Full disclosure: Slayer shaped me. Not exclusively, of course, but the albums I (and I think every sane person) consider to be their masterworks (Reign In Blood (1986), South of Heaven (1988), and Seasons In The Abyss (1990)) were as integral to what I seek in heavy music and dark art as anything else I can think of.
Initially, their sound was too intense and intimidating for my pre-teen self. As accustomed as I had made myself to the other thrash titans like Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax, Slayer set themselves apart. There was a real savagery in Slayer’s sound, a legitimate malevolence I hadn’t heard before and, to be honest, haven’t heard duplicated since. The other popular metal bands (especially in the Big Four) dealt heavily with the usual themes: drugs, violence, war, murder, nuclear annihilation, Stephen King books (Anthrax only) but in a way that felt like those things were just there to fill out the music or construct an image. In essence, kicking ass was all that really mattered to them; lyrics and atmosphere were just the color of the kicker’s shoe. Slayer was a truly different beast. Not just for embracing more satanic and death-related lyrical themes, although those were indeed eye opening for their explicit grimness. No, it was more that; there was a potent sense of real danger and aggression and just plain darkness emanating from them. At times, one felt lucky it all ended up channeled into music. The caterpillar known as thrash, bred by the freakish union of Punk Rock and Heavy Metal, had spun itself a chrysalis, and Slayer was the unholy thing that struggled its way out. And through the end of the 80’s, that monster ruled.
Creatively, however, the insane peak that was Seasons in the Abyss marked an ironic high point. Throughout the 90’s, the band struggled to maintain relevance. They released an album of punk covers. They lost my interest. Like the subjects of several of their own songs, Slayer shambled lifelessly into the new millennium, groaning with their old voice, none of the fierce light of their more vital days left in their hollow eyes. However in 2006, Christ Illusion showed that maybe all was not lost. Indeed, 2009’s excellent World Painted Blood showed real promise for the first time in a very long time. Momentum was on their side. And then, in 2013, the worst happened.
Jeff Hanneman, lead guitarist and one of Slayer’s primary songwriters found out that he suffered from advanced cirrhosis of the liver, promptly dying of it. It has been said he was fond of a drink. The metal world mourned, likely with a delicious double whiskey and irony. And of course, everyone pondered the fate of the band that had so far survived just about everything. Could they go on as Slayer, or would they call it a career? They had certainly earned retirement should they choose it.
The decision was made: Slayer would continue. Guitar player and other primary songwriter Kerry King would assume virtually sole writing duties and snowy-bearded screamer/bassist Tom Araya would remain at his post. Filling out the duties vacated by contract issues and death respectively, former replacement drummer Paul Bostaph and Exodus Guitarist Gary Holt. And so, all the way in 2015, almost 30 years since Reign In Blood, Slayer gives us Repentless.
Immediately, with the instrumental opener “Delusions of Saviour”, we can at least tell that the band has survived thematically intact. It’s a chuggy, slow build intro complete with a nice spooky riff to define the melody. The problem is, it sounds like another guitar player trying to sound like Hanneman. There was bound to be some of that, but it’s a difficult thing not to notice. The tone and tuning are different. The distortion is different. I ask myself, “Is this Slayer?”
“Yes”, answers the title track that immediately follows. “Repentless” is a savage little number, reminiscent of earlier, hungrier Slayer. Straight up punk thrash with a killer chorus. Araya’s iconic raging shout remains potent (how is he still capable of speech?) and the berserk solos swoop and squeal with lunatic abandon. This song also serves as the album’s obvious homage to Jeff Hanneman, although songwriter King has said “you never would have known” if he hadn’t told people. Indeed? Sample lyric: “My songs relive the atrocities of war”. Certainly, that could be about ANYBODY. Percy Sledge just died recently, maybe it’s about him! The point is, we know whose sendoff this is, and it is a hellacious one.
Unfortunately, the majority of Repentless lacks the fun and ferocity of its namesake. Even more unfortunately, it lacks the identity of the band that is its creator. Hanneman had a way of writing melodic hooks that gave form to the ensuing chaos; a kind of strange, esoteric sound that was more than vaguely eastern, evoking the smoke of strange incenses and the stench of burnt offerings. There are occasional attempts on this record to provide a simulacrum of that feeling but they are notable for both their scarcity and for their lack of conviction. Strangely, one of these weaker efforts is “Piano Wire”, a track penned by Hanneman himself for their previous album and cut from the final version. Like much of this album, it has its strengths (in this case, driving, Seasons-esque verses), but ultimately feels aimless and shapeless with a limp chorus and lackluster soloing. This sounds like a song you would cut from an album, and it was. Still, good to hear from Jeff again.
As I said, too much of the album is equally unremarkable, if well produced and pleasantly heavy. “Cast the First Stone” is a good example, with good emphasis placed on Bostaph’s rolling drum intro and an ultra-potent guitar sound that I want to like more than I actually do. Plenty of heavy, plenty of anger, missing the evil. “When the Stillness Comes” falls into the same category, with menacing cymbal rolls to inaugurate a just-ok murderer song with Araya’s lyrics delivered in a weird recitative that never really establishes an identity for the track.
I’m not going to list all the tracks that weren’t giving me the ol’ Slayer vibe. It’s most of them. Some may think it’s unfair to continue to harp on the fact that a band with a new lineup doesn’t sound like themselves thirty years on. And it’s true, this album is full of competent metal songs that respond well to high volume play. But I’m not the only one referencing old Slayer; they keep doing it themselves. On the fun, (more irony!) explosive “Implode”, Araya bellows “I’m pretty sure that god still hates us all”, a reference to the 2001 album, uh, God Hates Us All. In “Atrocity Vendor”, his howl that “death forever reigns” is different from the classic “Spirit in Black” shout of “blood forever rains” not at all sonically, but rather because in this case it’s boring and sounds like album filler. If you’re trying to establish that you’ve moved on, it’s best to actually do so.
Highlights from the album include King’s Hanneman-inspired indictment of addiction, “Chasing Death”. It’s a brutal track with a crushing chorus that makes it worth a headbang or two, ending with the lesson that “there is no fuckin’ easy way out”, as if to chastise those who take the slow road to suicide. Closing strong, the album ends with “Pride in Prejudice”, a sonic wall of rage and social injustice that won’t change the musical landscape but it does provide a great exclamation point for the record and leaves you with the taste of metal in your mouth. Plus it’s fun to subvert the pun of the title, swap the “in” for “and” as you listen and imagine this as the theme song for the most fucking awesome Jane Austen adaptation ever filmed. Maybe that’s just me.
Essentially, Repentless is a decent metal album, but it’s not a great Slayer album. How could it be? Half of the band is gone. Essentially, what we’re left with is Slayer (feat. Exodus), and while that definitely shreds, it doesn’t work the same dark magic that defined not only a great band but one of the Great American Genres (no I’m not claiming Metal, but Thrash is unquestionably a Yankee beast). This is not to say I think Slayer is finished; the album’s title track alone is strong enough to indicate that with a little time to set their feet, there could yet be a rebirth (undeath?) and a creative resurgence for the wily, haunted veterans. They’ve certainly retained an edge of anger that tends to dissipate from older bands, and what is anger but the essential, highly explosive fuel of Metal itself? Here’s hoping that the wear and tear on the engine can be repaired; I do so love the way it roars when the throttle’s wide open.