We’re loath to kiss the summer goodbye, but what better way to kick off autumn than another refreshing romp through the park with ol’ Uncle Tom Araya?
Yes, those metal maestros in Slayer are back.
It’s been a while since the Southern California bad boys issued their last studio album (2009’s World Painted Blood). And following the death of guitarist Jeff Hanneman in May 2013, it was iffy whether there’d ever be another.
But you can’t keep a good band down—and Slayer is a good band.
With nearly thirty-five years in their log book, ten acclaimed thrash albums to their name, and millions of fans comprising their global Wehrmacht, the heavy metal titans had nothing left to prove coming into Relentless. As one of metal’s “Big Four” bands (with Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax), they architected America’s amp-ripping reply to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the early ‘80s and set new standards for the genre with their uncompromising aural attack. 1986’s Reign in Blood remains a high water mark; follow-ups South of Heaven, Seasons in the Abyss, and Divine Intervention only furthered the legacy.
Slayer have earned the right to keep touring the old stuff for as long as they like—with guitarist Gary Holt filling in for Hanneman—and few would debate their reluctance to write new material without their fallen comrade.
But singer / bassist Araya and co-guitarist Kerry King have already gone on record saying Jeff wouldn’t have wanted it that way.
On the contrary, they insist their Heineken-chugging chum would’ve given a proper Slayer project his stamp of approval (with some pewter-rendered war relic from Germany, no doubt). Hanneman had already given Holt the thumbs-up to sub for him on stage during a bout with an unpronounceable spider-bite infection, and Jeff likewise offered the band his blessing even as his beer-ravaged liver gave out.
Two years in the making, Repentless is that proper album, and one Hanneman would be proud of.
It’s the last record Hanneman wrote music for, and first recorded without him. It’s also the first Slayer release for the band’s new label, Nuclear Blast, and first in fifteen years with prodigal drummer Paul Bostaph (who takes over yet again for the departing Dave Lombardo).
Repentless is also something of a speed-metal family reunion, as Holt and Bostaph both hail from Exodus, who rose through the ranks alongside Araya and company back in the ‘80s. Taking over for uber-producer Rick Rubin are Terry Date (Pantera, Soundgarden, Deftones) and Greg Fidelman (Slipknot, U2), who capture the band’s live sound across a dozen incendiary tracks—but wisely refrain from adding too much studio sheen.
Wrongly accused of glorifying violence, harboring hatred, advocating racism, and sympathizing with Satanism, Slayer have evolved from leather-clad purveyors of cartoon cacophony into smart elder statesmen whose most effective themes derive from real-world crises, newspaper captions, and personal concerns. Latter day Slayer is best when the band holds a mirror up to society, reflecting the warts of human avarice in murky, fractured glass not to glamorize, but rather to critique and satirize—and thereby achieve a creative catharsis that for years has helped listeners process the information overload and cope with the madness.
Repentless furthers the Slayer tradition of the sublimation (not celebration) of anger and fear, and Araya (who is of Chilean ancestry) is a pro when it comes to scripting (and spewing) lyrics that lampoon institutional incompetence, balk at bureaucracy, question governmental greed, mock military bloodlust, and ponder the psychological profiles of pederasts and sundry serial killers.
To the uninitiated, sure, it may sound like Araya’s putting these tyrants and terrorists on a pedestal with his banshee outbursts, Chloroseptic catcalls, and Sam Kinison-like screams when in fact his verses offer investigative whys, a hypothetical what-ifs, and empathetic what-the-hells—all set to the crushing cadence of Bostaph’s double-kick drums and pneumatic nuance of King’s custom guitars.
Two-minute instrumental overture “Delusions of Saviour” whose titular double-entendre once again teases at the concept of a phantom messiah: It shuffles the epidemiology of a delusion of grandeur with misplaced religious fervor (a la the band’s own Christ Illusion) beneath King’s middle-eastern guitar leitmotif and Bostaph’s slow-but-sturdy stomp. There’s a bit of variation on the theme as the track coalesces, building up to the album’s breakneck title cut.
“My songs relive the atrocities,” concedes Araya, who then invites the audience “live fast, on high” in vicarious communion onstage, where Slayer defiantly “leave it all on the road, kill[ing] it every day.”
The buzz saw riffs and stuttering snare of “Take Control” find the guys railing against mediocrity and apathy with the piss ‘n’ vinegar of barroom pugilists. The dark, dissonant “Vices” lumbers amidst Bostaph’s sibilant cymbals and Kerry’s abrasive chords while Araya contemplates violence as an “ultimate drug” whose sinful side effects include vanity, greed, arrogance, and lust.
“Your demons will destroy you!” Araya hisses.
