The last time Slayer's original lineup put out a studio album, Metallica hadn't been to rehab yet, Anthrax still had hair, and Megadeth were still, well, mega. There was plenty to riff about Operation Desert Whatever was about to Storm and blindingly fast double-bass drumbeats and evil guitar riffs were the perfect sound to articulate both the rush and fear of wartime. Now, 16 years later, Slayer is the last band standing, and they have more to crow about than ever. While their contemporaries have flirted with crossover, softening their brute-force sound with melody and hooks, Slayer spares us such reassuring salvos. Aggression and adrenaline are still the bedrock of Slayer's speed-metal thrash, how they deal with the world they see, and on Christ Illusion, the unimaginably fast riffs and double-, sometimes triple-time drum pummel of returning original drummer Dave Lombardo carry a weirdly relevant message, writ bluntly and brutally, beginning with cover artwork depicting a butchered and beaten Jesus. It makes The Passion of the Christ look tame.
Slayer aren't aiming to comment on or condemn world affairs so much as drown them in their rank and angry disease. Producer Josh Abraham (Stain'd, Velvet Revolver) warms up the band's sound so the drums don't sound too ticka-ticka, and the guitars sear more than simply riff. In short, he lets Slayer be Slayer, especially Lombardo, whose jazzy, shock-rock side work with John Zorn and Mike Patton's Fantomas shows up in the drumbeat of "Catalyst" and a jazzy breakdown fill (albeit at 200 bpm) on opener "Flesh Storm." "Violence is our way of life," bassist-singer Tom Araya sings. "Not cries of war/These are just the sounds of pain." War is a reality, Slayer is saying, and their pragmatism rings loud and clear. For them, "jihad" terrorism is just another type of fanaticism to crawl inside of, and in "Skeleton Christ," Christianity is so riddled with bullshit (it's a cult as the cut of the same name puts it), that Satanism seems the only real, genuine choice left: "I've seen the ways of God, I'll take the devil any day. Hail Satan!" If that's a nihilistic vision, it's also unrelentingly and powerfully articulated, making Christ Illusion this year's most political album since Neil Young's Living with War. Except that, where Young bemoans the current state of affairs with bluesy sing-alongs and bruised anthems, Slayer dives headfirst into the shitstorm of jagged, contradictory emotions and pure, headache-inducing adrenaline to dole out the necessary beatings.
Hobey Echlin writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.