They came in droves, descending on Long Beach with their scraggly long hair and tattoos, choking the seaside community’s squeaky whiteness with invariably pitch-black T-shirts. They cluttered the floor of the venue, accumulating like bacteria in a Petri dish — just a few sparse colonies while Thine Eyes Bleed churned away in an undistinguished opening set, slowly metastasizing during Mastodon and Children of Bodom. By the time Lamb of God’s Randy Blythe called the audience on July 22 “a herd of syphilitic pussies,” the malignant bloom of fans had taken over. Impatient moshers jumped off the balcony to reach the pit, which by this time was a flushing toilet bowl of crowd-surfing human turds. When the opening arpeggio of Slayer’s “South of Heaven” finally erupted from the massive speakers, arranged in the shape of two inverted crosses, shit went absolutely nuts.
Hard to believe, but it’s been twenty years since Slayer released the essential speed-metal album, Reign in Blood. Bassist Tom Araya’s graying hair, guitarist Jeff Hanneman’s mondo beer gut and second guitarist Kerry King’s bald pate were all reminders that, yes, times change, and not even an unholy alliance with Satan can prevent the onset of age. But even though Araya couldn’t quite hit the blood-curdling scream that introduces “Angel of Death,” the members of Slayer sure as hell haven’t gotten any softer in their forties. Maybe they haven’t come to terms with their own mortality despite decades of writing songs about death. Maybe they realize that the world has only gotten worse since they first started criticizing it. Maybe they were pissed when they discovered their fans were paying $10 for beer and $35 for a T-shirt. Whatever the reason, Slayer sounded angrier than ever, Araya’s lyrics bleaker, his snarls that much more vicious.
One thing that hasn’t changed that much is Slayer’s set list. It’s pretty telling that ten of the fourteen songs they performed were also captured on the live album Decade of Aggression, released a full fifteen years ago. Araya began “Dead Skin Mask” with his customary paean to serial killer Ed Gein (“This is a love song about a man named Ed/ Who used to sleep and dance with the dead”), and King and Hanneman’s climactic solo interchange in the middle of the song copied the studio version verbatim. I’ll give the guys the benefit of the doubt and assume that they didn’t have time to teach original drummer Dave Lombardo any of the tunes they wrote during his ten-year absence — it’d be too painful to admit that Slayer has begun to stagnate, and in any case, the “greatest hits” approach resulted in a concert full of well-honed, diamond-tough performances. Especially from Lombardo, still the quintessential drummer in all of heavy metal. Dude fully deserved his exalted spot on top of a raised drum platform.
Any metal show has its share of ceremony. The all-black garb, omnipresent devil horns, head-banging and beer-guzzling become important social rituals, like clapping after a jazz solo or standing still at an indie-rock show. But even accepting that conditioned behavior is a necessary part of live music, it felt a little strange that Slayer, a band that smothers its music in vehement critiques of religion, should command a legion of fans whose zealotry and ritualized behaviors can seem like a form of worship. The irony wasn’t lost on Araya, who said “As I understand it, this is your religion!” after debuting “Cult,” the first single off Christ Illusion, Slayer’s first album in five years. Bodies continued to flail about, and the screams of “Fuckin’ Slayer!” got even louder.