Born Of Fire
One fine day in Huntington Park, California a local heavy metal coverband decided they were through with their regular Priest/Maiden stint. Like many young bands before them, they decided they wanted to be the loudest band on earth. The difference between this young Slayer and the gross of the bands with similar ambitions before them, was that they did.
Slayer was formed by guitarists Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King, the latter of which also knew bass player Tom Araya who got kicked out of King's previous band. Araya joined the group and the three of them recruited drummer Dave Lombardo. Together, they spent a few months playing their favorite metal anthems before the cult success of British black metallers Venom enlightened them to the fact that a fake Satanic image could easily get them lots of media attention. Local metal guy and label owner Brian Slagel quickly offered their song "Aggressive Perfector" a spot on part III of the Metal Massacre compilation series, earlier editions of which had also meant the recording debut of Metallica and metal avant-gardists Voivod.
Shortly afterwards, the band released their official album debut Show No Mercy on Slagel's label as well. While it was a nice start, and arguably the much copied beginning of the characteristic 1980's style thrash metal together with Metallica's debut, it was in many respects a somewhat childish album, because of the band's make-up, horror fantasy lyrics and amateurish production. Nonetheless, their debut already showed their innovative blending of heavy metal riffing at punk rock speeds, and then some.
On the stengths of their follow up Hell Awaits, Slayer toured the entire country. This brought them to such unlikely locations as the famous New York disco Studio 54. Student and label owner Rick Rubin immediately recognised their potential and offered the band a deal on his Def American label.
Rubin was also responsible for the Beastie Boys' and Run DMC's discoveries.
With Rubin behind the console, Slayer would record the album that would truly fulfill their potential. Their next album would be so intense, fast, menacing and pure that it would transcend all the genre's cliches and earn them the institutional status they enjoy today. This album still stands as a monumental work of art and its impact on popular culture far beyond that of the metal incrowd has become apparent in the years after its release.
In 1986, Slayer released Reign In Blood, the album that would inspire the entire metal movement for years to come, but also the album that would make the gross of this movement redundant. With the expression of aggression being the key artistic objective in metal, it is incredibly hard to argue that there was ever an album after Reign In Blood that surpassed it in any significant matter. If anything, other metal landmarks like Sepultura's Arise (1991) and Morbid Angel's Altars of Madness (1989) proved that it would take the rest of the metal community years to reach the brutality level Slayer displayed on this album.
The key elements of Reign In Blood's success and significance were its phenomenal speed, both in the drumming and in the guitar playing, and its lyrical extremity. Opening track Angel of Death was a musical punch in the face, only to be followed by another nine tracks of blistering speed. With only 29 minutes of playing time, it was an experience of unmatched intensity.
The death metal crop of the 1990's never made a secret of Slayer's heritage: many bands at the time would attest to the fact that they tried to make their personal Reign In Blood that could match the original in terms of speed, intensity and even in its mere 29 minutes of playing time.
Slayer took a lot of flak (pun intended) in the years to come about the lyrics to Angel of Death, which dealt with the atrocities of Nazi butcher Joseph Mengele and the Auschwitz concentration camp. The lyrics were written by guitarist Hanneman, son of a German immigrant, because of his interest in World War II and the cruelty of the Nazi regime. An interest, which Hanneman maintains, which is purely from a humane point of view and which does not imply any political alignment. While the (dis)tastefulness of such a topic for rock lyrics remains open to debate, it is indeed highly unlikely that Hanneman's fascination with the Nazi regime is one of admiration.
The standard Slayer set would more or less prove to be a saturation point for extremity in guitar music in the years to come. Aside from the band themselves, not many succeeded in reaching it in the years afterward.
Those that did, Slayer included, might have beaten the record by points but they could not pale the record and its impact. If anyone, the Swedish band Meshuggah managed to add a new dimension to unaccessible guitar music by coupling the violence of metal with the irregular rhythmic patterns and polymeters of jazz and jazzrock. Other advances in musical extremity have come from the likes of electronic artists like Merzbow and Wumpscut, but not in the guitar scene.
Although no one succeeded in an innovation the size of this one ever afterward in the metal scene, Slayer did manage to put out a number of good records. In fact, they still do, and in contrast to many other bands of their era they did not turn soft. After "Reign...," they did go in new, slower directions with albums like South of Heaven and Seasons in the Abyss, to the dismay of a few, but they too were excellent albums with the odd high speed assault. Slayer consolidated it's place in music history by being a very constant factor. They didn't go on to do anything new. They just travel the road they made. Well.
To date, they have also released the live double album Decade of Aggression and studio albums Divine Intervention, Diabolus In Musica. Their most recent effort God Hates Us All, aside from having one of the worst titles in rock history, is a brutal and succesful return to their high speed days. Parallel to their regular albums, Slayer have put out an album with covers of their favorite punk songs.
Slayer and pop culture
Aside from, and perhaps because of, their cult following amongst other metal bands, Slayer have had a tremendous part in shaping the heavy metal meme.
While most people that are not into metal only know Metallica's music, many people know Slayer to be 'that really loud band'. Slayer T-shirts often show up in TV series and such to signify that the character wearing them is the bad guy. Many people associate metal with fast drumming and guitar playing, something Slayer helped invent. Slayer's guitar riffing and soloing slipped into the mainstream with Kerry King's contributions to the Beastie Boys hits Fight For Your Right and No Sleep Till Brooklyn and the use of Slayer samples on It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back by Public Enemy. The characteristic riff to South of Heaven appeared on Ministry's song Just One Fix. The list goes on...
Despite their evil image, Slayer are known to be very friendly people that show not a trace of rock stardom or arrogance. Whenever they can, they meet with fans and hang out with them on an equal level. Kerry King once described his role in the band as being that of a fan with the privilege to make up riffs for the band.
Obviously, thrash metal was something that evolved rather than that it was invented by any one band. Slayer had a large part in the whole, but the early Metallica and Megadeth (of which Kerry King was part for a very short while) were also large contributors. One thing that was uniquely theirs was the much copied style of double bass drumming Dave Lombardo developed early on together with his then roadie, Gene Hoglan. Lombardo left Slayer after Seasons in the Abyss to pursue different styles of music with ex-Faith No More frontman Mike Patton, amongst others. Recently, Slayer has been touring with Dave again, because new drummer Paul Bostaph has a permanent elbow injury. Recent live reviews are unanimous in their opinion that the man who invented double bass drumming remains the man to beat. (Note: I have seen Slayer recently and Dave -is- unbelievable).