Cornerstone: For the love of Slayer


Courtesy of NBC

Tom Araya, middle, and company (aka Slayer) thrash away on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

Joshua Whitney, SCC Challenge adviser

Last week I heard that Slayer would be performing on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and I was a little perplexed.

I thought, “Slayer?  The Slayer?  The thrash metal icons who are famous for creating the musical equivalent of slasher movies?  On The Tonight ShowThat Slayer?

Yes, kiddos, that Slayer (as if there was any other).

To have a band like Slayer perform on a stage that celebrates middle-of-the-road pop culture seems like the start of a bad joke, you know the ones that start “A donkey, a rabbi, and a lumberjack walk into a bar and …”

Or like that old Sesame Street game of “Which of these is not like the others?”

Is this a case of Jimmy Fallon trying to being edgy?  Or has Slayer become the equivalent of a less popular (if a little frightening) Fleetwood Mac?

I was certainly hoping it wasn’t the latter.

But if it was the latter, it wouldn’t be the first time pop culture television neutered a heavy metal icon; that’s exactly what happened to Ozzy when The Osbornes turned the once-Prince-of-Darkness into a clown.

But not to worry, Thursday night, Slayer came on and thrashed away on the classic “Raining Blood,” the closing track from 1985’s seminal Reign in Blood.

They delivered gloriously and unapologetically to an audience they were designed to offend, which is pretty metal, if you think about it.

My first encounter with Slayer was more than twenty-five years ago and didn’t involve their music, per se, but just the song titles on one of their CD’s.

One of my classmates, Chris Hayes, brought Slayer’s Decade of Aggression CD to school.  Listed on the back cover were songs such as “Hell Awaits,” “War Ensemble,” “Dead Skin Mask,” “Angel of Death,” and a dozen more on the same theme; quite frankly, they scared me.

Chris must have read the expression on my face because he said with a laugh, “Yeah, these guys aren’t very nice.”

He went on to explain how “Dead Skin Mask” was about a serial killer and “Angel of Death” was about infamous Nazi war criminal Joseph Mengele.  Not nice, and not funny, either.  Just scary.

A year or two later, another friend, Danny Falk, was packing up to go to boot camp, and as he was going through his stuff, he came across his tape of Slayer’s South of Heaven.

Danny explained how he had picked it up because of the cover, a hellish scene centered around a large-than-life skull, but didn’t really like the songs.

He said, “You’d have to pretty messed up to like it.”

And then he offered it to me.  I’m not sure if he was making a comment about me or just didn’t want to throw it out (or maybe a little of both).

But as a thrifty music fan, I couldn’t say no, even though it was clearly something my mother had warned me to stay away from, which was, of course, part of the appeal.

As it turned out, I liked it.  In fact, I like it a lot.

While the lyrics get most of the attention for obvious reasons, it was the music behind the lyrics that captivated me.

Listening to a Slayer album for the first time was like a really fast ride on a roller coaster through a pretty gruesome haunted house.  It was thrilling and scary and brutal and totally unlike anything I’d ever heard.

It was an absolute sonic assault, and while everything went by too quickly the first time through, with each successive listen, more things emerged out of the darkness until what had been too much to take in all at once became a singularly elaborate composition rich with detail.

And that slow emergence out of the chaos was an experience repeated with the other albums from the band’s catalog that found their way into my collection.

While Slayer’s music is indeed thrilling, it is important to take in small doses.  Even this fan can’t listen to more than two albums in a row; it’s simply too exhausting, although in a good way, like a workout.

Slayer’s music is certainly not for everyone, and it’s not supposed to be, which makes the Tonight Show appearance so odd.  Whose idea was it anyway?  Was the person drunk?

Something else I’d like to know is what the audience thought, although it was probably a lot like the message my wife sent me after she saw it:

“REALLY!?!?!?!?  They all suffer from chronic whiplash!!  Are they trying to sing??”

But for those of us who do enjoy it, there’s a lot there to like.  Just enjoy in moderation.