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Slayer were one of the most distinctive, influential, and extreme thrash metal bands of the 1980s. Their graphic lyrics dealt with everything from death and dismemberment to war and the horrors of hell. Their full-throttle velocity, wildly chaotic guitar solos, and powerful musical chops painted an effectively chilling sonic background for their obsessive chronicling of the dark side; this correspondence helped Slayer’s music arguably hold up better than the remaining Big Three ’80s thrash outfits (Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax). Naturally, Slayer stirred up quite a bit of controversy over the years, with rumors flying about Satanism and Nazism that only added to their mystique. The band put out some undisputed classic albums (Reign in Blood, Hell Awaits, Seasons in the Abyss), and saw the number of naysayers and detractors shrink as their impact on the growing death metal scene was gradually and respectfully acknowledged. Slayer survived with the most vitality and the least compromise of any pre-Nirvana metal band, and their intensity inspired similar responses from their devoted fans. The band officially ceased operations in 2019.
Slayer were formed in 1982 in Huntington Park, California, by guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman; also recruited were bassist/vocalist Tom Araya and drummer Dave Lombardo. They started out playing covers of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden songs, but quickly discovered that they could get attention (and fans) by exploiting threatening, Satanic imagery. The band was invited by Metal Blade’s Brian Slagel to contribute a track to the Metal Massacre, Vol. 3 compilation (a series that also saw the vinyl debuts of Metallica and Voivod); a contract and debut album, Show No Mercy, followed shortly thereafter. While Slayer’s early approach was rather cartoonish, their breakneck speed and instrumental prowess were still highly evident. Two EPs, Haunting the Chapel and Live Undead, were released in 1984, but 1985′s Hell Awaits refined their lyrical obsessions into a sort of concept album about damnation and torture and made an immediate sensation in heavy metal circles, winning Slayer a rabid cult following.
Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin took a liking to the band, signed them to his label, and contributed the first clear-sounding production heard on any Slayer album for the stripped-down Reign in Blood. Due to the graphic nature of the material, CBS refused to distribute the album, which garnered a great deal of publicity for the band; eventually, Geffen Records stepped in. Combining Slayer’s trademark speed metal with the tempos and song lengths (if not structures) of hardcore, along with the band’s most disturbing lyrics yet, Reign in Blood was an instant classic, breaking the band to a wider audience, and hailed by some as the greatest speed metal album of all time (some give the nod to Metallica’s Master of Puppets).
South of Heaven disappointed some of the band’s hardcore followers, as Slayer successfully broke out of the potential stylistic straitjacket of their reputation as the world’s fastest, most extreme band. Drummer Lombardo took some time off and was briefly replaced by Whiplash drummer Tony Scaglione, but soon returned to the fold. Released in 1990, Seasons in the Abyss was well-received in all respects, incorporating more of the classic Slayer intensity into a more commercial — but no less uncompromising — sound. “War Ensemble” and the title track became favorites on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball, and Slayer consolidated their position at the forefront of thrash, along with Metallica. Following the release of the double-live album Decade of Aggression, Lombardo left the band again and formed Grip Inc.
Slayer remained quiet for a few years; the only new material released after 1990 was a duet with Ice-T recorded for the Judgment Night soundtrack on a medley of songs by the Exploited. After leaving the Forbidden, Bostaph signed on as the new drummer for 1994′s Divine Intervention, which was released to glowing reviews; thanks to the new death metal movement, which drew upon Slayer and particularly Reign in Blood for its inspiration, Slayer were hailed as metal innovators. The album was a massive success, debuting at number eight on the Billboard album charts.
Bostaph left the band to concentrate on a side project, the Truth About Seafood, and was replaced by ex-Testament drummer Jon Dette for Undisputed Attitude, an album consisting mostly of punk and hardcore covers. Bostaph rejoined Slayer in time to record 1998′s Diabolus in Musica. The band reunited with Def Jam for 2001′s God Hates Us All and in 2002, Lombardo rejoined the band once more. In 2004, they unleashed the four-disc anthology Soundtrack to the Apocalypse, followed by an album of all-new material, Christ Illusion, in 2006. After a relentless tour and festival schedule in 2007 and 2008, Slayer emerged from the studio with World Painted Blood in 2009. In 2010, they appeared with Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax on Big 4: Live from Sofia, Bulgaria. On May 2, 2013 Slayer guitarist and co-founder Jeff Hanneman died of liver failure at a Los Angeles hospital; he was 49 years old.
King and Araya refused to let their friend’s death deter them from carrying on with Slayer and set to work writing a new album. Lombardo was kicked out of the band for the third time; Bostaph came back on board, and Exodus’ Gary Holt, who had filled in for Hanneman when he was seriously ill with necrotizing fasciitis in 2011, joined as his permanent replacement. The album was eventually finished in 2015 and titled Repentless. Three tracks, “When the Stillness Comes,” “Implode,” and the title cut — which King dubbed a “HannemAnthem” in tribute — were released as digital singles throughout the spring and summer. Repentless appeared on September 11 through Nuclear Blast and debuted at number four on the Billboard 200. The band toured for over two years around the world before returning home, where they intended to start working on a new album. However, plans for this 13th album were eventually scrapped and, in 2018, Slayer announced what would become their farewell tour. Once again traversing the globe, their final trek extended into late 2019. To commemorate the historic milestone, the band released a special concert film, The Repentless Killogy, which paired a short movie with a full performance filmed in 2017 at the Los Angeles Forum, which was also where Slayer played their final show on November 30, 2019. In 2021, the band announced that they would be reissuing their entire Metal Blade catalog on vinyl, CD, and cassette tape. In addition to classic albums like Hell Awaits and Show No Mercy, the reissues included the Haunting the Chapel EP and the 1984 concert LP Live Undead. ~ Steve Huey