When thrashers Slayer released their debut, many belittled their make-up, spikes and Satanic overtones. Three decades worth of carnage later and with a new album in the works, no one’s laughing now. Brendan Crabb heads south of heaven with guitarist Kerry King.
"Oh yeah, I remember magazines hated us,” Slayer axeman Kerry King recalls of their early days, when they were widely derided both for their music and aesthetic. “I think even when (1986's) Reign In Blood came out a lot of them still hated us. It just took a while for people to get into that kind of music, and then go back and say, 'Hey, that Reign In Blood record, that's not too bad. And that (1985's) Hell Awaits stuff, that's pretty good too', you know? It was just so new and so extreme in the midst of Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax. It was going to a different level. We are all equals, but we pushed the envelope I think more than anybody else did. We were the last ones to get accolades for it.”
Better late than never, we would suggest. Formed in 1981 in Huntington Park, California, the controversy-courting thrash metallers have assumed iconic status, yet continue to make uncompromising music. In recent years they've been hampered a fraction; long-time guitarist Jeff Hanneman remains sidelined by a particularly nasty case of necrotising fasciitis, and their past two Australian tours were marred by frontman Tom Araya's ill health. The singer's on-stage activity has also been restricted. Since undergoing back surgery he no longer head-bangs; nor does he unleash that demonic scream during stone-cold classic Angel Of Death. They're still a viable, vital entity though; both live, where they remain a major touring drawcard, and on record.
As far as King is concerned, he doesn't have a retirement plan just yet. Good thing too, it seems, considering his thoughts on metal's current state. “It seems to me like it's just cruising along, status quo,” the heavily tattooed, instantly recognisable shredder ponders. “I'm yet to see anything new that's like a threat; not even a threat, like the next suitor to the throne. You've first got your Maiden, Sabbath and Priest and then you've got Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax, Testament and bands like that. After that, there's a lot of bands, but I don't think anybody's the chief, you know what I mean?”
Does that concern him much? “Not really. It would if I was getting ready to hang it up and then worry (about) who's going to make up good stuff if I don't. But people are making up good stuff; it's just nobody's… It's all kind of faceless. Nobody is saying, 'Notice me, this is where metal's gonna be'. The last one I think that might have done that was Slipknot, but I'm talking about more the first record. The first record's got like a tonne more rap on it, but it was a really raw, aggressive record.”
Until a worthy successor rears its ugly head, Slayer will continue on their (not so) merry way, crafting the conservative-baiting venom they've built their lengthy career on. A follow-up to 2009's World Painted Blood is in the works, for one. “Dave [Lombardo, drums] and I have been playing since at least December, if not November. We had time to work on stuff last year, so we have an over-abundance of music.”
King is hopeful of releasing the record in 2013. “As usual, every time we get ready to put out a record, American Recordings changes distribution, so that always holds us up. So we've got three weeks 'til we're done in Australia, and hopefully all their pieces fall where they need to fall, we can get some contracts done and start recording. We've got plenty of music; I'm taking my days off in Australia to work on lyrics, so hopefully we'll just get closer to the end product, so we're not going to waste a lot of time in the studio. I think it's pretty much Slayer. As a guitar player I try to come up with things I've never heard us do or maybe I've never heard anybody else do, but still in the parameters of super heavy music. If you get a surprise, I would say chances are it's still heavy; you're just not used to hearing heavy in that way.”
What role his long-time, guitar-slinging partner-in-crime plays in said material is still up in the air, though. Apart from a few shows featuring Pat O'Brien (Cannibal Corpse), Exodus's Gary Holt continues to fill in for Hanneman live. “If he came in, knocked on my door in five minutes and said, 'Hey dude, I'm ready, let's go practice', I'd say, 'Good, get your gear, let's go practice',” King explains. “But until that day comes, I've gotta cover Slayer's butt and have his gig filled in. 'Cause I don't want it to be a carousel, where there's, if Gary can't do it we get somebody else and if he can't do it we get somebody else again. I want to have continuity. We told Gary when our schedule is and said, 'Please keep it open', because we don't know when Jeff's gonna be able to play guitar. Jeff's kind of like a wait-and-see thing.”
Holt will be on deck when the band return to our shores for Soundwave, and after the much-publicised no-show at the Sydney leg in 2011, as well as Araya rendered unable to sing during the 2009 Melbourne show, they're keen to make amends. “Someone just told me about that [Melbourne gig] recently. I forgot all about that one, because it had been such a time, but I do remember Sydney because that was Gary's second show and we were both bumming out. 'Cause I'm like, 'Wait until we play Sydney, it's gonna be so awesome', and then we didn't get to play,” he laughs.
As this year also marks the 30th anniversary of debut album Show No Mercy, we inquire as to whether the milestone will be acknowledged. “I always think reissues, unless there's something of serious value on it… A fan could just see that as a big rip-off, and that's certainly not what we're about. That being said, if we came up with some great content or something, sure, I could see that happening. Later on in the year, maybe we might do more Show No Mercy songs. I can't imagine playing the whole record, but I know there's at least one song we're playing down in Australia on this run.
“I wish somebody told us before Reign In Blood we didn't need reverb,” he chuckles when reflecting upon their first full-length. “But it's good shit, you know? People always ask me, 'Do you think you should go re-record Show No Mercy and Hell Awaits?' I say no, because those are a moment in time and that's what Slayer was. If we were recording them again now, the way Slayer sounds… Rule number one: it would sound like a completely different record. Which could be good or bad, I don't know. But people love those historically for what they are.”
Slayer will be playing the following dates:
Saturday 23 February - Soundwave Festival, RNA Showgrounds, Brisbane QLD
Sunday 24 February - Soundwave Festival, Olympic Park, Sydney NSW
Monday 25 February - Big Top Luna Park, Sydney NSW
Friday 1 March - Soundwave Festival, Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne VIC
Saturday 2 March - Soundwave Festival, Bonython Park, Adelaide SA
Tuesday 4 March - Soundwave Festival, Claremont Showground, Perth WA