001. This lineup has been touring together for the last two years; their first recorded output, Repentless, is set for release on Sept. 11.
To move forward without Hanneman, King and Araya had to adjust how they dealt with one another.
“Me and Jeff, our relationship was that we would have dialogue and communicate,” Araya says, speaking by phone from his home in Texas. “That's something that I never had as much with Kerry. We all had a working relationship with each other, but we had to open the lines of communication between us more.”
“There was adversity during this time that we're not used to,” King says. “There are adverse situations during any recording process, but this was extreme. We had to learn how to be Slayer in a new way.”
The absence of a guitarist of Hanneman's caliber would be enough to cripple many bands. Early music from Repentless, however, reveals a group that is still trying to make his presence felt. While the album's title track is a fast-paced thrash ripper, tracks such as “When the Stillness Comes” find King — now the band's primary songwriter — evoking a moodier style that had become a hallmark of Hanneman's over the years.
“I branched out of my comfort zone,” King says. “Jeff had a style that I didn't do … moody and spooky stuff. The opening riff for 'When the Stillness Comes' has been around for 20 years. I didn't have to bust down the door to finish it because Jeff would have that type of stuff covered. This time, I had to finish it. I didn't feel comfortable doing a Slayer record and leaving that aspect of Slayer off of it.”
The return of Bostaph did not concern King too much, given the drummer's previous history with the band. But King does admit that there was uncertainty about whether new second guitarist Holt, despite his many years with Exodus, would be accepted by Slayer fans.
“I would have loved for Gary to have been more involved with writing,” King says. “I thought a long time about this, but I didn't think Slayer fans were ready for that yet. Even though Gary's a household name in thrash, I didn't feel that the first Slayer record without Jeff should have Gary Holt contributing as a writer.”
That is not to say that Holt isn't a force on Repentless. On tracks such as “You Against You,” he shines with the kind of blazing, buzzsaw guitar work that has carried Exodus throughout its 30-year career.
“I wondered how I could make Gary feel a part of it, so I threw some leads his way,” King says. “I wanted Gary to feel like he contributed something, and he did contribute something. He makes me stay on my chops too, because I'm not letting the new guy stomp all over me.”
Lyrically, King and Araya continue to portray haunting visions of a society in decay. Whether it's lashing out at hypocritical politicians and religious figures in “Vices” or a “world drowning in its own blood” on “Implode,” Slayer still attacks the same targets that have driven the band's ire since its inception.
“The world hasn't changed much, has it?” Araya says. “It's regressed into a more violent society. People are doing some stupid things … law enforcement are doing stupid things.”
“Songs we wrote in the late '80s are still relevant today,” King says.
While the group's music and lyrical themes can still be quite violent, Slayer has mostly left behind the more overtly shocking and Satanic moments of its early years. The days when albums such as Hell Awaits and Reign in Blood scared the religious right are long gone. For King, the band's current approach stays grounded in reality, instead of pushing shock value.
“What was edgy in the '80s isn't edgy anymore,” King says. “It's harder to scare people or make people think we're the spawn of Satan. If you push the parameters too far, at a point it becomes ridiculous. I'm not interested in being ridiculous. It's a hard fence to stand on, because you want to push things, but it's harder to do because people are desensitized in the Internet age.”
Even in the Internet age, one essential rite of passage for metal fans is the experience of witnessing Slayer live. Watching — or plunging into — the mosh pit of a Slayer show is still an exhausting, exhilarating and scary experience. The raw fury of the group's music is enhanced tenfold by the swarm of sweaty bodies crashing into one another alongside every riff.
Leading up to the release of Repentless, Slayer will be spending this summer headlining the Rockstar Mayhem tour — which comes to San Manuel Amphitheater in San Bernardino this Saturday — alongside fellow metal legend King Diamond and newer metalcore acts such as The Devil Wears Prada and Whitechapel.
Despite the increasing presence of younger bands on the festival lineups Slayer plays, King says he feels no pressure to one-up his more youthful peers.
“I know that no matter who we're playing with and how good they are, I'm kicking their ass already,” King says. “That's not a cocky statement. That's how I feel. I go up there with such a 'no fail' attitude and there's no band I see in front of me that could alter that to any degree.”
The last time Slayer performed in Los Angeles was an incredibly satisfying and personal experience for King. As Slayer finally performed at the Forum for the first time last November, teenage memories came flooding back.
“That was awesome,” King says. “That was the last major venue that we hadn't done. As a teenager I used to sneak off to the Forum and not tell my parents, since it was too far away from my house [for me] to be allowed to go by myself.
“I saw Van Halen on their second record and Judas Priest on the Point of Entry tour,” he says. “I was the kid that would be sitting in the front row of the loge with binoculars, trying to learn something. We didn't have YouTube or instructional videos, so that was my learning on what to do on the guitar. That was the classroom for me.”
MAYHEM FESTIVAL | San Manuel Amphitheater | 2575 Glen Helen Parkway, San Bernardino | Sat., June 27, 1 p.m. | $30-$262 | rockstarmayhemfest.com