On September 11, 2001, Slayer released an album titled God Hates Us All. On that most awful of days, lyrics to songs like “War Zone” and “Here Comes the Pain” could be read as horrifyingly prescient.
On September 11, 2015, Slayer will unleash Repentless on a country that’s radically changed, a record by a band also radically changed. In some ways, at least. (The release date, claims guitarist Kerry King, is coincidental.) The biggest shift for the O.G. thrash-metal band? The loss of visionary guitarist and lyricist Jeff Hanneman, who died in May 2013 from alcohol-related cirrhosis.
In keeping with Slayer’s longstanding policy of being “repentless,” King, phoning from his home in Corona, California, says he does not feel the spirit of his longtime friend and band co-founder guiding the group. “Jeff is worm food,” King states in his blunt yet likable fashion. “When you die you go in the dirt. There is no doubt. Doubt’s called agnostic. I’m not agnostic.”
Over their 34 years of existence, as the album title flatly states, Slayer have remained unrepentant, both lyrically and musically. That said, in an ode to sentimentality — or perhaps just musicality? — Hanneman has a song, completed for the last album, but not included, that now appears on Repentless. It’s called “Piano Wire.”
“I didn’t know this until Tom [Araya, singer/bassist] told me recently,” King says of the track. “I didn’t talk to Jeff about that song, because I didn’t really have to police Jeff. If he wrote it, I was pretty sure it was all right. It was about sometime in World War II, because he was a big World War II history buff. I don’t know the exact instance, but apparently the Germans would hang people from buildings by piano wire as a warning to people not to go against them. That’s a very general description.”
Slayer are no strangers to controversy — or to invoking the language that encourages it. Lyrics on Repentless include: “I am torture redefined, cancer shooting from my eyes/Hell yes, agony is real, I can show you how it feels/Violence pulsing in my veins, death forever reigns.” The first single, “Implode,” posits a doomsday scenario: “Standing room only all the world will attend/Front row center to the ultimate end.”
So, will songs be misconstrued and critical mayhem ensue? “Probably,” King laughs. “They always find something. But really, I don’t think so. I think we desensitized people enough to be used to this stuff.”
But why not go more extreme, then? “Because there’s still a point when it becomes ridiculous and not edgy or scary. I’m trying to stay on that scary, edgy side. It keeps me interested.”
As for “Implode,” King has his own thoughts on the end of the world (as we know it). “I don’t think, personally, the world will end, but I think the world will do away with mankind, because mankind seems to be the virus. I’m not saying it’s going to happen this week, or in ten years from now. I’m just saying there’s going to be a time when we fuck this planet up so much where something’s gonna happen, and basically eradicate mankind. That’s not what the song’s about. That’s just my opinion.” The song, he says, is “more general of a topic of that idea, but with no doomsday date.”
Repentless also marks the return of drummer Paul Bostaph — his first time behind the Slayer kit since God Hates Us All — and the debut of Gary Holt, formerly of Bay Area thrash gods Exodus, on guitar. A new guitarist has shifted the quartet’s chemistry. “Holt being in the band has changed my playing, absolutely,” King says. “Before he was even in my band, I would praise Gary to the guitar press, because I felt it was the Glenn Tipton of our era, meaning that he was overlooked. Even though everyone knew Judas Priest, nobody really talked about Tipton. I thought that was a tragedy, because he was responsible for so many innovations and awesome heavy-metal songs and riffs. Now that Holt gets to play with us, it keeps me on my toes, because I’m not going to let the new guy kick the old Slayer dude’s ass.”
He laughs. “I come more prepared when I approach leads. On this album [produced by Terry Date, best known for his work with Pantera, Soundgarden, and Deftones], I did like half of mine, then Holt came in and did his, and he was able to hear mine, and play to mine. And I could hear his and play to his. A couple times I did go out of my way and play to what he played, so it sounds like they were composed together. Guitar-wise, it’s definitely what it’s always been. “
Of course, following Hanneman’s death, the inevitable questions arose: Should Slayer carry on without one of their key members? Initially, Araya publicly expressed some doubts. But King says, “Certainly not from me” — and he also ignored any haters in the fan/music community. “I’m not a social-media guy, because I don’t have time for that nonsense; I mean the people who speak nonsense on social media,” he says. “I’m sure that when the record comes out, someone will say, ‘Oh, it’s only half of Slayer. They should have hung it up when Jeff died.’ My answer to them is, what if AC/DC had hung it up when Bon Scott died? How much awesomeness would we have missed out on?”
King, who was recently in Europe on a promo tour, is thrilled with the reception so far. “You can tell when someone’s blowing sunshine up your ass, and [the European press] were genuinely blown away. They couldn’t hold back their ecstaticness [sic]. It’s where we are supposed to be.”
And though the guitarist is seemingly an unsentimental sort, there is a song for Hanneman on the record. The title track, no less. King refers to “Repentless” as the “HanneAnthem.” “I went with it based on Slayer. Slayer is repentless; Slayer’s always been repentless. I said, ‘You know what, I should write something about how I think Jeff looked at the world, because he looked at the world exactly how Slayer looked at the world.’ Plus little ‘Jeff-isms.’
“It was both easy and difficult,” he concludes. “The difficult part was doing it justice; I didn’t want to just throw it together. I wanted it to be solid, as deep as it could be without getting personal.” Never personal, always repentless.
Slayer headline the Paramount Theatre June 16–17. For ticket information, click here.