An evening with Slayer: The kings of thrash metal
I would be a liar if I said I was expecting this day to go smoothly. I was scheduled to interview and attend a concert by a band that verges on being the most violent act in the world, and they were playing at a venue notorious for its rowdy shows. (You have to pass through a metal detector and be patted down before they even scan your ticket). It was a gloomy overcast Portland day, and as I passed the die-hard fans who had lined up hours early, I noticed a common trait: Everyone was wearing black, and no one looked happy.
At a mere 140 pounds, I couldn’t shake the thought that I’d be the outsider to be tossed like a ragdoll into the center of a thrash metal circle pit, never to resurface. I wasn’t expecting to make it through my first metal show unscathed. I had said my goodbyes before I left. Just in case.
Marking its first appearance in Portland since 2011 was Slayer, the fathers of thrash metal. It was also its first appearance at the 1,400 capacity Roseland Theater since 2004. The show sold out in a matter of minutes and resale tickets online were pushing upwards of $200 that day. Slayer is touring in support of 2015’s Repentless, the band’s first album to feature the current lineup of singer/bassist Tom Araya, guitarist Kerry King, drummer Paul Bostaph and guitarist Gary Holt. Testament and Carcass were also on the bill, rounding out a triple header of thrash.
At the back of the theater, photographer Meerah Powell and I waited to be let backstage to interview Holt and Bostaph, the two most recent additions to Slayer’s lineup. Holt (previously of Exodus) joined permanently after founding member and guitarist Jeff Hanneman’s 2013 death from liver failure. He began as a temporary fill-in while Hanneman was recovering from a spider bite that destroyed most of the skin on his right arm in 2011. Bostaph played in Slayer from 1992-2001, and rejoined after drummer Dave Lombardo’s dismissal from the group in 2013.
The security staff was already on high alert half-an-hour before the venue’s doors would open. At the back of the theater is a gate that blocks the public from the tour buses. A security guard nodded to a group huddled across the street outside the bar-arcade and asked me, “See that group over there? They tried to rush the gate earlier,” she said, “so we’re going to have to wait to let you back.”
Slayer Nation was active.
After waiting for a few minutes, Slayer’s tour manager Mike LaTronica found us and led us backstage. I asked how his day was going, and he was unenthusiastic to share. It was clear that tensions were high as we walked through the Roseland. He asked me why Portland doesn’t have a venue that can host a metal show for 2,000 to 5,000 people. It’s a valid question.
Standing at the bottom of the stairs was Kerry King. He greeted us with a cheery “Hello. How are you?” He politely waited for us to exit the stairway, nodded, then made his way up the stairs. He may have defined the stereotype for a mean-looking metal badass, but before hitting the stage he was nothing but courteous in a brief encounter.
LaTronica led us to a small room with a beat-up black leather couch and an equally black curtain hanging on the wall behind it. The air was stagnant and reeked of cheap incense.
“Ooh, someone lit incense back here. Doesn’t hide how fucking shitty this venue is, and you can quote me on that,” LaTronica said with a smile. “I’ll go fetch the guys.”
Hanging over the stairs at the Roseland is a sign that says, “No moshing or other disruptive behaviors.” Stopping a mosh pit at a Slayer show is like asking a Grateful Dead crowd to leave the weed at home, but certain rules are made to be broken.
The Roseland Theater doesn’t seem like an ideal place for a massive circle pit to break out, due to the large black pillars that span from floor to ceiling. They were also almost camouflaged by the impressive array of black t-shirts with increasingly offensive block-letter slogans. About 90 percent of these shirts’ content cannot be printed here. Anyone who has ever said metalheads have no sense of humor is seriously misguided.
The energy in the room was palpable the whole night. Before Carcass opened the show, fans in the balcony began menacingly chanting for Slayer.
“I have a good feeling about what’s going to snap-off tonight,” Gary Holt told me. “I think it’s going to be fucking nuts. This club has just got that vibe of violence to it and I like it.”
“Any club with a pole in the middle of the stage is setting the stage (for a good show),” Paul Bostaph added.
At precisely 7:30, Carcass took the stage with lead singer and bass player Jeff Walker’s leg in a cast. He sang all his songs and played from a stool, but it didn’t prevent him from putting on a good show. He mentioned that he had hurt his leg the day before, and that his respect for all handicapped people has since increased greatly.
At the end of Carcass’ set, Walker exited the stage in visible pain, assisted by a walker. For a crowd that at first seemed hell-bent on destruction, the cheers Walker received here were wholly sincere and encouraging. Although I was situated at the edges of the venue, it was becoming clear that metal shows have received an unwarranted reputation as being relentless death traps. In fact, people are courteous. Everyone around me even said “Excuse me” when they needed to make their way past me.
Testament was next and the crowd increased its energy level on songs like “Into The Pit” and “Rise Up.” Singer Chuck Billy, a tall, imposing figure, carried around the top portion of a microphone stand and used it to play air guitar whenever he wasn’t singing. Testament had an energetic set with the guitarists and bassist wandering the stage, looking for the fans going the most berserk. Once spotted, Testament would point them out and nod in approval.
