The Cultural Legacy of Slayer
I was eight years old. My cousin Erik had bought a used cassette copy of South of Heaven from a friend and invited me over for a listening party. Going to Erik’s was always an event. It’s always a shady, older cousin who initiates you to the devil’s music. He had introduced me to Metallica and Iron Maiden before and changed my life, so I felt like it couldn’t change that much more. Then, he pressed PLAY and this came out of the bulky, ridiculous-looking tape recorder:
I remember my reaction quite vividly: confusion and fear. The fearsome, cavernous guitar chords of South of Heaven (the song) terrified my eight years old self. Tom Araya’s incantations spoke to feelings that I didn’t have the maturity to comprehend yet. But I knew they inhabited me, like an ugly truth that hung over my head. I fucking heard these chords in my nightmares. I still do sometimes. Slayer were not fun. They didn’t play a part and definitely took themselves seriously. I wouldn’t listen to their music again until I turned twelve.
It’s been twenty-four years since I was introduced to Slayer. They are one of the few bands who legitimately changed the course of my life, like they did for many. In 2019, the American thrash metal legends are arguably the most successful extreme music band of all-time. They have acquired a die hard following which I proudly am a part of. Given the extreme nature of their music, Slayer’s success is unparalleled and (mostly) unexplained….yet.
Now that they’re going through their farewell tour and nearing retirement, I feel the responsibility of breaking down what makes Slayer such a special band to so many people. They’re my guys and their legacy depends on me (or whoever is able to coherently explain why they were great). Why are they so popular? What is going to remain from their enthusiastically blasphemous and uncompromising career? It’s more complicated than you think, but I’ll take my best crack at it. This is the cultural legacy of Slayer.
What makes Slayer so popular
Integrity & Generosity
I could’ve named this section “What makes Slayer Slayer.” Because they’re a band that understand what they’re good at and, in the immortal words of Henry Rollins, really stick to their story. And what they’re better than everyone at is communicating anger in a clear and straightforward way. It’s in Kerry King, Jeff Hanneman and Gary Holt’s blazing fast guitar riffs, their high flying solos, In Tom Araya’s gravely, powerful voice and in Dave Lombardo and Paul Bostaph’s unrelenting drums. It’s everywhere and unfuckingmistakable. If Slayer doesn’t exacerbate the anger that lies dormant in your gut, you’re either not alive or metal might not just be for you.
For 35 years, Slayer have honed their craft and most important, they have come to terms with the idea of giving the fans what they want. If they zeroed-in on doing that one thing better than any other metal band, it’s because we respond so fucking well to it. Slayer (save for Diabolus in Musica) are not into musical experimentation. Their music is a transaction between us and them. A fulfillment of expectations rather than a subversion. It’s a shot of adrenaline which they have become experts at injecting. Slayer are who metal fans wished Metallica remained to be. They play for us.
There are many talented thrash metal bands: Megadeth, Anthrax, Testament, Sodom, Kreator, Exodus, Overkill, etc. They’re all great, but most of them are similar to one another. Others are perhaps more melodic or technical, but no one sounds or look like Slayer. I believe the secret of that lies in Tom’s voice. It’s their fucking calling card. When you hear Tom unequivocal screech, you know exactly what you’re getting into. Slayer’s also been great at mixing technical prowess and atmosphere, and I don’t know any other thrash metal bands that does it even well. It’s usually all brutality or all technical mastery.
What Slayer looks like is also important to their success. It’s well-known that they started singing Satanic songs to scare people and differentiate themselves from hair metal bands in the eighties. But their style has always walked a fine line between looking like Average Joes and rock stars. Tom Araya wears a t-shirt and leather pants on stage. Kerry King has industrial chains hanging from his belt. They’re earnest, humble and 100% metal at the same time. They’re characters their fans can understand and relate to.
I believe the impersonal nature of Slayer’s lyrics are a big factor in their popularity. These guys don’t sing about relationships. They sing about ideas a single human being has no agency over: war, Satanic possession, going insane, that sort of stuff. And that’s where their power kicks in: in their lyrics and iconography, Slayer embraces situations where you surrender yourself to forces that are stronger than you and draw power from them. It’s catharsis 101. It’s going nuts in a controlled environment, in doses of 4 to 7 minutes at a time.
For example, War Ensemble is a song that both explores the horrors of war and the frenzy of bloodlust. Seasons in the Abyss and Dead Skin Mask (two of my favorite Slayer songs) are about losing your goddamn mind and how it doesn’t seem all that bad if you’re not fighting it. Raining Blood is about the apocalypse. The lyrics of Slayer discuss ideas that touch little of us personally, but that we all collectively fear. Therefore, we all feel the same way towards them. And Tom’s cool, controlled delivery in the avalanche of sound and violent imagery is an inherent reminder of how to stand tall amidst of all the chaos.
What will be left of Slayer in 10 years?
The world is changing at an increasingly faster pace and right now, Slayer’s trademark anger and anxieties already belong to a bygone era. I hate to say it, but it’s true. Rock songs are not angry anymore. While I’m fairly confident that Slayer’s unique profile and the undying loyalty of metal fans will keep their memory alive for a while, what will their lasting impact on culture be? Or rather: what should their lasting impact on culture be?
The cultural legacy of Slayer begins and ends with anger. It’s an emotion that’s still polarizing today. It’s either perceived to be righteous and cleansing or evil and associated to loss of control. I believe that Slayer created a structured conceptual space in our culture where you can freely express your anger and all of your negative, violent, explosive emotions. Whether you’re going to a Slayer show or just blasting their music in your headphones, you’re given he same message: you might be powerless over certain things, but you’re not alone and it’s OK to be pissed off.
And if there’s something people need in 2019 is to better understand and manager their fucking anger.