This week saw the passing of one of heavy metal’s greats: Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman. Hanneman had been in poor health for a couple of years following an infected spider bite, but his passing took many by surprise.
I’ve taken some time to think about Slayer and about metal.
Metal tends to be a “take it or leave it” genre for most people. It tends to be music that you hate, ignore, or worship. No middle ground. Slayer, as one of the most brutal and extreme metal bands, is even more polarizing. Most people don’t even listen to Slayer, and most of those who do are immediately turned off by the hyper tempos, squalling and growling guitars, and rapid-fire vocals that are only occasionally intelligible enough to understand “death” or “flesh” or “hell” or perhaps their most-used lyric, “blood.”
And then there is the core of Slayer fans who get full-back tattoos of the band’s logo, or carve inverted pentagrams into their flesh to show their love of the band. I like Slayer, but I haven’t gone this far.
I have seen Slayer twice in concert. I don’t think the guys in the band are evil. I don’t think they worship Satan or any of the other ridiculous charges leveled at them over the years. But their concerts are…unnerving. The darkness is a little darker than it is around other groups on stage. The red and orange underlighting could be flames, not floorlights. Smoke machines emit brimstone. You know you’re in an arena, but if you let go of the veil of reality for a few moments, you’re transported. The guitars groan like tormented souls, the drums pound out primal, visceral rhythms, and Tom Araya, lead singer, declares in his sing-shouting voice:
Close your eyes
Look deep in your soul
Step outside yourself
And let your mind go
Frozen eyes stare deep in your mind as you die
You feel you could be staring not at a rock band, but into the yawning mouth of hell. You are listening to “Seasons in the Abyss.”
So why would anyone want to witness that?
My good friend Dave, my “Metal Mentor,” wrote a thoughtful and thought-provoking tribute to Hanneman, Slayer, and metal on Facebook. Insightful as always, he nailed it:
The music doesn’t hide the bad parts about humanity. People are fascinated with evil, but they try to hide their fascinations. Metal bands however, in writing music which evokes a passionate response from fans, turn some incredibly negative things into a positive. It’s that conversion that I think makes metal such a great genre. Evil exists throughout humanity. People do terrible things all the time. In making music which expresses the side of humanity, it creates an outlet for negative feelings in a positive way.
In short, we need Slayer. We need artists who show us the beautiful and the sublime, but we also need artists to show us the darkness, the horror, the evil. It is the same reason we need Poe and Steven King and Black Sabbath and late period Goya. To acknowledge only the fairies and rainbows and cute puppies is to be blind to half of the world. By taking the negative– violence, evil, hatred– and turning it into something positive– a musical experience being shared by artists and fans, Slayer is necessary. They guide us to the light, but only by dragging us into darkness.