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Slayer: how they became the most shocking band in music

While gore-filled new video Repentless shows that Slayer can still traumatise, it’s nothing on their terrifying early years...

“If you cherish your sanity, this band is not for you. Spend one evening with Slayer and you will lose your perspective on what is real or imaginary. Slayer is out to warp your brain, move your feet, and raise your spirits. Their weapon: pure ass kickin’ rock and roll.”

So runs the mission statement on one of Slayer’s flyers from 1982, when Tom Araya, Kerry King, Jeff Hanneman and Dave Lombardo were hungry teenagers, cutting their teeth onstage at local hangout The Woodstock in Anaheim. Two weeks earlier, they’d opened there for SoCal’s local heroes, Metallica; within another week they’d ditch the “ass kickin’ rock and roll” and headline their flyers with a far more suitable line: “The Heavy Metal Nightmare Begins.”

Fast-forward 33 years and Slayer are celebrating the release of their 11th studio album, Repentless, and the brutal, blood-spattered video to the blistering title track, which is set in a prison where the inmates have gone feral. Although only 50% of that original lineup remains, Slayer are still pushing the envelope of shock horror that’s been their raison d’être. As they prepare to bring their live assault to the UK in November, we look back at their hellraising origins.

As soon as Slayer started outgrowing their pub rock cover band origins, they zeroed in on a sound, look and attitude that was all about speed and aggression, darkness and evil, rebellion and extremity. At first, they struggled to gain attention, though they played with some of the genre’s future luminaries.

“It took a minute, because we were pretty new,” reasons Kerry, before a tipping nod to his band’s esteemed contemporaries. “Metallica paved the way. We played with them at Woodstock – that was with Mustaine on guitar. They were probably six months ahead of us, and when they moved on [to the Bay Area] we were the thrash band in LA.”

The real breakthrough, Tom Araya recalls, was when Metal Blade head honcho Brian Slagel approached Slayer about contributing a song to his LA label’s Metal Massacre III sampler in 1983.

“The only influence that played a part in becoming what we became was listening to the first Metal Massacre album and thinking, ‘We can play faster and heavier than this shit!’” laughs Tom. “We thought we could do better, so we did.” Tom traces the true birth of Slayer as a self-possessed entity to the track they recorded for it – Aggressive Perfector. “It started with that song,” he asserts. “We rehearsed it 100 times. And we liked it so much, we rewrote a lot of originals that we had and changed the image of the band. That’d be the one time we said: ‘This is the direction we’re going in.’ Prior to that, we didn’t know what we wanted to do. We just did it!”

In ’82, no other band in the US looked or sounded as extreme as Slayer.

Where Metallica played in jeans and t-shirts, Slayer took the stage in leather, nail wristbands, eye paint and inverted crucifixes, snarling about The Antichrist, and even proclaiming themselves ‘LA’s only black metal’ on a 1984 flyer. There was an element of one-upmanship about their concertedly extreme style of music and presentation, and a friendly but intense rivalry with their fellow thrash pioneers. Brian Slagel, who signed them to Metal Blade, remembers it clearly.

“Metallica and Slayer were in constant competition,” he asserts. “Each wanted to know what the other was doing. Metallica would release something and Slayer would ask me how heavy it was. Slayer put out a record, and Metallica asked if it was faster than them. I’m sure this rivalry inspired Slayer to get more and more extreme; they were always looking to push the envelope.”

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