Thirty-seven years. Nearly four times longer than The Beatles were together. For a band that screams about violence and death, Slayer has had an amazing lifespan.
One of the original thrash metal bands that rose to prominence in 1980s California, the quartet has consistently pumped out hard-rocking records and performances. There have been only a few member changes over the decades. Fewer than their peers and rivals in Metallica, for instance. Slayer’s sound and image have also been far more consistent. Their fanbase has shown undying loyalty as a result.
Slayer’s Final World Tour tackles 74 cities around the planet. But unless you’re a metalhead, this event probably didn’t register with you. Despite two Grammy Awards, you don’t hear Slayer on mainstream radio stations. Not these days, anyway, yet they continue to pack houses worldwide. It’s a testament to their abilities to maintain a fanbase and stick to their roots. Bloody, angry roots.
The tour rolled through London on a hot holiday Monday. You better not have been in a rush: it’s a six-hour behemoth of a show. Women and men sporting black t-shirts (hundreds of them bought at earlier Slayer shows) could be seen for blocks leading up to Budweiser Gardens. I cannot recall a single white shirt among them. Thick beards and tattoos were the norm. I felt among friends.
Many at the show were born after Slayer’s formation in 1981 (myself included). It was a young, energetic crowd eager to party and say farewell to their musical heroes.
Starting at 5pm, we were treated to a scorching assault of guitars, drums and ear-shattering vocals. Four bands, all major headliners anywhere, opened the evening. These long-time friends and family were privileged to share the stage. This wasn’t just a Slayer show. It was a travelling heavy metal circus.
British hardcore outfit Napalm Death kicked off the night with a furiously short set. While I couldn’t decipher a single lyric by singer Mark “Barney” Greenway, his beautiful voice came through when he spoke directly to the audience between tracks. Greenway rallied against conformity and, with a vulgar Dead Kennedy’s cover to close the set, racists and fascists as well. It was a perfect way to begin this show in 2018.
Thrash legends Testament and Anthrax took turns pummeling the audience with sight and sound. The light show was synchronized to the heavy beats and fast breaks. It did not take long for Scott Ian, guitarist for Anthrax, to compel the crowd to their feet. Some shirts were removed as the head-banging intensified. No one really sat down for the remaining three hours of the show.
Many had come out specifically to see Lamb of God, a Virginia-based group formed in 1994 (the youngest of the five bands). Their set was dynamic and vocalist Randy Blythe had the audience’s full attention. I can see why more than a few young metal fans turned up just to see them.
A few songs in, my ears needed a rest and I headed outside for some air. Under clouds of smoke, new- and long-time friends bonded over the shared experience. Aside from one tall surly man, everyone was exceptionally friendly and willing to talk to me about their love of the band.
Community. Family. Consistency. Authenticity. There is nothing else like it.
That’s what I kept hearing over and over. And they were right.
Slayer does one thing really well: fast, heavy, hard metal. Why change a recipe that works? This show was for the die-hard fans and they were rewarded for their allegiance. But not once did they slow down or reveal their age. This felt like a vintage show. It could have been 1988 or 1997 or 2005. Even the new material (the set opener ‘Repentless’) felt like it could have been on their first album. And that’s the point. Bands like this just don’t exist anymore.
Oh, and the pyrotechnics were amazing.
Tom Araya’s vocals sounded as they do on the record. Not bad for a guy reported to be near-deaf. He barked, growled, and grunted while sixty-odd brave souls circled in the mosh pit below. He is a compassionate man too, and wanted the audience to know full well what they meant to him.
When founding guitarist Kerry King launched into a solo, I removed my (very necessary) earplugs. I wanted to hear all frequencies of his finger work. This dude pioneered a new guitar style. He executes solos at 220 beats per minute that could stump classically-trained musicians. Perfection is what comes from playing the same songs for your entire adult life. Even if metal isn’t your thing (hey, it’s not mine), respect is due.
Reign in Blood (1986) is Slayer’s most loved record. It’s not a surprise that favourites like ‘Raining Blood’ and ‘Angel of Death’ capped off the night. During the final two songs, a banner celebrating founding member Jeff Hanneman (1964-2013) fell from the rafters. It was a fitting conclusion that recognized past, present and future. That is, a future without Slayer.
Kerry King said in a 2004 documentary that “I don’t ever want to take the stage and people say ‘Man, they [expletive] lost a step’ or ‘this don’t sound like Slayer’ or anything like that. And hopefully, one day, we will just say, ‘hey, enough, have fun man. See you in the bar.’”
See you in the bar, guys. And thanks for all the blood.
Photos by: @BillWoodcock