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Beyond The Hits

The Best Of The Blasphemous Worst: Slayer, Beyond The Hits
Joel McIver , October 11th, 2017 10:54

There’s more to thrash metal than hi-tops and skinny jeans, and there's more to Slayer than songs about the Holocaust and Satan, says Joel McIver

Slayer, the Californian thrash metal band, write songs about horrible subjects such as torture, murder, dismemberment, religious persecution, the Third Reich, the devil and football. They've released 11 studio albums since they formed in 1981, and have generally been unpopular with professional censorship bodies and parents of teenagers ever since.

True, Slayer haven't had any hits per se, but they do have a sizeable clutch of well-worn standards.

Their best-known songs are 'Angel Of Death' (about Josef Mengele) and 'Raining Blood' (about a cavern in hell with the blood of sinners dripping from the ceiling) and numerous others often seen on set lists ('Dead Skin Mask', 'War Ensemble', 'South Of Heaven', 'Disciple', 'World Painted Blood') but there's plenty of other lyrically disturbing but musically amazing stuff in their catalogue. It's not pretty, mind, and if you end up going to hell after listening to the songs below, save me a seat. Behold ten of the best of the blasphemous worst.

1984 - 'Haunting The Chapel' (from the Haunting The Chapel EP)

Our first merry tune comes from the start of Slayer's career. If, like me, you prefer the fast bits of their songs, you may find yourself occasionally wishing that those bits lasted longer. All too often the zippy part comes and goes too quickly, as in later Slayer songs such as 'Cleanse The Soul', 'Sex Murder Art' and 'Circle Of Beliefs'. In this song, there's none of that: the extremely fast and violent second half lasts more than two anguished minutes. The guitar solos are terrible, even by early Slayer standards, and the production is bathtub quality, like all their stuff was before their third album Reign In Blood was released in 1986, but you can't deny the sheer adrenaline of it all. At 2'22'' in this clip, singer Tom Araya does a hilariously contrived 'evil laugh' in the line 'The house of God has failed, mwah-ha-ha-haaaaargh!' Someone should do a playlist of 'evil laughs' in heavy metal.

1985 - 'Hardening Of The Arteries' (from Hell Awaits)

The last song on Slayer's second album Hell Awaits is often disregarded as a bit of filler, only there to lead into the album outro, and indeed it sounds as if it was cobbled together in five minutes. It's brilliant, in the way that songs composed under zero pressure often are. The lyrics revel in the grimmest of nihilism, with 'Death is assured in future plans, why live if there's nothing there?' and 'Nobody out there to save us/Brutal seizure, now we die' from the song's late composer Jeff Hanneman, apparently in a youthful spiritual crisis. Where was God? Not in a Slayer song, apparently. And what was Hanneman - 21 in 1985 - doing writing a song titled after atherosclerosis, an old geezer's ailment? Finally, there's a glorious bit of trying-to-be-deep-and-massively-failing nonsense in the line 'Transgressor is as one', which means nothing but sounds cool.

1986 - 'Reborn' (from Reign In Blood)

I love the fact that there are no metaphors in Slayer songs, or no obvious ones anyway. The song 'Reborn', overshadowed on Reign In Blood by the bookend tracks 'Angel Of Death' and 'Raining Blood', is literally about being reborn. Tom Araya used to introduce it (see 2'39'' in this clip) by saying 'If someone's fucked with you all your life, and then you die, you can come back and kill that little motherfucker'. No need to overthink this splendidly primitive song, all about a warlock who 'signs the book of red' and returns from the dead to wreak vengeful havoc.

1988 - 'Live Undead' (from South Of Heaven)

'Live Undead', not to be confused with the EP of the same name from '84, is fairly pedestrian for its first two and a half minutes, not helped by Araya's attempts to sing properly. At 2'39'', it accelerates suddenly, making any Slayer fan giddy with adrenaline. 'Thorazine, pumping through your veins' wails the singer, which makes thorazine sound like the best drug ever until you consult Wikipedia and find out that it's an antipsychotic that makes you fat and dizzy. Towards the end, Araya yells 'Laughing as you eternally rot', presumably in acknowledgment of the fact that the word 'Slayer' was once thought by impressionable youths to be an acronym for 'Satan laughs as you eternally rot'. Ah, those were innocent times.

