A brief history of Slayer

Eva Mackevic 12 November 2018

We take a look at the outrageous history of the holy grail of thrash metal, Slayer, as they embark on a global farewell tour…

A true Slayer fan will answer any question in only one way: “SLAAAAYYYYEEEEER!” That, along with carving the band’s name into one’s forearms, getting fired from a job to attend a gig or subjecting oneself to countless varieties of bodily harm during the infamous mosh pits ("wall of death," anyone?) are just some of the examples of the religious-cult-like following this legendary band has garnered since starting out in the early 1980s.

"Slayer, who were from LA, came on the scene as outsiders—their style was unique and nothing like the local sound"

Along with such bands as Metallica, Death Angel, Exodus and Anthrax, Slayer were in the vanguard of thrash metal—a 1970s hardcore punk-inspired genre that surfaced as a response to the “poppy”, glam metal, populated by “pretty boys.” However, Slayer have always had an edge over their fellow thrashers.  


Slayer in the 1980s. Image via Alex Solca 

Since many of the aforementioned bands hailed from the San Francisco Bay Area, they also moved in the same circles, frequently sharing the stage as well as band members, which resulted in a uniform, almost incestuous music eco-climate. Slayer, who were from LA, came on the scene as outsiders—their style was unique and nothing like the local sound. Instead, they drew on British heavy metal in the likes of Black Sabbath or Judas Priest and adopted the leather and spike-heavy look as well as a lot of the on-stage choreography. 

It wasn’t until Slayer’s third, seminal record, Reign in Blood, that they achieved great success and popularity in their own right and, hence, became confident enough to realise that they didn’t need to copy anyone and could just be themselves. With graphically violent lyrics, addictive guitar licks and the relentless bass drum rolls, Reign in Blood singlehandedly changed the face of thrash metal.

It was also the first Slayer record produced by the legendary Rick Rubin. Hailing from New York City, the famous producer lent Reign in Blood a strong punk rock edge and went on to produce the rest of Slayer’s discography.

 

Embracing the anger 

Music censorship was a hot issue in 1980s America, and daily lawsuits filed against artists and bands for explicit lyrics/behaviour were business as usual. Slayer were a refreshing respite from that stifled, sheltered environment for teenage kids, providing them with an outlet for their anger that they desperately needed in their daily lives. Coming from a punk background, the band really understood anger and knew how to translate that energy into music that was darker, faster and heavier than anything else out there—and that intensity was what brought people to them.
 

They made their fans feel like they belonged to something bigger within a society they hated, and throughout their entire career, they never really lost that ability. Going to a Slayer gig was catharsis; thrashing in a mosh pit was a release.


The infamous "wall of death"

And while to an outsider it may look like the moshers out there are trying to hurt each other, the truth couldn't be more different. Everyone's there for the sole reason of expressing their aggression but through a medium fuelled by camaraderie and mutual understanding. If you ever fall to the floor in mosh pit at a Slayer gig, someone will immediately help you up—it’s a code of conduct propagated by the band’s fans on every forum and fan group on the internet.

 

Keeping it real 

As time went by, as many a thrash fan will tell you, the bulk of the core thrash metal bands started softening their sound to make it more radio-friendly, inspired by the immense commercial success of Metallica’s 1991 Black Album. Without their original bass player Cliff Burton, who died in 1986, and without his ability to hold them back and stay true to the sound, Metallica lost the initial realness which defined their first three albums. The resulting sound was a lot more overproduced and nowhere near as heavy and dark as it used to be.  

To the fans, it was betrayal. This mainstream turn pushed a lot of people to abandon groups like Metallica or Anthrax and gravitate towards Slayer, who, in contrast, were unwilling to compromise and stayed true to themselves, maintaining the same level of despicable lyrics and heavy music, which is why their fan base remained consistent throughout the decades and it's not unusual to see many Slayer-heads in their fifties and sixties at a concert.  

 

The 1990s

Thrash metal went into decline between early to mid-1990s, giving way to grunge and alternative rock. A lot of the metal bands started collaborating with rappers, giving birth to the bizarre nu-metal genre (think Linkin Park, Korn, etc); others simply broke up. Except for Slayer. Their output remained as solid and heavy as ever, resulting in such great albums as 1996’s Undisputed Attitude which paid tribute to their punk roots or the mighty Christ Illusion in 2006 which hailed back to the days South of Heaven but with a modern twist.  

Yet with the death of guitarist Jeff Hanneman and the departure of drummer Dave Lombardo in 2013, things would never be quite the same. Losing both the author of some of their biggest hits as well as one of the most influential drummers of heavy metal in one year was a big blow that left Slayer with only two of the original members, Tom Araya and Kerry King. Hanneman was replaced with Exodus’ Gary Holt and Lombardo—with Paul Bostaph.

 

The Farewell Tour 

After 37 years and 12 studio albums, Slayer announced their disbandment and embarked on a global farewell tour in May 2018, which for any Slayer fan will evoke a mixture of sadness and nostalgia. The fully packed, sweaty Wembley Arena in London, where they were supported by Obituary, Lamb of God and Anthrax, was permeated with feelings of ecstatic abandon and poignant pensiveness everywhere you turned.

"The performance was also marked by a certain hint of solemnity and earnestness"

As customary, the audience spanned all ages, from people who were probably there for the original Reign in Blood tour to ones who weren’t even born at the time—an astounding amount of fans old and young, proving that Slayer’s appeal is as potent as it was back in 1984, making one ponder how little the world has changed since then. Between throwing the horns, headbanging and shouting their guts out to “South of Heaven” and “Angel of Death”, there was a strong atmosphere of oneness and sympathetic warmth among the audience. 


Kerry King. Image via Theo Wargo / Getty 

And the band itself? While exuding their trademark monster energy and rip-roaring aggression, the performance was also marked by a certain hint of solemnity and earnestness. The normally lively, animated Araya and King, who would take joy in orchestrating the raging moshpits, barely spoke to the public this time—and when they did, it was succinct, and at times random.

The bottom line was they did what they came there to do: deliver a tight, knockout show one last time to thank their fans for decades of support—and they did it with class and style. The setlist included a mixture of the original 1980s bangers and newer material, spectacular pyrotechnics and a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Hanneman in the form of a Heineken logo as the backdrop.  

"Can we expect a future reunion? And would we even want one to happen?"

Tom Araya seemed the quietest. While the band never gave a specific reason for their disbandment, in a 2016 interview with Loudwire, Araya mentioned the gruelling nature of touring and missing his family as primary reasons for his wish to retire. Will he get itchy feet after a few years of domestic bliss? Can we expect a future reunion? And would we even want one to happen? It's hard to tell.


Tom Araya. Image via Ethan Miller / Getty

All we know for now is that seeing Slayer is a hit of adrenaline like no other. It’s a very special, if twisted, kind of love between the band and the fans that’s incomparable to anything else. The fact that this is the last time we're getting to witness it is both heart-wrenching and oddly poetic. So next time you bump into someone wearing a Slayer T-shirt, give them a warm, sympathetic smile. And don’t forget to shout, “SLAAAYYYEEEEERRR!”

 

Feature image via Martin Jausller