After the passing of founding guitarist Jeff Hanneman, of alcohol-related cirrhosis, in May, the skies have darkened considerably across the Slayer universe.
"I miss him dearly," said bassist and singer Tom Araya. "I have to remind myself that I'm not going to see him. He's not going to be a part of this anymore... Him not being a part of the band for the past two years: it was temporary, and now it's permanent."
Of course, with Slayer, things have always been dark. They covered Iron Maiden and Judas Priest in clubs around Huntington Park, Calif. in the early '80s before practically inventing — along with Metallica, Megadeth and a coven of other bands — what we now think of as thrash, which mixed metal with punk into a darker variant of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (or NWOBHM) sound, which itself was a late-'70s response to the blues-based heavy rock of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple.
Any lingering, quasi-approachable melodies or chord progressions became weird, jagged chromatic riffs, played at deafening volumes. Gone were the vocal histrionics of Maiden's Bruce Dickinson or Priest's Rob Halford, replaced by grizzled lyrics about Satan, Nazi doctors and various other injustices, political or otherwise. Merciless double-bass-drum beatings and buzzsaw guitars erased any memory of glitz or glamour. To submit your ears to Slayer's music at horrifying volumes was to invite your fight-or-flight response. Discomfort was a crucial part of the game.
After two self-financed full-lengths and an EP for Metal Blade, Slayer released Reign in Blood, their 1986 debut for Rick Rubin and Russell Simmon's Def Jam label. Now widely considered to be a high-water mark of metal aggression, its success led to eight more studio albums and EPs (some of them certified Gold), DVDs, high-profile tours and a ridiculous pile of accolades, including five Grammy nominations and two wins. Slayer is now practically a household name, a miraculous feat for a group that never compromised its sound.
Not that the commercial route hasn't been dangled in front of Slayer over the years. "When we had just got done recording [1994's] Divine Intervention," Araya said, "they had a big meeting at the label, and one of the record reps brought that up: 'You have a really great album here, but we could use a radio-friendly song.'" (Divine Intervention marked the Slayer debut of drummer Paul Bostaph, who replaced founding member Dave Lombardo.) Hanneman spoke up: "'You just got through saying we had a great record. You figure out what song you want on the radio and put it out there,'" Araya remembered. "After that, we never had any other meetings with A&R."
Rubin's approach, Araya said, was different. The Def American honcho, who exec-produced every Slayer release from Reign in Blood on, would simply shrug and say, "It's your career."
Araya spoke to the Advocate by phone from his Central Texas ranch, as he was looking out over his 50 or so Black Angus cows. "We do what we do, and we really enjoy it as a band," Araya said. "We figured that people are just going to have to learn to like Slayer. In 30 years of existence, we've written some great songs and put out great albums, and we've never had to rely on having a hit record. We all just got together and wrote some songs, and if one got on the radio, great. If not, that's fine too."
Leading up to his death, Hanneman's health had been deteriorating for some time. Two years prior, he contracted a flesh-eating bacteria from a spider bite, leading to skin grafts and forcing his exit from Slayer when he could no longer play the guitar. Gary Holt of Exodus stepped in, and now performs with Slayer in Hanneman's permanent absence.
After Hanneman's spider bite and 2011 departure from the band, Araya and guitarist Kerry King began working on new material, with Hanneman contributing when he could. "Jeff would show up now and then," Araya said. "When we started working on ideas for a new album, it allowed him to see his potential to play... What we [ultimately] put on the album is another story, but Jeff was a big part of that, though not as much as I would have liked him to be. It was really rough on him. But we always got together and rehearsed, to see where he stood."
On Nov. 26, the surviving members of Slayer perform at the Toyota Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, with Gojira and 4ARM supporting. Their set will include what they're calling "Old School Slayer Night," featuring tracks from Show No Mercy (1983), Hell Awaits (1985), Reign In Blood, South of Heaven and Seasons in the Abyss (1990).
"It's a good way to bring Jeff's memory back to everybody, finishing the year off with Jeff's memory one final time," Araya said.
w/ Gojira and 4ARM, Nov. 26, 7:30 p.m., $35-$45, Toyota Presents Oakdale Theatre, 95 South Turnpike Road, Wallingford, (203) 265-1501, oakdale.com
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