TO THE DEATH: After nearly 25 years, Christ Illusion shows the band sharper of tooth and more frenzied than ever.
On A&E not long ago, there was a documentary about a South Bronx biker gang called the Ching-a-Lings: Road Warriors: The Biker Brotherhood. Fat men swaggered for the camera while a grave voiceover waxed bozo-anthropological: “Joey, a long-time ‘brother,’ has been ‘doing time’ upstate . . . ” etc. At one point a “marijuana cigarette” was mentioned. Odd crew, the Ching-a-Lings — past their wolfish, chain-swinging prime, evidently, and now in a reduced and semi-domesticated condition, with jobs, daughters, bellies, and so on. “I think they are a motorcycle group,” mused their attorney. “I don’t think they’re really a gang.” But the Chings still had the barbaric sentimentality of your true hoodlum: the camera fawned in circles as they celebrated the anniversary of a truck-flattened brother by splurting beer at his photograph and flipping cocaine at it. The commercials were for Metamucil, anti-arthritis pills, and pet medication.
Given that the members of Slayer are now entering middle age — they will celebrate their 25th anniversary as a band next year — one might have expected, indeed trusted, a similar fate to embrace them. A quartet of paunchy ex-nutters, riding the brimstone fumes of a long-extinguished rep. Bygone whiffs of Nazi scandal. Harmless fist shaking into the lens. Old tunes, old glories; the way we were. But here is Christ Illusion (American), the band’s tenth studio album, proving them to be sharper of tooth and more frenzied than ever. “Religion is hate/Religion is fear/Religion is WAR/Religion is rape/Religion’s obscene/Religion’s a who-OOOOOOORE!!!” Want Slayer? Here’s your fucking Slayer. The drilling riffs; the absurd velocity; the whizzing, whinnying, viciously unmemorable solos; the flesh-wound voice; the tremendous clarity of Dave Lombardo’s cymbals; and the cover art (by Larry Carroll) that features a stump-armed Christ in a landscape of severed heads. Not a comeback, because they never went away, but a dramatic display of to-the-death tenacity.
It’s no mean thing to hold this fast to the banner of your name. Take a look at Slayer’s peers, their fellow graduates from the thrash-metal class of ’82. Metallica became one of the U2/REM behemoth acts, stamping their brand across the world, but in the process they acquired a strange and quizzical self-consciousness: they got hip or something, and now they’re lost. Who expects another good album from them? Out of ideas, Anthrax are their own tribute band, on the road forever playing note-for-note reproductions of 1987’s Among the Living. And that snarling old warhorse Dave Mustaine occasionally clip-clops stageward with Megadeth, but once you’ve heard him do “Wake Up Dead,” you’ve heard it all. Of the original four, only Slayer are still it, the thing, the business. Walk into a busy public restroom and shout their name — try it: ‘SLAY-YERRRR!’ — and I guarantee that from somewhere nearby you will get a grunt or chuckle of affirmation, if not an actual assenting howl. Even in the ladies’. Slayer have never changed, never fucked around: they went straight into the brainstem and stayed there.