also appearing: Lamb of God, Anthrax, Behemoth, Testament
Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio – June 7, 2018
It can be distressingly easy to take Slayer for granted. Can be, has been, continues to be. The band is both force of nature and fact of life, and has stood a silent, menacing vigil as the unofficially understood gatekeeper of extreme metal for well over three decades. If ever a metal band this side of, let’s say, Black Sabbath, could be said to have projected a palpable aura, it was Slayer, though not quite in a way they probably ever intended, despite the over-the-top illustrated deviltry that, blaring from both their garish album artwork and overpriced t-shirts beyond count, is the hallmark of their image. I sometimes picture them – or, more to the point, bald, bearded, stern, stocky, tattooed and temperamental guitarist Kerry King – as bouncers at some dingy club, or as symbolic hired muscle working a neighborhood poker game made up of aspiring metal bands and fans – stentorian, intimidating, unbending – ensuring only the worthy are ever dealt in. That is really their identity, and their legacy – as a figurehead, as a measuring stick, as a platonic ideal. There have been dozens of faster bands in the history of underground metal, of course, literally hundreds heavier, and a cascade of corny, waffling wannabes subjectively more “evil”, though such an accounting misses the point entirely. Without Slayer, there is no such thing as “extreme” or “underground” metal to begin with. For over thirty years now, they’ve kept watch.
The announcement – some would say shocking, others overdue – of Slayer’s final ever North American tour, a suitably massive undertaking stuffed to the gills with support from prominent peers and acolytes alike, promised for fans lucky enough to attend a proper chance to pay their last respects. Clearly, respect must be paid, although my own relationship with the band, who, it must be said, did about as much as anyone not named Iron Maiden to shape my opinion of and abiding affection for heavy metal, is somewhat conflicted. Rock and roll is a game rife with attrition and turnover, of course, and few elements of it are quite so romanticized as any enduring band’s “original lineup”. In terms of proficiency and personality, Slayer’s original lineup of guitarist Jeff Hanneman, drummer Dave Lombardo, guitarist Kerry King, and singer/bassist Tom Araya might as well have been an all-star team itself, with the former pair providing the technical skills that enabled and reinforced the latter pair’s pioneering attitude. For over twenty years of live performance, the band was a ridiculously proficient killing machine, never efficient so much as earth-scorching, the rare musical act to appreciably and consistently add to its audience without any counterbalancing compromise. That trajectory has progressed more or less unimpeded despite the tragic death of Hanneman, the author of many of Slayer’s most indelible songs, in 2013, and removal of the obscenely talented and influential – and, some would say, mouthy – Lombardo on not one but two occasions, the most recent seemingly permanent.
Hanneman’s sudden deterioration and heartbreaking, untimely demise only exacerbated what had become a downward trend in the band’s recorded output dating back to the early aughts. Since Lombardo’s departure – the second in reaction to a dispute over take home pay from a European tour – Slayer has more or less functioned openly like the corporation it kinda always was, or has at least noticeably adopted such a mindset, merchandising most everything not nailed down and bending tourmates to its financial will, sometimes to their detriment. Hanneman and Lombardo’s permanent replacements – Gary Holt (of Exodus) and Paul Bostaph (of Testament, among several others) – were fairly extraordinary as hired mercenaries go, and the new incarnation, with King playing de facto CEO, stepped up its already ambitious touring schedule to breathtaking heights. Of the twelve occasions on which I saw Slayer prior to the announced apocalypse, only once was I able to catch the original quartet, and I’ll never forget it. Except in the immediate wake of Hanneman’s passing, I’m really loathe to remember a time in the past decade during which a repurposed Slayer wasn’t on the road, and despite having long since begun thinking of them almost in terms of a tribute band, I was almost always front and center. The shows still popped, the songs still rampaged, and the crowd screamed louder than ever. I wanted to go on among them as if nothing had changed, and yet something crucial and irreplaceable had been lost. Though always appreciative, it took Slayer finally saying something close to “goodbye” to make me fully care about them again.
