“We’ve managed to be creative with it, and come up with new and exciting ways to write about death and murder. After a while it becomes a challenge.” That was what Tom Araya, bassist-vocalist of Slayer, told me a couple of years ago, when he and his band were touring with Marilyn Manson and pushing their 2006 album, “Christ Illusion.”
Since 1982, via extreme music that pounds with unleashed tension, the four California thrashers have created and codified the genre of death metal by cultivating three cottage industries: murder, religion-bashing and prole revolt. The themes are interrelated. Slayer’s outpourings of gore mirror Old Testament sacrifices and the Christian crucifixion; Slayer saws through religion’s chains by appropriating its symbols, including the inverted cross. In Slayer Land, the murderer, society’s lowest slime, stands in for the oppressed prole driven to madness. Guitarist Kerry King spoke for every minimum-wage slave when he wrote a few years ago, in “Catalyst,” “You never dealt with such rejection/Licking your wounds that won’t f*cking heal.” On “Human Strain,” from Slayer’s new “World Painted Blood,” Araya and guitarist Jeff Hanneman reflected on “death stalking man through peace, through life, through hatred of himself.”
Slayer get perceived as shock exploiters, which of course they are; they’ve made a good living at it. But they’re also humanists, turning oppression’s negative energy against the manipulator. Araya was raised as a Catholic; his father was a deacon, his mother taught catechism. He’s a family man. He told me he started reading crime books when he was a kid: “It caught my interest, just how these people who are serial killers or murderers can do what they do, and how the human mind works, and how can the human mind allow that to happen?” Billions share his fascination, riding the line between curiosity and gornography, a line Slayer straddle with a teenager’s combination of innocence and cruelty. At the end of their 2004 live video, “Still Reigning,” wherein the band revisit their classic 1986 “Reign in Blood” album, vast quantities of stage gore are dumped on them. There’s a nice shot of a completely besmeared Araya, his hair plastered against his head; the only feature you can make out is his teeth bared in a huge, gleeful smile. He bids the audience good night with “We’ll see you in hell!” -- as he wrote back in 1988, in “Read Between the Lies,” there’s no heaven without it.
Slayer are also musicians, by the way, and that remains the primary reason to hear them. They’ve been saying “World Painted Blood” reminds them of stuff they did in the ‘80s, which is correct, except they’re better now. The proficiency can take different forms. Though they got annoyed with the years of refinements producer Rick Rubin demanded before he would approve “Christ Illusion,” the work paid off in precision, complexity, balance -- if this weren’t Slayer, you might even say elegance. They went the other direction with “World,” composing much of it in the studio as a team effort, doing what felt right.
It sounds like they had fun. King and Hanneman own good guitar chops, but they really excel at communicating pure ass-on-fire energy -- they must have broken a pile of whammy bars and wah-wah pedals on this one, solos screaming and boiling with demon frenzy on every track. Dig the way Dave Lombardo’s drums are recorded: right up in your face, sometimes filling up the whole sound frame with dark-eyed power, not just triggered, but muscular. Each song ends with a different cymbal sound, a pattern that begins to seem like a running joke, then takes on the aspect of an intelligent unifying concept; the final thing you hear on the record after all the noise is Lombardo quietly putting down his sticks. As for Araya, he transcends his limited voice with maximum commitment: His screams of “Americon!” communicate legitimate fury at imperial deceit and greed; when he mutters “I never thought the taste of you would be the only thing to make me bleed” (“Playing With Dolls”), he sounds like some hellbent country cracker just this side of Jerry Lee Lewis; when he bellows “I want blood!” on “Unit 731,” you believe it.
With that song plus “Hate Worldwide” and “Psychopathy Red,” the album packs enough uptempo oompah to slake the thirst of early-‘80s thrashers, and the 6-minute title track manages to twist the old aesthetic through a number of involving changes. For me, though, slower numbers from the back catalog such as “Seasons in the Abyss” have always served as stronger musicianly showcases, which is why I like this record’s second half, containing the simple nagging chord suspensions of “Human Strain,” the socko riff & rhythm of “Americon” and the Angus Young-style high two-string guitar figure of “Playing With Dolls” -- real songs to remember.
Greg Fidelman produced, reprising his partnership with executive producer Rick Rubin on Metallica’s 2008 “Death Magnetic” but replacing the overdriven headache of that collection with a dense, sensual matte over a full, roiling bottom. Appropriate. “This is gonna sound corny,” Araya told me, “but we do it for the sake of art.”
“World Painted Blood” will be released Tuesday, November 3. Some tracks are already up on Slayer’s MySpace Music page. The whole album will be previewed there beginning at midnight on Friday, October 30, when MySpace’s new music-video home page will also feature a 20-minute video graphic novel of “Playing With Dolls” by “Metalocalypse” director Mark Brooks.
AS OF MONDAY, THE KIMMEL PERFORMANCE AND THE TOUR MENTIONED BELOW HAVE BEEN CANCELED BECAUSE MR. ARAYA NEEDS IMMEDIATE BACK SURGERY. BEST WISHES FOR A SPEEDY RECOVERY. SLAYER'S HOT TOPIC APPEARANCE WILL GO FORWARD WITH THE THREE OTHER MEMBERS.
Slayer play “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on the night of Tuesday, November 3 (Wednesday after midnight technically) before going on tour. They make an appearance at the Hollywood & Highland Hot Topic at 3:30pm on Wednesday, November 4.