July 12-18, 2006

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Immunity Idol: Slayer can get away with releasing its new EP through Hot Topic.

In the Wehrmacht Now

Slayer is the only metal group in the world with complete immunity

By Erik Fong

OF THE world's four most important thrash bands—Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax—Slayer is the only band to have escaped the past two decades unscathed, never trading in its fan base for a more accessible sound or commercial acceptance. Nothing in its career has ever been done out of desperation. The Gotcha shorts, "Choose or Lose" vignettes and metal ballads were best left to their pandering peers.

Yet with more than 20 years of cult status so high that it would make Strongbad, the Star Wars Kid and Bruce Campbell jealous, the metal gods are still able to pack arenas without ever having the benefit of a platinum album or significant radio airplay. Slayer has managed to defy the behavioral limitations of speed/thrash by earning the trust of and respecting its fan base. Some artists prefer the buffer between themselves and any obsessed fans; when someone carved "Slayer" into their wrists, the band used the image for the CD artwork for their 1994 release, Divine Intervention. Insanity is mutual—the sicker the fans get, the sicker the next Slayer album will be.

A cult is one way to describe Slayer fans, which the band has affectionately nicknamed "Slatanic Wehrmacht" (Slatanic Armed Forces). Last month, the band declared June 6, 2006 (06/06/06), the "National Day of Slayer," and the holiday's organizers encouraged fans to listen to Slayer at full blast in public places. The National Day of Slayer also marked the release of Eternal Pyre, an EP featuring three songs from the forthcoming Christ Illusion (set for an Aug. 8 release date), available only through Hot Topic.

Yes, that Hot Topic.

No other band at Slayer's level could get away with this without being labeled a sellout, but it's the insane level of intimacy between the fans and the band that avoids the backlash. A CD at Hot Topic doesn't mean the band is changing. Slayer fans know that the band—their band—doesn't sit around a conference table and pitch corporate ideas like partnerships with mall metal outlets. Adulthood, shifts in music trends, changes in society, pressure from "decency" organizations—nothing has ever changed Slayer. At this point, the beast is so big that even Slayer can't change Slayer.

Born from the twin-guitar attacks of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest and further provoked by the fuck-off attitude of punk groups like the Dead Kennedys, Slayer has garnered appeal far outside of the thrash camp, with even Tori Amos covering the band's thrash classic "Raining Blood."

As heavy-metal veterans, Slayer's public endorsement is reminiscent of the days when acts could get a major-label contract if Kurt Cobain simply mentioned their name in the press. But for a young, unknown band to receive an opening slot on a Slayer tour could be disastrous for its career. No Slayer fan goes to a show to see the opening bands, and very few acts have ever earned a higher status by opening for Slayer (one of the few bands on a Slayer bill to "make it" is System of a Down). Things should be different on the band's current Unholy Alliance: Preaching to the Perverted tour, which includes bands like Mastodon, Lamb of God and Children of Bodom, which already have a proven track record among like-minded metal fans.

For the first time since 1990's Seasons in the Abyss, original drummer Dave Lombardo reunites with Tom Araya (bass, vocals), Kerry King (guitars) and Jeff Hanneman (guitars) for Christ Illusion. The album has already generated controversy for "Jihad," a track that describes the 9/11 attacks from the terrorists' point of view. Though certainly not in support of the attacks, the song does not denounce them but reproduces the horrific imagery in a way that only a band as controversial as Slayer can. In a niche genre filled with unspooky bands that insist on creating boring sequels in a Child's Play-like fashion, Slayer is the Texas Chainsaw Massacre of metal, creating an environment that's so disturbing it's enticing.

Disturbance and controversy are nothing new for Slayer. "Angel of Death," the opening track to its 28-minute metal epic Reign in Blood, re-creates the sickness of the Holocaust. Murderer Ed Gein, whose profile has inspired the villains of horror films like Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs, was the main subject for Slayer's "Dead Skin Mask." "213" was not only Jeffrey Dahmer's apartment number but the name of a Slayer track as well. Slayer is not just anger for the sake of anger; Slayer is an unconventional reaction to all horrific acts in society, and the band's music speaks to so many outside of metal because pain is universal.

But that's not to say that Slayer can't be nice, too. "You guys in the front here, keep an eye on each other," said frontman Tom Araya on Slayer's 1991 live album, Decade of Aggression, to the swirling pit. "If you see somebody going down, help 'em out, all right? That's what you're here to do, help each other out." That's what separates Slayer from the clichéd, poseur metal bands that wear makeup and Madlib their lyrics—the line is drawn between fantasy and reality. Four very normal human beings who know the difference between merely singing about the Antichrist and being dumb enough to follow through with it create the terrorizing yet oddly cathartic music.

When they're not telling their fans to knock the crap out of each other nicely, Tom Araya enjoys relaxing at his east Texas ranch and plays country songs on his acoustic guitar to keep his chops up, and guitarist Kerry King is starting his own clothing company. Metallica wrote a country song once—didn't go so well. And Lars Ulrich starting a clothing company without fan backlash? Yeah, right. Chalk Slayer's longevity and success up to the power of the underground and the proven theory that any publicity is good publicity. As long as it doesn't involve Gotcha shorts.

Slayer brings its Unholy Alliance: Preaching to the Perverted tour to the HP Pavilion in San Jose on Wednesday, July 19, with Lamb of God, Mastodon, Children of Bodom and Thine Eyes Bleed.

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