The howl came up suddenly through the floor. It was the sound of Tom Araya, shouting again with bottomless rage and horror from the downstairs control room at the Pass Studios in L.A. Even guitarist Kerry King, in the second-floor lounge, was startled enough to laugh, his shaved skull covered in leering, demonic tattoos: “Jesus Christ, he’s loud!” It was the fifth week of recording a new Slayer album, and King had just arrived to overdub additional layers of intense thrash guitar for an untitled song. Lyrics were still being written, ideas hashed out, but things were already going well. “I hope he’s that loud the whole record!”
It was late March, and King glanced over at the Jägermeister machine purring nearby, an ongoing benefit of having the liquor company as a sometime tour sponsor. It would help to fuel his work tonight, a definitive melding of heavy metal and hard-core punk. That is the Slayer tradition, and the new album that would come out of these sessions, World Painted Blood, would only be a refinement of long-standing formula, never a departure. Over the decades, Slayer has become a primal metal resource, as central to the insatiable headbanging subculture as Black Sabbath or Judas Priest; a band built for speed and terror, with images of pentagrams and German helmets splashed with blood, or songs decrying religion and the horrific flesh fetishes of madman Ed Gein. It is theater to some, very real to others — at least, as symbols of infinite rebellion against taste and the status quo.
Unlike their ’80s thrash contemporaries in Metallica, they do not evolve. No ballads, no strings. Slayer is something closer to Motörhead or even the Ramones, gloriously unchanging touchstones of rock and attitude, passed from brother to brother, father to child. A threat to some, a family tradition to others. “You’d be surprised how many fucking diapers I’ve signed,” says King.
The new album should not disappoint. Guitarists and songwriters King and Jeff Hanneman rip through 11 tracks of speed and aggression, occasionally slowing for a brooding passage in the Sabbath vein (“Beauty Through Disorder” and “Human Strain”). Drummer Dave Lombardo pounds a thunderous beat at a supernatural pace, and Araya sings/shouts/sneers more tales of serial murder and psychosis, state oppression, snuff films and endless war over oil (“Americon”).
On the panicked “Hate Worldwide” (with lyrics by King), Araya roars: “I’m a godless heretic, not a God-fearing lunatic/That’s why it’s become my obsession, to treat God like an infection.” And the disturbed “Psychopathy Red” (lyrics by Hanneman) is barbaric horror fantasy in excess: “It’s your time to die … All alone, my prey intimidated/Feed my lust for fear … Your screams fill my soul.”
This was once the stuff of congressional hearings. Now it’s available at Hot Topic — where Slayer made an appearance a few weeks back. But the ’80s were a long time ago. “My manager said to me: ‘The world doesn’t shock as easy as it used to. What are you going to do to shock them?’ I don’t really know if it’s about that anymore,” King says. “What you could get away with back then, and where society was, is so different from where society is today. It’s so much more tolerant. Do I really want to push being edgy, with the ramification of it being goofy? Or do I just want to do what we’re good at, and press the boundaries of what we’ve done, and stay true to the formula?”
The thrash-metal formula was largely birthed in Southern California, ignited in the early ’80s by the speedy, genre-shaping quartet of Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth and New York City’s Anthrax. They were hated, laughed at, feared, ignored, while the metal mainstream pushed the prettier Poison and Bon Jovi, filling hours of MTV with good times and showbiz — and little to remember the morning after. Slayer instead built a committed grassroots following that would last decades, from hometown clubs in Orange County to road trips via U-Haul and Araya’s Camaro. They played to disaffected crowds fueled by the same feelings of intensity, rage, madness. The mosh pits erupted like prison riots.
Just like Metallica (who relocated to the Bay Area), Slayer picked up its two-guitar metal assault from the examples of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. As a young fan and guitarist, King also spent many nights at the Fabulous Forum up in the loge seats with a pair of binoculars, closely observing the flash players of the moment, studying Eddie Van Halen or Randy Rhoads, and learning from these modern masters of speed. King began accompanying Hanneman and Lombardo to hard-core punk shows by Minor Threat and the Adolescents. “We fed off of that aggression,” Lombardo recalls.
A sound was born.
Slayer signed to Metal Blade Records, a local label already tapped into an audience hungry for its darker view of heavy music, and the band began to spread its ungodly messages: King’s disdain for all religion, Araya’s fascination with serial killers, Hanneman’s interest in Nazi sadists, and a general alignment with what many feared was unspeakable evil and actual satanism. Even within the band, what Slayer was doing was wide-open to diverse interpretation. It could be hard to explain.
“My father had a tough time with this. He was very religious,” says Araya, who emigrated as a child with his family from Chile. His father was active in the catholic parish in Huntington Park. “He didn’t think too highly of the subject matter, but he was very proud of me. He helped us out a lot. He had a truck, so on occasion he would help us move our gear around. He was always there and would go to the shows.”
Someone else who heard what Slayer was doing is Rick Rubin, founder of Def Jam Recordings, and then still best-known as a hip-hop impresario. He signed Slayer to his label and soon produced what would become the band’s career-defining third album, 1986’s Reign in Blood. The relationship would last, as Rubin traveled from Def Jam to American Recordings, battling corporate distributors that balked at releasing such horrific material. Surviving the years of moral outrage and platinum sales is a war they won together. Rubin is still listed as “executive producer” on World Painted Blood, but at best, he’s now a distant partner, with no hands-on role. Rubin has long since moved on to other acts, hard and soft, even working with Slayer rivals Metallica, a project King has called “a slap in the face.”
The new album is Slayer’s 10th, and the final release under the band’s original contract with American. The future is open. “A lot of what Slayer is, is owed to Rick Rubin,” Araya notes. “He kept saying, ‘Give me a new record.’ Every time we came up with a new record, he would want to hear more. He never said no to what we had.”
Slayer rehearsals are quick and to the point, more about physical preparation than working out any elaborate choreography. The band members are in their 40s now. That’s still young enough to deliver, and King has enjoyed many “absinthe evenings” on the road during joint tours with Marilyn Manson. But the guitarist still works to prepare for the nightly onslaught. “There’s a lot more warming up — my fingers, my neck, my back — I do just about anything I can think of, just to keep the body happy,” says King, unplugged from his Marshall amps but bent over a V-shaped guitar, speedily picking at the strings.
It’s late September, and the band has convened for a few hours in a Chino rehearsal space. Hanneman, nursing a swollen hand, sits out the afternoon session, while the other three roar through the new album’s title song. King slashes at his guitar, headbanging manically, as Araya spews a warning of the coming darkness: “It’s all extermination now/Poison in your veins/Global genocide. …”
After the first run-through, Lombardo is up from his drum seat and sips some water. “The build on that is incredible,” he says of the song. “It just builds and builds and builds.”
It’s not unlike the messages from an album Slayer released on September 11, 2001. The band celebrated God Hates Us All the day before with a party amid the tombs of Hollywood Forever Cemetery and then an all-night autograph session at a Corona record store. Fans were lined up into the street. At sunrise, the band scattered bleary-eyed to their homes. Araya’s wife had turned on the TV, and he watched as religious fanatics crashed airplanes into buildings, killing thousands. It was a horror he recognized: God hates us all.
“When this band got together, we were singing about devils and demons, and now we’re singing about the reality of devils and demons,” Araya says. “We’re that person holding that sign: ‘The end is near. Prepare.’ We’re telling people about war; we’re telling them to get ready. The end is near, the end is near — the end is here.”
SLAYER | World Painted Blood | American