1994 - 'SS-3' (from Divine Intervention)

Divine Intervention (1994) marked the point when Slayer's career plateaued, the metal kids started listening to Korn and people gave up on thrash metal in droves. Parts of the album are maddeningly great, though, in this case the bit from 1'59'' until the end. Guitarist Kerry King called Divine Intervention 'a Reign In Blood for the Nineties' at the time, and you can see his point despite the album's slightly dodgy production: there's a definite ferocity in the riffs here. In contrast, their next couple of albums, Undisputed Attitude from 1996 and Diabolus In Musica two years later, suffered from a lack of focus. In fairness, writing this stuff isn't exactly easy.

1998 - 'Scrum' (from Diabolus In Musica)

I always wonder if someone suggested to Slayer that they write a thrash metal song which could be licensed to a sports TV channel, and then they came up with this, which appears to be about American football. The subject matter doesn't really fit with the sinister vibe of the patchy Diabolus In Musica album, and in fact the lyrical section is really short - perfect for a sports programme intro. As far as I know, 'Scrum' has never been used on Football Focus. Maybe it should be.

1999 - 'Dittohead (Live)' (from Live Intrusion)

In 'Dittohead', an incredibly speedy song, Kerry King writes about the American government's failure to deal with crime from the gleeful perspective of a murderer. Said antisocial person sounds a bit like a Brexit bore from your local pub ('This fucking country's lost its grip'), but with a thrash metal backing. In this song King isn't actually saying that criminals should be rounded up and shot, but the implication that he doesn't view modern liberalism with a cheerful thumbs-up is clear. This version, from the Live Intrusion video, is more urgent than the clinical studio recording. Loads of Slayer's songs are better live, actually.

2001 - 'Payback' (from God Hates Us All)

God Hates Us All was released on 9/11, a disturbing coincidence, and this song's title appeared on Slayer T-shirts alongside the American flag not long afterwards. 'Payback' is a great song if you've been stuck in a traffic jam: its lyrics are the ranting of a person who is sick of life's bullshit and wants to kill someone. I played it to Katie Price once during an interview for this website and she was appalled, which I thought was reasonable: it's totally abrasive, and filled with adolescent language to match. However, seeing the song used to support George 'Dubya' Bush's War On Terror was disconcerting to say the least.

2002 - 'Aggressive Perfector' (from Reign In Blood: Expanded Edition)

Slayer's first recorded song was 'Aggressive Perfector', from 1982. (I once asked Tom Araya what a ‘perfector’ was, and he said it was a bit like a Terminator. Why not, eh?) The original version is enthusiastic but ropey, with Araya screaming out of tune and everything sounding amateurish. This re-recorded version is much faster, tighter and more cohesive. In 2002 you could only get it on the Expanded Edition of Reign In Blood, alongside a remix of 'Criminally Insane' from the original 1986 vinyl 7''. Now, of course, it's on ''the streams''.

2014 - 'Implode' (standalone single, released ahead of the Repentless album release in 2015; album features re-recorded version)

Slayer's longstanding drummer Dave Lombardo left the band in 2014, but not before playing drums on the first single from the then-forthcoming Repentless album, which was released after he'd been replaced by Paul Bostaph. The song was re-recorded for the album (as King told me, they didn’t want anything by Lombardo on Repentless) and the latter version is a touch sludgier, tuned lower and obviously with a different drum track. This is not meant to instigate a pointless argument about who is the better drummer - Lombardo and Bostaph are both master musicians - but there's a slightly more extrovert feel on the original which I like. You may prefer the later recording, which is fine too. The real point here is that Slayer are still making heinously vicious music. No other band from the class of '81 can say the same.