At first glance, Slayer’s latest seems intended to remind listeners of the late ’80s/early ’90s trilogy that first catapulted the California band to metal godhood. Artist Larry Carroll painted the grotesque cover (depicting a mutilated Jesus in a lake of some vile fluid),
just as he did for Reign in Blood, South of Heaven, and Seasons in the Abyss; like those albums, Christ Illusion has exactly 10 songs. Oh, and Dave Lombardo’s back in the drummer’s chair after 15 years away. But this is not the same band. The precision grinding of Slayer’s glory years has gradually grown uglier and more savage, peaking on 1998’s twisted, underrated Diabolus in Musica
. Lombardo, for his part, spent his reprieve playing intricate jazz-thrash with John Zorn and Fantômas. These new elements have combined into an album as astonishing, in its way, as Reign in Blood was two decades ago.
Throughout Christ Illusion, bassist-frontman Tom Araya screams like beauty and rage are mutually exclusive. Even the relatively melodic “Eyes of the Insane” is a million miles from 1990’s serial-killer sing-along “Dead Skin Mask.” “Jihad,” the fifth cut, ups the stakes both sonically and lyrically, serving as a manifesto for Slayer’s new path. “Angel of Death” opened Reign in Blood with a dispassionate chronicle of Josef Mengele’s crimes, a move that gave many people conniptions. “Jihad,” by contrast, adopts a first-person approach to terrorismmore specifically, a 9-11 hijacker’s worldview. “I will see you burned alive screaming for your god,” Araya howls.
They’re hardly the first to mine religion’s bloodthirstiness, of course. Laibach’s “God Is God” begins, “You shall see hell clear in the sky. . . . You shall see city walls crumble and towers fall.” But that was 1996, when nobody was paying much attention to ranters from former Soviet territories. Things are different now. Arenas full of diehards (no pun intended) scream along with Tom Araya’s every word. And with album opener “Flesh Storm” castigating Americans as junkies for vicarious violenceand other tracks (“Skeleton Christ,” the single “Cult”) taking the expected whacks at Jesus well, culture-war types could easily argue Slayer has gone from anti-Christian to anti-American. That’s likely not the case, of course: Guitarist and primary songwriter Kerry King’s right-wing politics are well-known in the metal community. So it’s probably just the latest ramping-up of the lyrical-extremity arms race. At which point the question becomes, how far should any band, no matter how musically powerful, push the “It’s just showbiz” excuse?