[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hat the fuck happened to the mighty fucking Slayer?
For fans of the band, or fans of metal of any type, it’s a real question; and more than just a thought about a band, it’s a line of questioning that begins to unravel the very fabric of metal as a genre and culture. It is an existential dilemma that consumed my mind as I watched the metal titans take the stage this past Saturday. It didn’t have much to do with how they played, really, but I was most definitely not the only one to be watching the thrash legends and think “My, how the mighty have fallen.”
Back in 2011, when Metallica put out Lulu with Lou Reed, the world of metal viciously taunted the legendary quartet for having released a decidedly unacceptable musical platter. Quite a few of the mocking chorus cast their view at Slayer, holding them up as exemplars of the way metal legends should comport themselves: “Look!” they beamed, “Look to Slayer! They never got soft, never stopped wearing pointy nail gauntlets, never stopped writing songs about serial killers and demonic surgery! If one wants to be legendary, one must follow the three-decade-long career of Slayer!”
Fast forward a year-and-change, and things have definitely evolved: first with Slayer’s unamicable parting of ways with drummer Dave Lombardo, then with the untimely passing of guitarist Jeff Hanneman, and then with the band’s decision to go forth with their planned 2013 world tour, an exhaustive global jaunt that culminated in a hockey arena in Lowell. It was a night that may perhaps live in infamy as not only one of the lowest points in Slayer’s daunted history, but indeed of the genre of metal itself. Reduced to singer/bassist Tom Araya and guitarist/tribal tattoo enthusiast/clothing-with-flames-on-them impresario Kerry King, Saturday’s show saw the mighty Slayer touting their unholy musical wares to a venue that appeared, charitably, to be at one-third capacity.
Sitting in a bleacher seat, with literally not a single other metallion within 15 feet of me, looking around at the small packs of black-hoodied metal fans that paced around the cavernous environs of the Paul Tsongas Center, it was easy to sense the deflation of enthusiasm that is at the core of modern metal, as a movement and phenomenon. Like Slayer, thrash metal hit its peak as a musical genre and as a popular mode of expression in the late ’80s. It’s a hard truth that it is disconcerting to have your face rubbed in the irrelevance and obsolescence of a beloved part of one’s life.
Saturday’s show was the final stop in Slayer’s 2013 world trot, and the weariness was palpable, even if it wasn’t evident in the tempo or relentless pacing of the show. It was more about mental weariness, about the band’s obvious disillusionment in playing to an almost empty room. As any Slayer fan knows, Araya always introduces “War Ensemble,” the classic riff-fest that opens 1991’s Seasons From The Abyss, with a hearty deep-throated exhortation to the crowd: “Are you ready? Are you ready… for waaaaar? Waaaar??? WAAAAARRRR? WAAAAAR ENSEMBLE!!!!!!!!!!!!” In Lowell on Saturday, Araya tossed a couple half-hearted “waaar’s”, shouted out “War Ensemble” in a rushed and defeated tone, almost as if to say “Okay, whatever, let’s just get this over with.”
Which, and let’s be honest, is not really a problem: a Slayer that gets onstage and is eager to just get the thing done isn’t necessarily a bad Slayer. If you walked into Saturday’s show with no knowledge of the backstory, and could view the gig with the ability to crop the empty bleacher sections out of your view, the show was completely and utterly rad. A blistering set entirely devoid of a single note written since 1991, mostly leaning on 1983’s Show No Mercy and the aforementioned Seasons, it was a wet-dream for the type of metalhead who sees the Clash Of The Titans Tour as the end-all-be-all of thrash’s evolution. They opened with “Hell Awaits”! They closed the set proper with “Black Magic”! They did “At Dawn They Sleep” and “Die By The Sword” back-to-back! There wasn’t a single solitary slip-up as they barreled through almost two-hours of superspeed blastbeat riffmania!
Also, it is kind of hard to even fault the Scab Slayer lineup, when you really think about it: first, you have Gary Holt, the legendary Exodus guitarist who had been filling Hanneman’s shoes for two years when Hanneman passed; then you have Testament/Forbidden drummer Paul Bostaph, who has been in Slayer, in various stints, for over a decade and played on four of their albums. They both play like champs, and on Saturday night it was hard to fault Bostaph and his enthusiastic Lombardo impressions — Lombardo himself has been known to occasionally fuck up the stutter-pound solo climax of “Angel of Death,” but Bostaph has proven himself over the years to be an eager Lombardo disciple, and in Lowell on Saturday he was a fucking machine.
But let’s face facts: in the year 2013, metal fans are a bunch of snipey little pricks. In the early ’80s milieu that Slayer came up in, metal was composed of teenagers seeking out the most shocking music possible. Nowadays, metal is populated by those teenagers’ children and/or the 40-somethings that those teenagers grew into.
Slayer isn’t appealing to underclass bedroom squirrel-torturers anymore, they’re fulfilling and reliving the adolescent fantasies of camo-pants-wearing middle aged ex-heshers. Meaning that in many ways the problem here isn’t Slayer themselves; it isn’t that the band are now in their 50s, it’s that their audience is too. Araya and King, once young men who penned a tune called “Hardening Of The Arteries,” now have to keep on the hamster wheel just to ensure that an ever-dwindling crew of ’80s ex-burnouts don’t have a coronary upon hearing of the demise of their favorite ’80s thrash band — or that, god forbid, they’ve changed a single goddamned thing about the way that they do things, 30 years on. In so many, many ways, Saturday’s show was a damning indictment of the rigidness of the metal consumer’s mindset — if this is what you want, a strict adherence to formula and tradition, then here it is, for you and all 700 of your friends to enjoy one last time in an enormous empty fucking arena.
