Headbangers argue all day whether Slayer is the greatest heavy-metal band ever. And 25 years into the band's hall-of-fame career, a smaller number of music fans not all them metalheads claim the thrash kings are one of the best rock bands ever, hands-down, period. The group just won a Grammy last week in the Best Metal Performance category for its new single, "Eyes of the Insane," and is currently touring in support of its latest album, Christ Illusion, which has more blood and carnage than you would normally expect from a band hitting its silver-anniversary mark.
And although there may be debate over Slayer's place in the rock pantheon, here's one undisputed superlative: No group's fans are so ready to carve a band's logo into their flesh. The images are legendary. To list just three: a picture of a bloody, angular SLAYER on an arm inside 1994's Divine Intervention; on 1995's Home Intrusion video, actual images of a fan slicing the word into his forearm, then cauterizing it with a propane torch; and on YouTube, footage of a lingerie-clad girl using her fingernails to rip the word into a longhair's back. Pro or con, Slayer's not a band that people feel casually about.
"I think [the carvings are] few and far between," says Slayer guitarist Kerry King, taking a call in his L.A. home base. "That kind of person might be looking for a little extra attention."
The axman/lyricist downplays the sanguine tributes, but he'll concede that if any band deserves it, it's probably Slayer. He can't think of a group that's had a better run. And although he doesn't have his group's name commemorated in scar tissue, he's just as committed to the band's unwavering antireligion aesthetic. At 42, he looks harsher than ever, covered in barbed tribal tattoos from his fingers to the top of his shaved head, with "God Hates Us All" inked into a meaty forearm. King may look like a demon, but he talks like a disarmingly regular guy who's been equally disappointed by underperforming California crews from Metallica to the Oakland Raiders. If his band is still comparable to its peak form, King says it's because he's still in touch with his inner 18-year-old.
"I try to take all my experiences from growing up as a fan and apply them to Slayer," he says. "I think that's why our fans are so dedicated to us."
The band was crowned the kings of thrash with 1986's Reign in Blood. King and rhythm guitarist Jeff Hanneman penned most of the disc's tracks, which permanently fused metal's brute power, classic-rock's virtuoso chops, and hardcore's raw intensity. Journals from Kerrang! to Metal Hammer rate it as the best metal album, and it invariably ranks in the top five.
Slayer's eight other studio albums aren't bad either, filled start to finish with nothing but state-of-the-art thrash. No ballads. No bids for airplay. Not even a single acoustic intro. It's not easy for groups to remain that true to their original intensity and intent over such a sprawling career. Love them or hate them, Slayer is also one of the few long-running bands that's never recorded an album with, say, a different singer and a fill-in guitarist.
"People need continuity," King says. "We've changed drummers, sure, but if you take people out of the front positions, people are like, 'Well, Slayer's coming to town who's playing with them?'"
King says keeping the group's brand pure takes some effort. Rather than padding its bills with palooka opening acts, Slayer keeps itself on point by bringing top-tier groups on tour, including Mastodon and Lamb of God. For this tour, the band voted to take out neo-thrash frontrunners Unearth, one of the best live bands from the new wave of cutthroat heavy metal.
Unlike Metallica, whom King is always quick to criticize for general inertia, Slayer still plays a full-on metal show. King says it's not as easy as it was when he was 21. Before concerts, he stretches his neck and back for half an hour, plays guitar another 30 minutes, then stretches more before taking the stage for an hour-plus of head-banging mayhem.
"That's what people expect of us," King says. "That's what we expect of ourselves. Unfortunately, the first time I saw [Judas] Priest was on Point of Entry. I'd seen pictures of them all in leather, studded out. And that was the only tour in history where [singer Rob] Halford wore denim. And I hadn't heard [Iron] Maiden before, and Maiden opened, and they kicked the shit out of 'em. And it's always a dark thought in the back of my mind [that] I can't let that happen."
Slayer tours come around more often than albums. Christ Illusion is the band's first since 2001's God Hates Us All and its first in years with original drummer Dave Lombardo, who rejoined the unbroken frontline after a decade away spent raising a family and playing with art brutes Fantomas. The new disc has generally been received as the band's strongest effort since 1990's Seasons in the Abyss. Christ Illusion debuted at number five on the Billboard album chart, and "Eyes of the Insane" the band's latest look at the real-life nightmares soldiers face earned Slayer its second Grammy nomination. Even reputable critics are giving the band some props.
"They are one of the very best American rock bands," says critic Greg Kot, who reviewed the disc for rock talk show Sound Opinions. "What they do with a guitar, bass, and drums is unequaled in the history of modern music."
Slayer may have some gray hairs in the manes, but the band is spending its 25th anniversary on the road. King says the band doesn't plan to celebrate the quarter-century mark and will save the effort for its 30th year. This tour cycle will probably wrap by 2008, which will mark 25 years since their first album and eligibility for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. King doesn't see them joining Van Halen, R.E.M., and Black Sabbath any time soon.
"If it does happen, it'll be after it's important," he says. "If anybody gets in from this genre, it'll be Metallica, for sure. If we get in, it'll be an afterthought or [because of] pressure from fans. They won't say, 'You guys did a lot for the music, you changed shit, you need to be in today.' I don't expect that shit. We've always been the blackball band, the bad guys. Unless you're a fan, that's a bad thing."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.