Two years on from founding guitarist Jeff Hanneman’s untimely passing, the band that defined thrash metal are back with a new album. Slayer singer and bassist Tom Araya tells Amit Sharma about his incredible four-string journey…
There are metal legends and then there are metal gods: visionaries who drag their music into the deeper abyss, far beyond the point of no return. When the Los Angeles quartet Slayer formed in 1981, they did so with the purpose of pushing their New Wave Of British Heavy Metal influences to the very extremes. But it was their third album, Reign In Blood, released in ’86, that saw them trap lightning in a bottle and present to the world a masterpiece that would stand tall for countless decades to come. In 10 tracks just short of 29 minutes, the Californians had distilled heavy metal to its purest essence: an uncontaminated, unadulterated sonic evil that would become the very hallmark of their sound.
Today they stand as the old gods of war, metal veterans with a near-religious cult of admirers the world over through their bludgeoning riffs, blastbeat rhythms and ominous tales of human cruelty. This year’s eleventh album, Repentless, marks the end of a traumatic chapter in their career and looks to new beginnings with Exodus guitarist Gary Holt making his official debut within their ranks. He replaces founding member and original axeman Jeff Hanneman, who tragically passed away after alcohol-related liver failure in 2013, having been absent from the band’s live line-up for two years.
For singer/bassist Tom Araya, working for the first time without Hanneman, the writer behind Slayer’s signature songs ‘Angel Of Death’ and ‘South Of Heaven’ (and more importantly, a lifelong friend) was never going to be easy.
“There was definitely a big presence missing,” admits the 54-year-old, seated in an office chair at his label’s London HQ on a warm summer’s day. “That was inevitable. I’d known him since we were teenagers. Jeff had a quality for sound and a quality for songs. He was a rhythmic arranger, and his songs were pretty chaotic. To begin with, I was thinking, ‘How are we gonna do this without him?’ But the further we got with the album, the more sense I made out of the songs and by the time I got to the vocals, I thought, ‘Wow, this is great, it sounds like Slayer!’ I trusted [guitarist] Kerry King’s judgement because I’m not much of a music writer, I’m more of a lyricist. Are people gonna like it? It’s Slayer. Yeah, there’s one guy missing. But it’s still Slayer.”
While some fans may contend that the current line-up also lacks original sticksman Dave Lombardo, who quit in 2013 over financial issues, Araya speaks the truth – Repentless is very much Slayer, and the album does exactly what they’ve always promised to do. The poignancy of one track stands out in particular: ‘Piano Wire’ was the last song to be written by their fallen comrade, penned during the sessions for last album, 2012’s World Painted Blood, and serves as his call from the grave.
“The final words of that song are ‘Never surrender’,” reflects Araya. “I was thinking to myself while we recorded it ‘Jeff, I hope you’re liking this, because I sure as hell am!’”
The majority of Araya’s bass tone comes from a Precision-style bass made by ESP, who’ve been making a TA signature series since the late 90s, going into a Marshall Lemmy Kilmister Signature 1992 LEM Super Bass stack – the extremely limited edition 2008 replicas of the Motörhead man’s favoured 1976 head, nicknamed Murder One.
“We were rehearsing for some live shows and I couldn’t believe how good those amps sounded,” says Araya from behind his impressively thick and white Santa-like beard. “Kerry told me they only made so many and then stopped making them. He even called up Marshall [to ask about them] for me – but there was no way, they were all gone. That amp is where most of my sound comes from, rather than the bass, though what you hear on the record might sometimes be a mixture of different amps dialled in together. It has that piano-like ‘dong!’ to it. That’s the sound I like, clean and crisp with that low-end piano boom.”
Repentless is out now on Nuclear Blast Entertainment.
Slayer are touring the UK from 21 to 30 November.