Four white crosses projected on thin silk curtains draped in front of the stage slowly began to turn upside down. An eerie electric guitar riff echoing through massive speakers behind the curtain acted as a soundtrack to the descent into hell that awaited the sold-out Slayer crowd Tuesday evening at the Bomb Factory.
A few dozen people amassed in the balconies where music journalists roamed. Some leaned over the railing as if they were afflicted, screaming and roaring along with Slayer lead singer Tom Araya as guitarist Kerry King’s fingers struck the fretboard like lightning.
But the horde raged below in front of the stage, the heartbeat of Slayer’s music, surging, surfing and moshing with the screaming wails of King’s flame-tattooed guitar. A Dallas Morning News freelance writer disappeared below to talk with some in the horde. He was never seen again.
The downward spiral started shortly after the doors opened at 5 p.m. Testament, Behemoth, Anthrax and Lamb of God thundered and raged, much like the three beasts barring Dante’s way into the inferno. As show openers, they were simply adding the spark to a path that Slayer ignited when the group appeared behind the curtain as the upside-down crosses transformed into pentagrams. It was the legendary California metal band’s final time to do so, its final world tour into the abyss for metal fans.
More than 4,000 metal fans, young and old, showed up to say goodbye. They wore their Slayer concert T-shirts with pride, throwing up devil horns seen at University of Texas football games, a few whispering “hail Satan” but many others screaming “fuckin’ Slayer!”
Nearly 40 years have passed since Araya hooked up with King, guitarist Jeff Hanneman and drummer Dave Lombardo. Hanneman and King became known for their rapid-fire, minor-key guitar riffing. Lombardo is gone, replaced by Paul Bostaph, and Hanneman is dead. He departed from the band after he contracted necrotizing fasciitis (a flesh-eating disease) from a spider bite in 2011 and succumbed to alcohol-related cirrhosis in 2013. He was 49.
“But the fact that we’re playing Slayer music, that’s a memorial in itself,” Araya told the Dallas Observer in a November 2013 article. “The majority of the stuff that we play live is all Hanneman’s music. It was the ball-crushing sound of hard-rock acts such as Iron Maiden, Venom and Queen that influenced Hanneman to combine elements of punk rock with the growling rhythms of Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi. He not only wrote the songs, but he also helped other band members like King put together ideas.”
Hanneman wasn't forgotten Tuesday evening in Deep Ellum. Exodus guitarist Gary Holt stepped in to fill his place in 2013 and has been paying homage to him ever since. Hanneman was also remembered in what looked like the Heineken logo that appeared as a giant backdrop onstage toward the end of the show and read, “Angel of Death, Hanneman, 1964-2013, Still Living.”
Slayer’s music seems destined to live forever. It was the antithesis of the religious majority that controlled the country in the 1980s, demanding conformity while using Satan and hellfire to keep people in line. When the band’s second full-length album, Hell Awaits, dropped in 1985, it was as if Satan had escaped hell to join the band. The intro title track was a backwards recording that sounded like his demonic voice repeating “join us.”
The religious furor that followed was nearly as deafening as Slayer's live performances. Funeral pyres were ignited to burn Slayer albums, and churches circulated flyers warning parents that demonic possession was assured if they allowed their teenagers to listen to Slayer’s music.
The band’s third full-length album, 1987’s Reign in Blood, reaffirmed this response and cemented the band’s sound with shorter, faster songs. Columbia Records refused to release it because the song “Angel of Death” focused on Nazi physician Josef Mengele and the human experiments he conducted at concentration camps. The band continued this Satanic-inspiration in its follow-up releases, including 1988’s South of Heaven, 1990’s Seasons in the Abyss, 2001’s God Hates Us All and 2006’s Christ Illusion.
Slayer received five Grammy nominations and two Grammy Awards, an abundance of certified gold albums and far too many “best of” awards from media outlets such as Spin, Metal Hammer, Revolver and Esquire. The band even has its own exhibit in the Smithsonian Institution.
But its music is more than paying homage to the Lord of Evil and his minions. It’s a middle finger to the system of control and conformity, the evils of church and government wielding too much power and packaging it as goodness. Slayer’s music still has a contemporary feel in the era of President Donald Trump, and the whole crowd seemed to be extending middle fingers for most of the evening.
Over the course of the two-hour set, the band played hits from almost 40 years of slaying audiences, such as “Repentless” (the 2015 title track off its final studio album), “Seasons in the Abyss,” “Chemical Warfare” and, of course, “Raining Blood.”
Araya stopped and chatted with the audience a few times. He looked like the godfather of thrash metal with his white beard and silver lining his long, dark hair. He’s had issues with his hearing for a several years, but he performed as if he were his 20-year-old self stepping out of the garage for the first time. He riled up the crowd and shared the spotlight with his bandmates. He was mostly limited to one-word responses, some of which began with mother and ended with ... well, you know.
For many of the older fans who remember Slayer’s early days, it was a blazing trip down memory lane, allowing them to recapture memories of a time when they extended their middle fingers to authority figures like teachers and parents who couldn’t understand what was appealing about screaming guitars and rapid-fire lyrics. For this ronin reporter, it took him back to the days riding the Oklahoma backroads with a cousin who later died in a Texas jail. It was a night no one wanted to end, but the "Angel of Death" had finally arrived.
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It was a fitting song to end a night of mayhem. Hanneman’s logo projected behind the band as it about an angel most want to avoid.
“Abacinate, eyes that bleed,” Araya roared. “Praying for the end of your wide awake nightmare," he roared as King and Holt ignited their guitars. “Wings of pain, reach out for you, your blood running cold ... .”
After the song ended, the band lingered onstage. Araya slowly walked back and forth, smiling at the crowd and savoring the moment as the band and fans struggled to say goodbye.