It was 1984, I believe, when I first heard Slayer. "Haunting the Chapel". I was into Venom and then this whole thrash scene came along and Slayer was just the right blend of thrash with lyrics about Hell and Satan. Thirteen years old and this sounded awesome. "Hell Awaits" was perhaps even better!
I totally missed "Reign in Blood". Yeah, I know!
When "South of Heaven" came out, I bought it right away. But something had changed. Not the band so much. It was me. I just couldn't get into the music except for "Mandatory Suicide". A couple of years later, I sold all my "Satan! Satan!" music cassettes to a girlfriend's older brother.
And now I am back here in 2016, and though "Reign in Blood" made it into my CD collection last year and was quietly left aside after a listen or two, I am perhaps at last back to being interested in Slayer. Ready for Slayer! So I ordered "South of Heaven" on CD.
And I think I finally get the band, or at least get them as they were during their classic run. It strikes me that Slayer need to be heard as Slayer. Not mixed with lots of other stuff. Put on an album. Put on a mixed playlist of Slayer songs. But Slayer are an original band that created their own kind of work space. Tom Araya doesn't even try to sing (unlike Hetfield and Mustaine who actually can and have). He's fine to just bark a string of words like he's trying to give instructions over a jet plane's turbine engines, managing a sudden high scream that is always in the same note but sounds just awesome. I like Tom Araya and I like his vocal style. Many of the guitar riffs are just blistering through but there are plenty of mid-tempo (or at least not supersonic tempo) riffs that allow you to check out the view for a moment or two. Guitar solos shred and wail like an attack. Forget the subtleties of phrasing and smooth style. Slowhand is a nickname not ever given to anyone in Slayer. Guitarists Hanneman and King attack the strings with a force equivalent to trying to torture the instrument and remove its soul with their fingers. And Dave Lombardo seems to do on the drums what other drummers routinely do except that he does it so quickly, you would miss it if your ears could blink. "Was that a drum fill?" "Not sure. It sounded like something falling down the stairs in 4x speed."
Okay, so I've described Slayer's sound as I perceive it. Then what about this album? Well, it's not "Hell Awaits" and it's not "Reign in Blood" but it is still a Slayer album and you can be sure that all the reasons to love the band are here and present. I think that they have tried not to careen through the songs like they did on much of "Reign in Blood" and instead they do take a little more time to craft the music. A little. Like 30 seconds to a minute more per song. For me, it makes the album more interesting though as I can appreciate what is being played more when the tempo is a tad slower. Tom Araya seems to attempt shouting less and singing a bit more though not with the actual singer's ability that Hetfield and Mustaine possess. As I understand it, the band intentionally tried to do something different after the speed burner "Reign in Blood".
Two songs to point out: Slayer's cover of Judas Priest's "Dissident Aggressor", which they cover very well by playing it with Slayer's strengths and knowing when to veer away from trying to copy the song as accurately as possible. The other song is my old favourite "Mandatory Suicide". Now as it so happens, I recently listened to one of my favourite Metallica songs, "For Whom the Bell Tolls". You know where this is going, right?
"Mandatory Suicide" has an intro that seems remarkably as though it was based on the Metallica song. It's faster, higher toned, and more raw than Metallica's bomb-you-out-of-the-water, heavier-than-thou approach. But the intro is really similar. Both songs begin with power chord hits that are followed by a lead instrument melody. Metallica does it with bass, Slayer with guitar, though he melodies are different from one another. After the first four repetitions, the drums go into a regular beat for four repetitions, and then the lead melody is dropped but the power chords and drums continue (in the Metallica song the bass then plays the upcoming guitar riff) for four repetitions. And then both songs deliver an ominous, muted guitar riff that I have always considered (considered of "For Whom the Bell Tolls") as one of the coolest riffs in metal. After this though, the songs diverge. Metallica take a little more time to get to the lyrics and they never repeat that awesome riff. Slayer launch quickly into the lyrics and the riff resurfaces more than once. Both songs are also about war, though the Slayer version is probably lyrically closer to Metallica's "Disposable Heroes".
Curious, I searched the Net a bit but mostly just found squabbles about which band has the better song, the opinions being very subjective. I only found a Danish site where someone pointed out the similarities without any opinion for or against. Does anyone know why the Slayer song resembles the Metallica song? Was it intentional? A statement? A coincidence? Cryptomnesia?
So, in conclusion, I think this is a great album to follow "Reign in Blood" and now I have to order "Seasons in the Abyss" as well to get the trilogy. Slayer are Slayer. They do that extremely well.