Pop quiz—who wrote the following anti-communist, anti-authoritarian lyrics?
You cannot hide the face of death
Oppression rules by bloodshed
No disguise can hide the evil
That stains the primitive sickle
Here’s a hint—the same band wrote the following anti-war diatribe the year before the US’ first war in Iraq:
Bombard till submission
Take all to their graves
Indication of triumph
The number that are dead…
The sport is war, total war
When victory's a massacre
Last hint: the band also wrote songs that were anti-abortion and tough on crime. Okay, okay, it’s Slayer. And if you didn’t know that it’s hard to blame you.
Slayer's Dark Music
Slayer positioned themselves on the vanguard of heavy metal extremity, combining the dark subject material of early Venom and Mercyful Fate records with the technical twin-guitar attack of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. Released just four months after Metallica’s debut, Kill ‘Em All, Slayer’s debut Show No Mercy likewise played downstrokes with a buzzsaw-like quality, but their lyrics were darker than Metallica’s from the outset, with violent, graphic content inspired by horror movies.
This content grew only more disturbing as their recording activity continued and their sound embraced the even more intense speed, atonal soloing and unconventional song structures of hardcore punk—it’s not hard to hear much of the sudden tempo changes and unconventional song structures of Black Flag’s Damaged in Slayer’s third album, the magnum opus Reign in Blood.
But Black Flag wasn’t bellowing the sorts of lyrics passing through the lips of Slayer frontman Tom Araya. The group’s guitarists Kerry King—a fan of splatter movies and of mocking organized religion—and Jeff Hanneman—who cranked out thrashers about war crimes and moody numbers about ritual sacrifice with equal aplomb—wrote almost all content on their first three albums. From their fourth record, when Araya discovered a knack for lyrics about serial killers, the band completed its oeuvre of disturbing subject material.
In the process, the thrash metal band became the major influencer of the death metal scene and its assorted subgenres, and drew the ire of the PMRC early in their career, as well as lawsuits. Slayer endured, however, despite never enjoying the sales of Metallica. Along the way, they achieved a reputation for unparalleled intensity as a live act and, in their later years, as the conscience of extreme metal for never “selling out.”
One thing that did change, however, is that amid the songs of death, hell, and psychotic killers, the band gradually revealed it had something much more serious to say. Araya, whose Catholicism is usually mentioned ironically, wrote the lyrics to “Silent Scream,” off South of Heaven in 1988:
Nightmare, the persecution
A child's dream of death
Torment, ill forgotten
A soul that will never rest …
Bury the unwanted child
On Seasons in the Abyss, released one year after the People’s Republic of China crushed the Tiananmen Square uprisings, Araya and Hanneman teamed up to write the anti-communist indictment “Blood Red,” quoted above.
But well before that it was “Chemical Warfare,” a six-minute epic released on 1984’s Haunting the Chapel EP that revealed one of the secret weapons of the band’s thrash sound: anti-war anthems of a terrifying nature that Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger could never hope to conjure. The song’s guitars impersonated propellers driving warplanes carrying toxic payloads over battlefields, as Araya roars out lyrics describing the terror of soldiers on the ground and the glee of demons in hell ready to carry them off to the afterlife. This theme would continue with titles like “Mandatory Suicide,” “Ghosts of War” and “War Ensemble,” mostly the work of Hanneman, though King joined in on 2006’s “Flesh Storm.”
"Angel of Death"
Hanneman also penned the band’s most controversial track, “Angel of Death” off Reign in Blood, which describes the experiments of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele in Auschwitz. That the song is told from Mengele’s perspective led to accusations that the band harbored Nazi sympathies, even though neither the Chilean-American Araya nor then-drummer Dave Lombardo, who is Cuban-American, could be considered “Aryan” (and the song’s bridge does describe Mengele as “rancid” and his experiments as “sickening”). Hanneman, whose interest in war stemmed from his father’s service in World War II and older brothers’ in Vietnam, later acknowledged that the song is short on explicit condemnation, but expressed incredulity that this should be necessary. “Isn’t that obvious (that he was a bad man)?” Hanneman once asked aloud during an interview. “I shouldn’t have to tell you that.”
This especially rings true when “Angel of Death” is placed on a timeline with Hanneman’s other war-themed tracks. South of Heaven also featured “Behind the Crooked Cross,” in which a Nazi soldier, either in the last days of the war or in the fiery judgment of afterlife, reflects on how “a cause I once understood” led him to blindly carry out orders. “Unit 731” off the band’s 2009 album World Painted Blood was similar to “Angel of Death” in that it described the experimentation of Imperial Japan’s infamous biological and chemical warfare unit. 2006’s Christ Illusion contained “Jihad,” which included the actual text from 9/11 attacks ringleader Mohamed Atta’s “motivational letter” and “Eyes of the Insane,” which describes the nightmarish reality of a soldier struggling with PTSD.
On this timeline, “Angel of Death” is clearly a continuation of a theme, marking the band’s gradual departure from supernatural-themed lyrics in favor of real-life horrors. Couple these with Araya’s tales of true-life killers—including Ed Gein, Jeffrey Dahmer and Countess Bathory—and King’s blunt, profane but not wholly unjustified criticisms of organized religion’s role in covering up child abuse, and it becomes clear that Slayer’s lyrics have not been just for shock: they concern mankind’s potential for depravity. And authority—from the Chinese Communist Party to religious leaders with a penchant for pedophilia to presidents who see war as a chance to leave a legacy—have resulted in horrors worse than in any splatter flick or death metal song.
While it’s difficult to imagine him as a fan of their sound, the great conservative Russell Kirk might well have endorsed the sentiment. As he wrote in The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatism:
Men and women are not perfectible, conservatives know; and neither are political institutions. We cannot make a heaven on earth, though we may make a hell.
They’ve written, played and performed songs on these subjects for more than 25 years, but last year their time ran out. They managed to carry on after 2013, when Hanneman, generally considered the band’s most gifted songwriter, passed away from cirrhosis of the liver, but Araya, their oldest member, made clear his increasing distaste for the touring lifestyle. Gary Holt, who replaced Hanneman on tour and on the band’s final album, will likely continue recording with Exodus, his original band.
Only King seems eager to keep Slayer’s spirit alive, although it will likely have to be under a different band name. Whatever he comes up with, let’s hope it’s loud, fast, politically incorrect—and distinctly anti-authoritarian. Also, while playing old Slayer material would be welcome, his band might want to stay away from “Epidemic” for the time being.