For Some Unmellowed Metalheads, Middle Age Is Nothing to Fear
Who would have thought, back in the ’80s, that the clatter of Slayer’s rhythm section would someday become one of those archaic folk forms worth preserving just as an example of human mastery, like Kansas City swing or flamenco singing?
Rhythm sections, in many kinds of metal, have gone funkier, toward deeper grooves. But Slayer’s hasn’t. Its drummer, Dave Lombardo, still plays the same way he did in the early ’80s, in wickedly fast two-beat rhythms that constantly rush the music and do not swing; the only difference now is that his sound is bigger and surer, his fills more impressive.
It’s a completely unreasonable music, set at crazy speeds for the endless riffs and strangulated, whammy-bar-heavy solos. The band’s lyrics show an equal intemperance: “Christ Illusion,” its last album, full of holy-war imagery, comes out more vehemently against organized religion — one of the band’s favorite topics — than most of its records have in the past. Mellowing is not on the band’s docket.
Yet Slayer’s show at Hammerstein Ballroom on Thursday night created its own sense of comfort and refinement; it was self-contained, expertly paced, an awesome display of self-knowledge. People do get better at many things in their 40s. The odds were against thrash-metal being one.
Slayer doesn’t do much onstage: no pyrotechnics, no leaping, very little ingratiating stage rap. Tom Araya, its singer and bassist, still puts his head down and whips his tresses around clockwise when he’s not singing. The two guitarists, Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman, trade off solos, sometimes positioning themselves next to each other. That’s about it.
The group just won its first Grammy, for the song “Eyes of the Insane.” In part:
These thoughts of mutilated faces
Psychotically abusing me
Worming through my head
Did Mr. Araya say: “Hey, man, we just won a Grammy! How about that, New York?” No. He blazed right through it, on the way to the old song “Mandatory Suicide,” which he dedicated to the American troops in Iraq. (It’s a rendering of war as mad slaughter, but like most Slayer songs, it resists being politically lined up; it keeps reaching for the epic poet’s point of view.)
The mini-epic “Seasons in the Abyss,” with its ringing tritone interval at the beginning, its extended solos, its medium tempo, was as close as Slayer got to a groove. Otherwise, this was a set pulled into 90 minutes, with hard-core-punk tempos, arranged blasts of feedback linking songs, and ending abruptly with “Angel of Death.” The band members did not return. It is logical that they don’t believe in encores, either.