Los Angeles metal legends Slayer have evolved into something of a cultural icon — the de facto musical champions of the great unwashed, suburban underclass in this country. The band, during its two-decade career, has provided a life’s soundtrack for all the crystal-meth snorting, Ozzfest–attending, disillusioned, no-future, blue-collar kids — many of whom arbitrarily enlisted in the military and are presently getting blown to bits. So when Slayer releases an album’s worth of songs dealing almost exclusively with the brutality of war and the religious fanaticism that fuels the carnage on both sides, it makes perfect sense.
The new album is called Christ Illusion. The cover features a painting depicting an understandably unhappy-looking Almighty with his arms hacked off and the word “Jihad” etched into his chest. He is standing in a sea of blood, surrounded by floating decapitated heads, including that of a frowning Mother Teresa. Needless to say, you wouldn’t expect the latest Coldplay record in that sort of packaging. Still, the brutal sensory onslaught of Slayer is always somewhat of a shock to the system. With their once-fearsome peers like Metallica softening with every weepy group-therapy session, the unrepentantly loud and fast maelstrom of rage these middle-aged men unleash is still far beyond the mainstream — unless you live in Norway, wear pelts and have burned a church or two.
The album begins with a subtle little number called “Flesh Storm,” the vocals of bassist Tom Araya barking about suffering on the battlefield as Slayer surges ahead like an amped-up hardcore band. For better or worse, the group’s song structures have remained pretty much unchanged over the decades, adhering to the now well-established fast, abrupt stop, slow churning, return-to-fast paradigm. Still, there is a renewed energy to this latest effort. Slayer seems reinvigorated by the return of their original drummer, Dave Lombardo, who left the band in 1992 and kept busy by mixing it up with experimental ensembles such as Fantomas, a heavy-metal cello outfit, and jazz musician John Zorn. No mere side man, Lombardo arguably redefined modern metal drumming. What was once a fairly plodding affair now features a wall of staccato kick drums mixed with complex, ultraprecise jazzlike accents. Lombardo’s drumming alone makes Christ Illusion worth a listen.
Slayer has always embraced controversy. Early in its career the band recorded a song titled “Angel of Death,” about the Nazi doctor, Joseph Mengele. Some accused the band of Nazi sympathies. The studio album before this, God Hates Us All, was released on the morning of September 11, 2001. And if any song on this latest record stirs things up, it will likely be “Jihad,” written about the events of 9/11 from the point of view of an Islamic terrorist. But perhaps the strongest song on the album, the one that conjures the power of the band’s 1986 classic album Reign in Blood, is a virulently antireligion number called “Cult,” featuring the chorus “Religion is hate, religion is fear, religion is war, religion is rape, religion’s obscene, religion’s a whore.” There is also a song called “Skeleton Christ” that portrays the second coming of Jesus as merely “a mockery” used for purposes of “mind control.”
The cumulative effect is an album that attacks the notion of religious fanaticism. Not a groundbreaking criticism for sure, but one that will likely resonate strongly with all the rebellious, black-clad sons and daughters of God-fearing red-state Wall-Mart shoppers, whose rebellion may turn out to be this country’s saving grace. Decades ago it seemed so easy to dismiss Slayer’s gory, over-the-top, apocalyptic lyrics as mere fantasy intended for shock value. Years later, the band hasn’t softened a bit, and as their dire predictions play out on the daily news, Slayer’s songs seem more like “Blowin’ in the Wind” than mere bombast.
SLAYER | Christ Illusion | American Recordings