Testament is also a legendary thrash band in its own right. There was a large contingent of fans wearing Testament t-shirts and much of the crowd knew most of the lyrics.
The white kabuki curtain dropped about twenty minutes before Slayer hit the stage. Holt says that this is the moment that Slayer becomes Slayer. “That’s when shit gets real,” he said. The crowd echoed the same sentiment as it appeared ready to erupt with every soundcheck note blasting behind the screen. AC/DC’s “T.N.T.” blared over the loudspeaker and further riled up the crowd with its infectious “Oi!” chants.
Holt described a Slayer show’s environment as being “kind of like a vortex. Like entering the maelstrom. It just builds and builds into like an F5 tornado… It just builds to this big apex; a shitstorm. It’s awesome.”
A small spark was all it would take to ignite tonight’s shitstorm.
After a few minutes of waiting backstage, Bostaph and Holt joined us in the small, incense-filled room. Both were sporting shaggy beards and long, frizzy brown hair. They each offered warm hellos, although Bostaph looked tired. Holt had a smiled fixed to his face and large tattoos covering both arms. Immediately, Holt seemed more like a friendly surf-rocker than a hardened thrash metal figure. His shirt had a raccoon on it that read “The Hissfits” with the writing in the style of the Misfits’ green lettering. Bostaph had a more reserved personality and was dressed in a zip-up black sweatshirt and brown pants.
We began with some small talk about Portland and Crater Lake before moving on to Slayer. They both described their standard pre-gig preparations checklist, and it involves about an hour of warming up and stretching to prevent pulling any muscles.
“We don’t prepare by like slaughtering small animals or anything like that,” Holt said. “It’s actually pretty tame.”
For 34 years, Slayer has continued to play at punishing tempos. Countless bands have been inspired by Slayer, and Holt is aware that, although he has bad back issues, he and the crowd demand a high level of performance at every show. To date, he has received four epidural shots in his spine and has to tour with an inversion table to hang upside down on. It’s a labor of love for him.
“I will do whatever it fucking takes to keep doing this. I get onstage and I’m not going to half ass anything. I’ll stop doing this when I feel I can’t do it at the level I demand of myself. The older I get, the more I want to show people half my age how this shit is done, and make them look tired. The only difference is I walk off stage and start gobbling more ibuprofen, then I go hang upside down and call my back doctor, and (young people) are riding skateboards down the street.”
All four members of the band have now surpassed 50 years on this earth, but it is not slowing them nor Slayer down. Repentless maintains the aggressive spirit of all its preceding catalog.
“Honestly, we don’t have a problem playing fast,” Bostaph said. “As a matter of fact, I play better fast now than I did when I was younger… I could play fast, but shit, I listened to the first record I ever did, and I played way too fast. Now I can control the tools that I have and speed is not a problem.”
A Slayer show is an intense experience, and the band thrives on the adrenaline rush it provides, yet somehow, shortly after a post-show meal, Holt is able to go straight to sleep. Bostaph takes a more traditional approach to unwinding by having a celebratory shot with Kerry King, cracking a beer and then relaxing until the adrenaline has faded.
Thrash metal invokes violent imagery and lyrics that are often about murder, death, violence and racial prejudice. It may seem like the authors of these themes would be immune to nightmares, but even the fathers of thrash fall victim to nightmares.
“I have tons of nightmares,” Bostaph said. ”When I get them, they’re super intense. I wake up from a nightmare, and I couldn’t tell you any one in particular, but I’ve had dreams where I go into a dark room, and I know there’s something in there. I know it’s coming to get me. I can feel it. I can feel the goosebumps. When I was younger, I used to run out of that room, but there are some times in that dream where I stand in the middle of that room and I go ‘OK, motherfucker, let’s go’ and I’m actually throwing blows with whatever it is and I wake up. Then there are some of those nightmares where it’s whatever that fear is, I wake up from it and I get this cold goosebump energy that passes through my body, and sometimes I wonder if that’s even a ghost that’s in the room. You wake up from it and you go, ‘That was fucking creepy and weird.’ ”
I can feel Holt watching me intently as Bostaph shares his nightmare story. He takes an extended drag from an e-cigarette before saying that he loves the feeling of waking up in a cold sweat from a particularly visceral nightmare. Nightmares have even served as the basis for Exodus songs in the past.
“In Exodus my dreams are legendary because I’ll wake up and be like ‘Guess what happened last night?’ And they’ll be like ‘Dude, you’re fucked up,’ ” Holt said. “I had a dream once many years ago, a simple dream, no fantasyland-type shit, that I murdered somebody, and I swear for a month I believed that shit. I thought it was a repressed memory thing. It was so real that I was asking myself, ‘Did I really do that shit? No, I couldn’t. I didn’t kill a man and bury him in a park by my mom’s house.’ But it kept fucking popping back up as this repressed memory before I realized what it was which was just the memory of this dream coming back.
“It was scary. But cool as fuck at the same time.”
Watch the music video for Slayer’s “Repentless.”
Although people often complain about the content of heavy metal lyrics and its obsession with the macabre, Holt and Bostaph both passionately defended metal and said that 100 percent of fans who attend shows do not think to take the lyrics literally. The themes they write about reflect reality, but people are often uncomfortable with the inherent darkness, and in turn, fail to see it as an art form, misinterpreting it as reality.
