Despite being one of the most influential metal groups of all time, inspiring thousands of bands, Grammy nominations, and one of the creators of the sub-genre itself, the past few years haven’t been kind to Slayer. Line up changes, as well as the death of their guitarist and main songwriter, many fans were questioning what would become of the band. How are they going to continue without their most important component? Will their chemistry be affected? More importantly, how are they going to stay relevant in a scene that is becoming a hotbed of tropes and clichés? These guys aren’t getting any younger, and the last time they tried to infuse a modern approach, it was met with such harsh criticism that many fans haven’t looked back since. With this much uncertainty clouding the release of their eleventh LP Repentless, it would be an understatement to say that there are plenty of eyes and ears expecting a misstep in this pivotal moment in the later part of their career.
To ease some of your sleepless nights, Repentless sounds like Slayer. The break-neck speed of double-bass drums, galloping guitars, squealing solos and Tom Araya’s signature discord shout, are present. From minimal pretentious tempo changes, to the obligatory blasphemous album cover, it’s all here in all it’s Slayer glory. Before you let out a sigh of relief, the album is still light years behind the evil greatness of what the band once was. Obviously it’s no Reign In Blood but at this point, what is? The title track “Repentless” (after the tension building opening instrumental) delivers everything Slayer has been known to deliver over the years. In fact, it’s arguably the best representation of classic Slayer since the early 90s. After that, the new sort of wears off and we get the first problem the album houses: lack of excitement.
There has always been something about Slayer that set them apart from their Heavy Metal brethren. They were more authentic than Metallica, meaner than Anthrax, and certainly more threatening than Megadeth. Slayer always had this sense of urgency within their albums that made the listener feel like they were hearing something dangerous that you probably shouldn’t enjoy hearing, but you did. They weren’t afraid to be blasphemous but they weren’t a circus like many other hardcore groups became when trying to achieve edginess. They didn’t try, they just were. Regardless if you were a fan of Slayer or not, you respected their stature and devil-may-care attitude. They were the epitome of what Heavy Metal was all about. While Metallica would eventually gain so much mainstream success, they did song for a Tom Cruise movie, Slayer defined themselves by exclusion. It’s not to say Slayer didn’t have their moment of trendy weakness, like the Nu Metal-esque Diabolus In Musica album or their techno mash-up with Atari Teenage Riot for the Spawn soundtrack, but they never really compromised their core sound for the sake of mainstream popularity.
Sadly, Repentless sounds a bit tired at this point. It’s almost like it sounds too much like Slayer. They haven’t forced themselves to sound classic like some other older metal bands have done as of late, but they aren’t exactly reinventing the wheel either. It’s a strange dilemma when you think about it, do you want them to deliver on every single thing you loved them for, or do you want to them progress and give you something fresh and exciting? Outside of a couple songs (namely “Chasing Death” and “Atrocity Vendor”) the album doesn’t really deliver on either accounts. In a lot of ways, it sounds like Slayer has become a Slayer parody. Song structures are so predictable that it’s almost as if there is some sort of paint by numbers kit they used in the studio to craft these songs. Some of the lyrics range from teenage drivel to downright laughable (seriously, try reading the lyrics to the title track with a straight face) Even the album cover alone is text book Slayer. Where is the danger and excitement? If they are not going to expand up their craft, at least try a little harder to play to their strengths.
The biggest problem that I had with Repentless is the production. After being Rick Rubin’s pet band for over twenty years, they decided to have the record produced by Terry Date, and I’m not exactly sure if it’s the lack of Rubin’s touch or Date has recently fallen in love with digital compression like every other well paid producer in the industry, but Repentless has zero life flowing through it. The drums are solid, but the bass is non-existent, and with such a weak rhythm section the overly digitized guitar sounds like Kerry King is playing through a Dell laptop instead of his famous, evilly delicious rig. Araya has never been known for using superficial effects on his voice to make himself sound any bigger than he needs to be, but here, the vocals are so compressed and close in the mix that it’s almost painful to listen to with headphones. It no longer sounds as if Slayer are performing live from the bowels of Hell itself, but more like casually rehearsing in the living room of a hipster’s apartment in Trump Tower. That makes me sad, and listening to Slayer isn’t supposed to make me sad, it’s supposed to make me search for a nearby church and pray for the blood of Jesus to wash away the evil with the Holy Spirit.
I’m not a Slayer aficionado by any means, but I respect their influence on Heavy Metal, and while Repentless could be much much worse, it certainly isn’t the best metal album to come out in the past ten years. It might insult some hardcore fans by saying it, but it’s time to come to the realization that the most legitimately aggressive gods of thrash have become the AC/DC of Heavy Metal. Safe. Predictable. Text book. That doesn’t mean Repentless is a bad Slayer album, but it isn’t anywhere near the same zip code as the albums that have made them legends of the scene they helped create.