Thursday, October 1, 2015

Review: Slayer, "Repentless"

There are a handful of bands out there in the hard rock/metal world that make a writer wonder if there’s really any point to reviewing a new release — bands like AC/DC, Motorhead and, of course, Slayer. They’re bands that do what they do, and they have a rabid hardcore following who loves every single similar note.

One of my favorite quotes from AC/DC guitarist Angus Young came in a New York Daily News interview when he said, “I’m sick and tired of people saying that we put out 11 albums that sound exactly the same. In fact, we’ve put out 12 albums that sound exactly the same.”

It’s a quote that perfectly fits Slayer, whose 12th album Repentless certainly doesn’t break from the mold of what they do. Though the thrashers have probably taken a few more chances with their music than AC/DC, reaching for a slightly more mainstream audience on 1990’s Seasons in the Abyss and incorporating some nu metal influence on 1998’s Diabolus in Musica, the basic musical elements on Repentless are not much changed from the band’s debut Show No Mercy.

You’ve got the kind of fans who carve the Slayer logo into their arms with a knife who don’t want the band to ever change, and Kerry King and Tom Araya are happy to oblige. Then, you’ve got guys like me, who love the band’s old stuff but have gotten kind of bored with the same sound over the years. I’ll admit that I came at Repentless with knives drawn not to carve the logo into myself, but to carve the record up for being the same old, same old. And, it is. But to my surprise, I’m kind of digging it.

This is the first Slayer album in six years and, of course, the first ever without guitarist and primary songwriter Jeff Hanneman, who died of liver failure in 2013. Hanneman does have writing credits on some of the tracks. Exodus guitarist Gary Holt fills his spot, though he didn’t write for the album. The band’s on-again, off-again relationship with original drummer Dave Lombardo is also off again, leading to the return of Paul Bostaph on the kit.

So, what changed my mind about Repentless? One track, really. After hearing the first couple of songs that trickled out, I was prepared to be unimpressed. I had the promo on my phone thinking I’d get to it at some point when I hit the final track on the album, “Pride in Prejudice,” randomly on a shuffle. The big, heavy, lumbering main riff of the song is one of the best I can recall in years from Slayer, and I hit repeat multiple times. It convinced me to dig in and give the rest of the album a more fair listen.

One of the best pieces of music for me is “Delusion of Saviour,” a too-brief instrumental opener that really gives me a South of Heaven or Seasons in the Abyss vibe. It fades to first single “Repentless,” which will probably get more attention for its bloody video featuring Danny Trejo than its musical content. It’s a wheelhouse song for Slayer that certainly offers nothing new, but I have to admit that it kind of sticks with me.

I pick up some more Seasons sounds on “Vices,” but that’s not a bad thing at all since Seasons happens to be one of my favorite Slayer records — despite its largely simpler and slower song structures. The groove piece going into and coming out of the guitar solo is also a nice touch. That vibe comes through again on “When the Stillness Comes,” which was far and away my favorite of the pre-release tracks. After a few listens, I find myself liking the tune much better than I did in those early versions. While it doesn’t have the power of the title track from Seasons, which remains Slayer’s absolute best slower song, it at least brings something a little different to the table.

Granted, there are the paint-by-numbers tracks like “Implode” that the logo-carver fans will love, but just aren’t going to appeal to me (other than that mid-tempo first verse, which I do dig). But here and there, there’s a track like “Chasing Death,” which admittedly we’ve heard any number of times before from Slayer, but dammit, I can’t help but like it. I don’t want to, but it’s like an aggressive infection that worms its way in and spreads rapidly.

I have some mixed feelings about the Hanneman-penned “Piano Wire.” On the one hand, I really like it musically, but Araya’s vocal melody is, at times, awkward and, I think detracts from the song as a whole. It’s almost as if the vocals/lyrics really don’t fit. The best of the high-speed numbers here is “Atrocity Vendor.” Again, we’ve heard this song many times before, but it is a throwback to some of Slayer’s earlier material, and even offers a nod to “Spirit in Black” in the lyrics. And, one more, it has a staying power that not much on recent Slayer albums has had.

That, in a nutshell, is the difference between this record and the band’s last couple of outings. It’s still Slayer doing what they do, but a lot of these songs have that “thing.” I probably wouldn’t recognize a single song from their last two records, World Painted Blood or Christ Illusion, other than to be able to tell you it was Slayer, but I have a feeling that some of these tunes might stick around.

I’m as surprised as anyone that I’m saying this, but Repentless is a pretty good record. Will it stand with their classics? Not really. But I think it’s probably the best complete album they’ve done since 1994’s Divine Intervention. For me, that’ll do.

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