Highway to Hell

Speed-metal demons Slayer on songwriting-by-thesaurus, boy bands and favorable exchange rates

I have this great idea for a reality television show. Here's what we do: We round up every single exec, producer, consultant, show doctor, set designer, snotty host, vampiric talent scout, PR monkey and anyone else who had a hand in creating Pop Stars, Making the Band and American Idol, and we fence them all in on an isolated sod farm somewhere in the heartland, far from Los Angeles or New York — Indiana or Nebraska, say — someplace where actual people like you and me conduct our business, where they'd be totally out of their element.

And every Thursday night at 8, we get a different speed-metal band to come to town and pimp-slap every single one of those terrified free-range pinheads until they wet their pants and promise to flee our televisions, forever and ever amen.

The potential delights of a show like this are myriad. First, the aforementioned pinheads would at last be providing us with solid entertainment, while receiving a much-needed reminder of their true position in the human hierarchy. Second, it would teach our impressionable youth that there are more, and better, methods of musical expression than the faux-sluttish caterwaul and the multi-harmonic castrato. Third, it'd have very low overhead (I don't see any reason to feed or clothe the pinheads, for instance). And fourth, it would put a truckload of struggling bands back to regular work.

Hell, yeah: Unlike Ozzy, when Slayer sings about gore and damnation, it's not just posturing.
Mark Weiss
Hell, yeah: Unlike Ozzy, when Slayer sings about gore and damnation, it's not just posturing.

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For the première episode, however, I'd want Slayer to serve as our guest pimp-slappers — not because they need the money, but because they've got the pinheads' number.

"If you've got the formula down," says founding guitarist Kerry King, "it's going to be hard to fail. In a situation like that, even if you fail, you succeed, because the performer is already plastered all over the television. Hire the top songwriter in the field and it's going to be nearly impossible to fuck up the created band.'"

King, a member of a band whose métier has never wavered over its lifetime, knows whereof he speaks. Slayer formed in Huntington Beach, California, in the early '80s, taking up an early standard-bearer position in the burgeoning speed-metal movement.

"At the time," he says, "we probably didn't expect anyone to get it. We just didn't want to be an L.A. band,' like Ratt or Poison; we wanted to do something unique and trust that as people continued to hear it, they'd realize that it wasn't pointless noise — that it was just something unfamiliar."

Derided by both conservative critics and radical punks as a slope-browed aberration, speed metal went through its changes completely off the map in those early years. Mostly absent from radio, the music was distributed and passed around by a whole subgeneration of feather-haired, disaffected, teenaged white boys, who themselves were learning how to mangle their very first fretboards. (Two words: Yngwie Malmsteen. Don't front, you know you owned a copy of Rising Force.)

It took a solid half-decade for speed metal to break MTV, in the days when MTV was a half-reliable, if hopelessly tardy, measurement of a genre's popularity outside New York City. Along with Metallica and Megadeth, Slayer walked point on Headbanger's Ball for several years, thereby invading the rec rooms of suburban America. What separated Slayer from the pack, however, was its reckless embracing of apocalyptic imagery. Alone among the metal bands, Slayer truly worked at being hellish.

Eschewing both the slick accessibility of a Guns n' Roses and the I'm-a-pretty-boy mannerisms of a Poison, Slayer announced its ugly, enduring mandate on its very first Metal Blade release, 1983's Show No Mercy. In fact, scan the album titles and they'll give you a pretty fair indicator of the band's lifelong m.o.: Hell Awaits, Reign in Blood, South of Heaven, Seasons in the Abyss — Slayer traded in the dark imagery of occultism and a crimson-drenched afterlife, with overtly satanic themes running throughout. To cop an irresistible Mike Myers line, their music was so evil it was "ee-vil . . . as in, the froo-its of the De-vil."

As opposed to Dio or Ozzy, however, you got the feeling that when Slayer sang about gore and damnation, it wasn't just campy posturing — you sensed that singer Tom Araya somehow meant it when he screamed "High priest awaiting dagger in hand/Spilling the pure virgin blood/Satan's slaughter, ceremonial death/Answer his every command." Slayer, in other words, was Danzig when Danzig wasn't cool.

Though detractors scoffed, Slayer's performance style — like the most original speed metal — was rooted in technical skill, at least as far as its instrumentation was concerned. Played at whip-crack speed, the music was physically demanding and, in its way, of intricate composition. A run of 16th- and 32nd-note-filled measures is not, in other words, the sort of thing one rips off without practice.

"Yeah," says King demurely. "It wasn't without structure. The point wasn't just to play as fast as we could. There was an outline for it."

Furthermore, the longer Slayer stayed in the ring, the less pedestrian the band's lyrics became. Later albums like the canonical Reign in Blood featured songs about religious corruption ("Jesus Saves," which was somewhat predictable) and the violent history of the white supremacist movement (the Auschwitz-inspired "Angel of Death," which was an utterly left-field entry in the band's playlist).

A brief slowdown in activity in the early '90s — founding drummer Dave Lombardo left the band and was eventually replaced by Paul Bostaph — coincided with the rise of "death metal," a generic exercise which further stamped the malevolent tundra Slayer had helped to map. Slayer's own sound, however, has varied little over its 20-year history; tentative experiments with slower tempos and more commercial production in the late '80s represent the band's most outré deviance from its apparently successful model. Last year's God Hates Us All was critically well-received as a determined return to the kind of music the band does best — loud, high-speed metal at its most irresponsible.

And, oddly, at its comparatively literate. At least, the band eventually wrote an album whose lyrics are distinctly more street-level than previous entries.

"When I wrote for this album," says King, "I tried to take it a little beyond what we'd done before. I used to get out my synonym finder and say, Okay, I need a rhyme for rhinoceros, and it needs to be two syllables.' I tried to write [the new album] in a more accessible way, so that people could relate more easily to the lyrics."

Earthy songs like "Exile" and "Threshold" do in fact seem more suited to a prole band like Pantera than a consciously demonic outfit like Slayer. But the changes are subtle, rather than radical. Having found a reliable formula, the band is loath to tinker with it.

"We've never done anything stupid," King claims. "I'm a fan myself, and I always hated it when a band went in some totally new direction for no reason. And the people who listen to us — who've always listened to us — respond to that. Our fans have always made it good for us to go out and play, and I think it's because we've always remained consistent in our sound. Some nights I'll even drag out the same nail-studded wristband I wore on the very first tour, and I'll see people check it out: Oh, yeah, there it is.'"

God Hates Us All might, in fact, be the coolest album of Slayer's long career, simply because it was recorded at (brace yourself) Bryan Adams' Warehouse studio in Vancouver. Reportedly — and who cares whether it's true — Slayer redecorated Adams' joint so that the vibe might better conduce to their particular idiom, i.e., by drawing a chalk body outline on the floor, papering the walls with porn, hanging a middle-finger banner from the ceiling, and so forth.

"I didn't even know it was Bryan Adams' studio until the third week," King confesses. "I'd heard of it, it was a state-of-the-art place and all that, but when somebody told me, I was like, Whoa, no shit?' We came up because it was a good studio. And Vancouver is very cool. And our money was worth a lot more."

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