Blossom Music Center is certainly a much more pleasant hike to undertake sans baggage. Set deep into a ravine approximately fourteen miles removed from grass parking, with a lawn area that looks more like a soccer pitch, Blossom’s hulking wooden amphitheater is the sort of throwback to a more innocent time that all music fans with an appreciation of architectural aesthetics should eventually experience. “I love this building,” beamed no less an expert than Dave Matthews – who has played the venue a time or twenty, including the previous Saturday – “because it’s beautiful…and it’s loud.” My lucky thirteenth season in the abyss began auspiciously with the mighty Testament, one of two bands on the bill to have been a contemporary of Slayer during the thrash metal boom of the mid-1980s. When crafting the support structure for a given tour, Slayer adheres to the dictum “more is more” (with some potentially galling fine print). Blossom’s stated seating capacity (because sitting on grass counts) is a whopping 19,000, and I’d estimate that easily ten or 12,000 of those theoretical spots were filled by night’s end. At the beginning, however, not so much. So it was that approximately 10,000 paying fans completely whiffed on an otherwise terrific performance by one of thrash metal’s acknowledged godfathers. Testament, like their other brethren, seemed happy to be there, and spun gold out of an abbreviated set that conflated rather new material (from 2016’s Brotherhood of the Snake and just before) with rather old material (from 1988’s The New Order and just before) at a 40/60 rate, leaving nothing from their fertile wilderness years to prop up the middle.
I personally heard at least ten people eventually complain that they missed Testament altogether, before grudgingly conceding that was simply the way a modern Slayer tour sometimes operates. Having seen my share of such extravaganzas, I arrived determined and free of illusions, with a paranoiac’s awareness of the clock. Lord knows I would’ve been pissed otherwise. Rule #1: Nobody upstages Slayer, which means that every band gets stage time that is both roughly equivalent and drastically less than the headliner.* All other questions boil down to some variation of “see rule #1”. Our ridiculous five-band show began at 5:00PM sharp on an absolutely lovely Thursday for just that reason, a song already in the air amid lightly scattered clouds. That kind of pleasant daylight is neither friend nor ally to any metal band you can name, let alone Polish underground juggernaut Behemoth, whose self-serious, bombastic blackened death seemed vaguely out of place amongst the old school Metallica shirt contingent but nevertheless won a simple majority of them over through sheer force of will. Shoehorned into third post position despite their status as Slayer’s peer in the “Big Four” of thrash metal, Anthrax was the evening’s happiest surprise, milking yet another seven-song opening set for all it was worth and playing to the crowd like seasoned Broadway show-stealers.** Direct support Lamb of God was but the most prominent nominal headliner (of four) to yield in deference to Slayer’s swan song, and uncorked an economical, no frills nine-song, 45-minute set heavy on hits like “Laid to Rest”, “Ruin”, and “Redneck”, then had the good sense to flee stage with nary a wave goodbye, much as Behemoth had hours earlier.
*And also sometimes leads to cartel behavior around concert merchandise, since Slayer forces supporting bands to adopt their price structure and charge $40 or more for the same t-shirt later sold at off-day headlining gigs or on subsequent tours for $30 or less. This leads naturally to one of my favorite concert anecdotes of recent vintage, when legendarily acerbic Carcass frontman Jeff Walker took the temperature of a club show audience roughly a month after opening in the same town (my town) for Slayer: “How many people here saw us with Slayer a little while back?” (surprisingly few hands go up) “Well, that was $10,000 down the drain!” FWIW, Carcass shirts at that gig were $25. I’d stupidly paid $40 weeks earlier.