“If you can take this world and turn it into a perfect paradise that’s completely hate-free, I’d be happy to stop writing about hate,” Holt said. “I’m not that selfish that I’m like ‘Well what else am I going to write about?’ If we lived in this tranquil, perfect society where there’s no hate and there’s no racial prejudice, no violence, I’d write about happy shit, but that’s not the world I live in. We live in a fucked-up place, so that’s where my inspiration comes from.”
The white kabuki curtain filled with ominous red lighting as the opening track of Repentless, “Delusions Of Savior,” played over the speakers. Gold crosses were projected onto the screen and slowly turned upside down. Pentagrams then swirled around before revealing the classic Slayer logo at which point the curtain dropped and the band ferociously launched into the title track of “Repentless.”
For the entire show, there was always at least one hand in the crowd proudly sporting the Devil horns gesture from the time the crosses appeared onscreen, until Kerry King had thrown out his final guitar pick to end the concert.
Hearing Slayer on record is one thing, but to experience the sonic punch that they unleash live is a beast of another caliber. King and Holt’s Marshall stack amps unleash a sheer sonic force that combines with Bostaph’s thunderous drums and Tom Araya’s heavy bass to round out the low end. It’s skull shaking and utterly invigorating.
Immediately, the mosh pit went wild, but due to the Roseland’s pillars, it was contained to more of an oblong rectangle formation than the traditional circle pit.
A couple behind me was debating whether Araya looked more like Santa Claus or Sasquatch with his long hair and bushy gray beard. Not up for debate is whether the band can still rock. It does. Araya’s voice was surprisingly strong. He managed to scream for the entirety of a 100 minute show and unleashed a grueling scream at the beginning of “Angel Of Death” for the final song.
For many songs, Holt sported a guitar that was painted with his own blood by artist Vincent Castiglia. It took 18 vials of Holt’s blood to create, but the blood-red colors mix with the white to create an eerie, demonic guitar that Holt is now able to use every night.
Kerry King and Holt trade solos like seasoned professionals with neither having the edge over the other. Each solo complements the other’s, with Holt appearing to be slightly faster, and King’s solos a bit more melodic.
“When The Stillness Comes” provided the closest thing to a slow song of the night, but after a calm intro, it quickly regained intensity.
The most attention-grabbing song of the night was “Chemical Warfare.” This seemed to be the song that edged the crowd to another level of crazy. The mosh pit grew and the band seized the crowd’s energy. After “Chemical Warfare,” the show continued to blaze along at lightning speed.
“Raining Blood” was the obvious highlight as all the lights in the venue cast a red glow on the fog, but “Angel Of Death” and “South Of Heaven” were equally powerful. Without question, the mosh pit reached critical mass during “Raining Blood,” extending past the inhibiting poles for one of the few times of the night. Even people who had avoided the mosh pit for the night jumped in.
Between certain songs Araya addressed the crowd standing under a single spotlight, creating a more intimate feeling to the performance. When a fan yelled out “Fuckin’ A!”, Araya responded with “Let’s go through the alphabet. Fuckin’ B man.” The crowd gladly obliged until about D.
After “Angel Of Death,” the light’s quickly shot on, presumably because Slayer had gone a few minutes over its allotted time. The speakers cut out slightly earlier than expected, but each member tossed out as many guitar picks as they could. King stayed on stage for about two minutes after the rest of the band had left, tossing picks to every part of the crowd.
Watch the video for Slayer’s “You Against You” below.
The question I set out to answer was how do you describe a Slayer show for someone who has never been before? I do not have a background with metal other than seeing Motley Crüe and Van Halen this past summer. By today’s standards, they’re considered classic rock. This was my first true metal show, and I will admit that I had my reservations about attending because of stories I had read about Slayer and also what I had heard from my metalhead friends. The first adjective they almost always used to describe the atmosphere was “violent.” The conversations always ended with “good luck.”
The biggest shock for me was how strong Slayer’s live performance was. I did not expect to enjoy the music, but I left with a newfound respect and understanding of metal. The easiest description is that you are able to create whatever experience you want to. Personally, I wanted to watch the chaos from the sidelines, and I was able to do just that. Never once did I feel unsafe or intimidated. Sure, it’s different from a standard rock or pop concert, but the fans who were looking to mosh and bleed were able to do just that. Either way, fans are taking away an equally memorable experience. Metalheads may just be more willing to bleed than the average music fan, and the bands thrive on the intensity. It’s a trade-off.
I asked Holt and Bostaph what the future of Slayer holds, and how the band has maintained its longevity. Bostaph said part of the successful formula is to not push each other’s buttons, but Holt added:
“I don’t think any of us know how to do anything else other than play heavy metal, thrash metal and do it well. You get to play a sold-out show with a pole in the middle of the stage in front of a bunch of people who are going to go nuts, or I could go to trade school. I’d rather be here. It’s kind of an easy choice.”
If thrash metal is the only thing they know how to do, then they shouldn’t worry. They do it quite well.