February 15, 2007
Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to be in Slayer. Looking at photos from the band’s mid-80s peak, they were just kids when they were recording their world-destroying classics, drunk kids who liked making goofy faces when they were posing for photos. Those kids bear little or no resemblance to the wizened, hardened road warriors who stood onstage at the Hammerstein Ballroom last night, less than a week after winning the first Grammy in a career that’s lasted more than two decades. They’ve been touring hard that entire time, barking about death while turning clubs and arenas into warzones. I was pretty far back in the crowd, and Dave Lombardo was hidden behind an enormous drum-kit, but I didn’t see Tom Araya or Kerry King or Jeff Hanneman smile once last night. Instead, they grimaced through their ancient beards as they hunched over their instruments, thrashed their (real or, in King’s case, imaginary) hair around, and blasted out the same militaristic hypercrunch they’ve been playing since before half their audience was born. There’s a tent-revival aspect to a Slayer show, a sort of meaninglessly ritualistic mass-catharsis purge. A huge chunk of the crowd, I’m guessing, had seen the band more than a few times, and they screamed Araya’s words back at him as a drunken mass, even before he started singing them. (Araya: “This is ‘Mandatory….'” Crowd: “Blaaaah!” When a couple of thousand drunk people try to scream “Suicide!” at once, it comes out like “Blaaaah!”) I sort of hate the squealing, amelodic solos that King and Hanneman play, but they certainly make for impressive feats of pure technique. These days, King and Hanneman play them with a sort of detached cubicle-worker boredom, hitting those screaming notes like they’re filling out Excel spreadsheets, and that almost made those solos still more impressive. The music might convey rage and frenzy, but the people in the band seem to be completely in control the whole time. I wonder if it’s any fun.
The first mezzanine at Hammerstein may be the single worst place in the city to see a show. It’s even worse if you’re tall, which must be some sort of poetic justice, all the people who’ve been stuck behind me at shows throughout the years enacting their karmic revenge. If I stood up, I couldn’t see any of what was going on onstage; all I got was a dim impression of lights flashing. Only if I sort of crouched down and looked in between the people standing in front of me could I even get a sense of the stage show, the billowing clouds of smoke and exploding flashpots and dark-red glow. There was a huge banner behind the stage, and I think it had a picture of a demon or something, but all I could see were the feet. To really experience a band like Slayer, you have to completely immerse yourself in the show, to surrender to the all-consuming tribal environment that the band and the crowd make, but last night the venue made all that impossible, especially considering the volume wasn’t even all that high. The mezzanine did, however, provide one major perk: an unobstructed view of the circular floor and the frantic, violent moshing going on down there. With the lockstep pounding and ambient red lighting coming from the stage, that chaotic mass actually started to look like a seething pit of hell.
The band has been playing shows just like this one for long enough to know what works and what doesn’t. Araya barely ever said a word between songs; instead, the band jumped directly from one song to the next, almost like a thrash Ramones. Even if they do play their songs with the casual detachment of old pros, those songs themselves are still staggeringly savage. This band has never been particularly interested in grandeur or transcendence; they never express much beyond a sort of omnidirectional aggression, sometimes channeled toward vague, nebulous targets (organized religion, it would seem, is not their thing), but more often just radiating outward into the world. Their songs are pretty much riff-delivery systems, usually sped up as fast as they can go without spinning off into incoherence, and they work with a mechanistic precision that sometimes borders on grace. Some parts are slower than others, but those slow bits never reach for beauty; they seem to exist to make the fast bits seem even faster. There’s no swagger or sex or implication to what they do, and the only rhythm is a full-bore batterram thud-blur. That relentless assault would become unbearably oppressive if they kept it up for too long, so the band left the stage after less than an hour and half. They encored with their three greatest monoliths: “Raining Blood” into “South of Heaven” into “Angel of Death,” the sort of triptych that leaves your head spinning when you’re walking out into the night.
Voice review: Phil Freeman on Slayer’s Christ Illusion