WORDS: HARRY HIGGINSON
The 3rd of November 2018, Wembley Arena.
Fire, explosions, and one of the greatest metal bands of all time thundering through their back catalogue, obliterating London, perhaps for the very last time. For all the fury, headbanging and exhilarating intensity, there was a bittersweet feel to their final few songs, the realisation that soon, the band will be consigned to the history books.
There’s a certain awe inspired by hearing a band like Slayer play their greatest hits, anthems like ‘Angel of Death’ and ‘Raining Blood’ that have been immortalised as all-time greats amongst fans of metal music, being thrashed out there and then by (at least some of) the people that wrote them. These songs aren’t just good on their own though, they’re truly iconic. When Slayer’s third full length album, ‘Reign in Blood’ dropped back in 1986, nobody was ready for what the thrash quartet were about to bring. Transgressive, evil, pummellingly fast, and arguably one of the heaviest albums ever on it’s release, the 12-track breakneck blitz tore the thrash metal genre a new one. Blending the pseudo-satanic imagery of earlier bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, the raw energy of the emerging hardcore punk scene, and the sheer speed and power of speed metal icons like fellow legends Motorhead, ‘Reign in Blood’ was unlike anything anyone had heard before.
A record like that makes it easy to forget where Slayer’s humbler beginnings. ‘Show No Mercy’ and ‘Hell Awaits’, their first two full length outings, didn’t sound too far removed from their contemporaries in Megadeth or Metallica, with mere hints of the brutal leviathan that was to emerge once the band had properly developed. Their next three, the aforementioned ‘Reign in Blood’, along with the equally brilliant ‘South of Heaven’ and ‘Seasons in the Abyss’ cemented Slayer as the kings of extreme metal, their speed, intensity and technical proficiency near-unrivalled by their thrash metal contemporaries. Sure, Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’ was iconic, but nothing quite put a middle finger up to virtually everyone and everything quite like Slayer.
Watching a band like that play a venue like Wembley Arena was slightly surreal. Thousands of people, shouting every word to these violently heavy songs doesn’t feel right – this should be music for a tiny sweaty basement in the 80s, not a massive, classy arena in 2018 – but Slayer just make it work. Propelling something this nasty into what is essentially the mainstream seems like it just shouldn’t have happened. But that’s the magic of this band – their explosive work in the ‘80s set the trend for so much of what we know now as the wider Metal genre, inspiring kids across the world to start their own bands.
And what kids they inspired. You’d honestly be pretty hard pressed to find a successful metal band these days that don’t pay their dues to the band; Lamb of God, Hatebreed, Gojira, Slipknot, Mayhem, Pantera – even Dave Grohl and Weezer(?!) have come out and said just how important Slayer were either to their musical style, or their desire to pick up an instrument and play. Without records like ‘Reign in Blood’, there would be no death metal, none of the ridiculous speed and intensity of grindcore, and no deathcore, metalcore, or modern hardcore, all of which can be traced back to the darkness and intensity Slayer brought to the table.
Some have criticised Slayer for not evolving enough, and past ‘Seasons in the Abyss’, the band’s output has been a little less consistent, never quite recapturing the fire and fury they made their name with. Even the band recognise that they’re not quite who they used to be. Tragically losing original guitarist Jeff Hanneman in 2013 to liver failure, and original drummer Dave Lombardo in the same year over a pay dispute was a huge blow to the group, but they have soldiered on in spite of it all. Though their god-like status in Metal history may suggest otherwise, even Slayer, in fact, mortal. Bassist and vocalist Tom Araya confessed in a 2016 Loudwire interview that “At 35 years, it’s time to collect my pension… It just gets harder and harder to come back out on the road. 35 years is a long time.”
But honestly, in that moment on the 3rd of November, as the backdrop of their set fell away to reveal a touching tribute to their ‘Angel of Death’, the late Hanneman, and the band played their final song of the night, you’d swear it was 1986 again, in some sweaty dive bar in California. Without dropping a beat, the opener to their breakthrough album was a truly ferocious final bow, and just as soon as it had started, it was all over. One of the most ground-breaking groups in alternative music had left the stage in England’s capital for the final time, and they’d done it in style.
Sooner rather than later, they’ll will be a thing of the past, and whether you’re a diehard thrash fan or just dabble in the harder side of music every now and then, that’s a great, great shame. So if you can, get to one of their shows, buy an album, or just stream some of their greatest hits, because without Slayer, your favourite band probably wouldn’t exist.