The slow stomp of cautionary, judge-not canto “Cast the First Stone” pits jagged guitars and bludgeoning percussion under Araya’s condemnation of self-righteousness masquerading as patriotism. Where Teddy Roosevelt’s America one spoke softly and carried a big stick, we now police the globe with “manifest confidence.” More than a mere chip on our shoulder, we now sport a “block of granite” we dare other nations to nudge.
Where Seasons in the Abyss entry “Dead Skin Mask” stepped into the blood-spattered shoes of basement butchers like John Wayne Gacy, Repentless reexamines the sinister mindsets of kidnappers and killers with “When the Stillness Comes.” While Araya deliberately leaves lines like Patiently I unleash my violence, ingest the sweet sound of your silence open for interpretation, our Cleveland neighbors will, no doubt, be reminded of Anthony Sowell’s rampage on Imperial Avenue—or, more recently—Ariel Castro’s abduction of Michelle Knight (and other young women).
Araya sets his sights on addiction with the dark, hiccupping “Chasing Death,” whose narrator bemoans the behavior of a loved one caught in the throes of substance abuse. Whether by bottle or needle, the “slave of discontent” and “whore to incompetence” has metaphorically dug himself into a hole—and Araya’s tired of playing helpless bystander.
Released in April 2014 as a free download to tease the then-unnamed album, “Implode” utilizes a slurry guitar lick and sludgy grooves to establish what soon becomes a hypersonic forecast of the fall of civilization: Like a sister song or sequel to “Bitter Peace” (from 1998’s Diabolus in Musica), it too swerves and switches gears, with Araya calling out the charade of high-ranking hypocrites and shifty policymakers as King and Holt pepper the meters with serrated palm muting and lickety-split tremolo picking.
“Atrocity Vendor” borrows from Slayer’s “Aggressive Perfector” playbook , its old-school Show No Mercy / Haunting the Chapel guitar tones and whiplash-inducing percussion underscoring the crimes of “a sociopath with methodic control.”
Hanneman leftover “Piano Wire” laments the wash, rinse, repeat military tactics and myopia of Washington, D.C. warmongers, its serrated strains and galloping rhythm the soundtrack for Araya’s attack on police propaganda, Congressional rhetoric, and (transparent) justification by the state for mounting up and marching out on our streets…and overseas. And while Araya assures us “We shall be victorious,” we just know the larynx-lacerating vocalist is winking at us from behind the studio glass.
“Taste the blood, attack and continue, never surrender!” he howls.
“You Against You” indicts bullies and vigilantes who deem themselves above the law and beyond reproach, whether in a playground or on the battlefield. It’s a song of comeuppance and just desserts, and we can’t help but read into Araya’s prose a few jibes at all the airplane hijackers and suicide bombers who thought their bloody final acts would guarantee their salvation.
“How’s your paradise?” Araya asks. “Hindsight laughs at you.”
Lastly, the topical “Pride in Prejudice” skewers the sentiment of the Jane Austen novel (Pride and Prejudice) in a slow, seething study of civil unrest. One’s mind can’t help but wander to recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, where the police shooting of Michael Brown prompted weeks of protest—or (closer to home for Clevelanders) to the November 2014 shooting of 11-year old Tamir Rice at Cudell.
“The barrel of a gun seals your fate,” barks Araya. “I’m right and you’re wrong.”
But Slayer aren’t strangers to the ugly truth:
“Don’t give me that power bullshit, the fire burns with media hype.”
Those worried by the prospect of a Hanneman-less Slayer can rest easy. Repentless is no Reign in Blood II, but it’s a worthwhile addition to the band’s skull-crushing catalogue. While we’d prefer to have Araya’s bass higher in the mix, the grey-bearded pioneer of pentagram rock is in superlative voice, and the King / Holt guitar tag teams shines bulldozer guitar chords and wah-wah steeped solos that rank among the fiercest licks ever committed to tape by either man. Bostaph’s drums are busy—boisterous and acrobatic—and his pedal work is sublime; you can hear how much fun he was having on the kit.
Arguments over whether Slayer should disband are now moot: These metal mavens aren’t going anywhere soon.
What’s more, Repentless accomplishes the seemingly impossible by simultaneously honoring Slayer’s past, acknowledging the present, and (perhaps most importantly) envisaging a future where once it looked as if the band didn’t have the luxury of a tomorrow. We’ve already identified four or five cuts that’ll make our revised Slayer playlist at home (and updated CD mix for the car).
“God still hates us all,” Araya sneers.
Maybe. The only thing that matters is that Slayer has successfully crafted another album that appeals to the disenfranchised who feel that way on any given day.
In other words, the band still gets it. They may be ready for Centrum Silver, bless ‘em, but they haven’t exactly traded in the brews (and brutality) for noontime cups of Earl Grey and after-dinner naps.
The album is available for preorder in several formats (CD, vinyl, and cassette), with bundles (box sets, T-shirt packages, etc.) ready for shipment.