No one else, clearly, gives a shit anymore.
The show was not without its moments of excitement and amusement, the clear apex of which was the moment late in the set during, I think, “Dead Skin Mask”, when a fan crowdsurfed in the pit for several minutes WHILE SITTING IN A FUCKING WHEELCHAIR. Also, Araya was not without his hysterical moments, like when he attempted to segue a cheap shoutout to the local fanbase with his usual introduction to “Die By The Sword”:
Hey this is Boston, it’s a real political town? [pause] All these people signing this and that. [another pause] Doesn’t do a goddamn thing, does it? [longer pause] They say that ‘The pen is mightier than the sword;’ [agonizingly long pause] Well fuck the pen, because you can DIE BY THE SWOOOOORRRRDDDDD!!!”
I’m sure Paul Tsongas would have appreciated the hat-tip.
The problem with the show, and the problem with Slayer, and the problem with a certain prevailing mindset in the world of metal, both amongst fans, bands, labels, tastemakers, etc. ultimately has to do with the insularity of the genre: this is what happens when one of the genres best bands refuses to ever let the outside world in, and this is the end result of sticking to one’s guns way past the point of rationality.
Slayer are one of the greatest bands ever, period, but in a sense, they aren’t headlining material, at least in a stadium world. Slayer, and the rest of the “Big Four,” basically hit paydirt at a strange blip in rock history where thrash metal was allowed access to mass audiences. Some bands, like Metallica and (gulp) Megadeth, fucking went for it, grabbed that brass ring, and eventually made asses out of themselves, as artists are wont to do once they achieve ridonkulous success. Slayer’s mark of authenticity, for decades, was that they didn’t play this game, didn’t budge an inch, didn’t concede in any way to the standards of the music marketplace.
It’s a specious argument, if only because it ignores what the band was all about: desperate for controversy, eager to piss people off and offend the easily offended, Slayer put out album after album that just begged the world at large to get upset at their lyrical and thematic antics. Satanism, serial killers, sure; egging on organized religion, fine; glorifying war, perhaps glorifying Nazi tropes, etc. All of these became ho-hum standards in metal, post-Slayer.
When Sept. 11 happened, it kind of threw the band for a loop, if only because their album God Hates Us All, release date 9/11/01, was full of almost-prophecies that made the record sound like a concept record on the topic of a tragedy that hadn’t happened until the day of its release. But soon enough, the band was back to its usual bag of tricks: “Jihad,” for example, from 2006’s Christ Illusion, was a song written from the perspective of one of the 9/11 hijackers. The thing is, it isn’t as if they aren’t allowed to do these things, and it isn’t as if these aren’t all awesome songs on awesome records — because they are and they are. But there is a certain cognitive dissonance in processing that Slayer are supposed to simultaneously be a band that doesn’t care about mass appeal or attention and that they also are desperate to garner the attention that comes with cheap shock tactics.
The greatest issue, though, is that no one cares; and sure, no one cares about music anymore anyway, but the enthusiasm that Slayer were able to generate so easily in the ’80s and ’90s is a far more precious commodity in the modern musical landscape, where no one sells albums and fans expect more for $80 than a 100-minute mad dash through your early catalog of non-hits. Slayer can reliably play the underbill on big metal tours, lending metal cred to a fucking Slipknot tour (like they did last summer), but the truth is that Saturday’s show would have better suited at the Middle East Downstairs, a sad state of affairs for these titans of thrash.
And it isn’t just because more people didn’t pay a day’s wage to see them in a hockey arena, it’s that there aren’t very many actual metal bands to replace them and their ilk now that the decline has hit. Sure, there are a zillion great new metal bands, more and more pop up every other second — but are there any that can represent metal on a grand scale, that can keep a metal band’s name on the marquee of a venue like Tsongas alongside, say, Mannheim Steamroller and the like? Think about it: Dio is dead, Lemmy is on his way, Sabbath are ready to bow out, and everyone else is a joke. Hope you either a) bought tickets to that Metallica 3-D movie this past summer or b) really enjoy seeing Mastodon headline that largish theater in your town every year for the rest of your lives, because that’s basically it for metal.
Oh, come on, you didn’t really fall for that shit, did you? Just joking. We all know that Slayer will tour again, and again, and again, and they’ll find some way to balance this out, get fans psyched about the next thing. Because the thing is that, all of the negatives aside, when Araya let’s out that piercing scream in the middle of “Raining Blood,” everything I’ve said above is a bunch of useless bullshit. The power of metal, the meaning of metal, the reason for metal, is that it has the noise and the force to drown out the day-to-day crap that we all deal with.
When Slayer hit the stage in front of such a lackluster showing, it was depressing, but by the time they had built up a head of steam and were plowing through our minds with laserbeams of pure thundering evil, it didn’t matter one fucking bit whether there were two thousand, two hundred, or two people in the audience. And they played fucking “Strike At The Beast” by Exodus in a gigantic fucking arena that is going to be hosting kids’ Christmas events starting the next day — what can one possibly complain about?
So okay, maybe this metal thing won’t last forever — but if you’ve been listening to Slayer’s message in the first place, nothing lasts, everything dies, and who the fuck cares. At least we all got to hail to the beast in a vaguely SS-looking military helmet one last time.