**A friend of mine recently reported from the site of a co-headlining gig between Anthrax and Testament occurring in my ancestral stomping grounds of Knoxville, Tennessee. Freed from the requirements of indenture on a Slayer tour off-night, each band made the most of its comparatively robust twelve-song set, striking a much better balance between tracks new, old, and only slightly moldy. Testament deigned to actually play the fretboard classic “Practice What You Preach” this time around, in addition to unveiling seldom heard mid-period gems like “Low” and “Electric Crown”. Anthrax similarly broke out classic semi-obscurities like “Medusa”, “N.F.L.”, and “Be All End All”, and actually switched out one song from the underrated “For All Kings” album they did play at Blossom for another they didn’t. Of course, they could’ve traded out that song or any number of others for played-out ostensible fan favorite “Anti-Social” and I’d have left the building a happy boy indeed. No such luck, of course, then or ever. Cue sad trombone.
There’s a level on which there probably exists nothing new and exciting for Slayer to show me live. I’ve seen them go for broke before, and I’ve seen them go through the motions, multiple times each. They’ve run my nerves through a shredder and tossed my eardrums into a blender set to “puree”. You know, all casual-like. I’ve seen the sacrosanct original lineup absolutely detonate a twenty-song set that ended with a cover to cover run through of the all-time classic Reign In Blood, complete with an encore that literally rained down blood on the stoic bandmates. Blossom’s early going, as the usual assortment of giant crosses, twirling pentagrams, and fan-stoking logos were projected onto a giant tarp obscuring the stage, gave way to the warmed-over trademark paddle-thrash of “Repentless”, and the reveal of Slayer’s most ambitious production design yet in three+ decades of admittedly decent attempts. Each side of the stage was here dominated by a giant, apparently authentic metal replica of the band’s famous Seasons in the Abyss-era eagle logo, while the center backdrop was adorned with the melting Jesus face from Repentless and even seemingly decorated along its edges with some of the little beasties torn from the cover to Hell Awaits. It was just as subtle as anything Slayer has ever done, but as a visual motif actually served as a somewhat elegant representation of the band through the years, hitting on its salad days, creative pinnacle, and extended hangover without ever calling excess attention. Also understated were the frenetic, flanking flamethrowers that provided fiery punctuation to the set’s most impactful moments when not just spitting for the fun of it like Lucifer’s runaway lawn sprinkler.
How do you sum up such a career in nineteen songs? Strategically, as it turns out, if you’re Slayer, and with a minimum of either restraint or bullshit. Though far from the best Slayer set I’ve ever witnessed, or probably even top five, I can look back and at least understand everything that was played. There were also mild surprises scattered amongst the heavy artillery – “Repentless” led directly into the scrappy, winning trifecta of “Blood Red”, “Disciple”, and “Mandatory Suicide”, although the excess distortion emanating from Dave Matthews’ favorite “loud building” later rendered the still strangely jingoistic “Payback” (remember, God Hates Us All was released ON 9/11, not post-9/11) and berzerk “Dittohead” so much light speed gobbledygook – though the band took pains to lean extra hard on its most explosive crowd-pleasers. Tom Araya – who, after 37 years of fronting arguably the most uncompromising band in metal history, may already have short-timer’s disease, and well-earned! – was his normal, amused self, albeit one who gave his litany of famous screams (“Angel of Death”, “Postmortem”) more of a college try than he perhaps always had on previous tours. Meanwhile, King barreled his way through “War Ensemble”, “Raining Blood”, “South of Heaven”, “Chemical Warfare”, and the like from his standard wide-legged stance, head intently down, jaw clenched, guitar held like a scythe, a weeble that headbangs but does not fall down. He, and, to a lesser degree, Slayer as a whole – because everything onstage is done at a lesser degree than Kerry King – looked as though they could go on with this forever.
As the evening progressed, I doubt its larger meaning was lost on anyone either in the band or the audience, though to my ears it was never, ever remarked upon from stage, and the only shirt I saw to even reference a “final tour” was an obvious parking lot bootleg. Even now I have my lingering, educated doubts, but I left Blossom content with both the statement made and the respect paid. I hope Slayer did as well. And if they didn’t make a theatrically big, heartfelt exit, waxing poetic, playing ‘til dawn, thanking the fans, the bands, etc…well, Slayer never was the sentimental type.