In 1986, Metallica's Master of Puppets and Slayer's Reign in Blood together established the archetype for the impossibly fast, impossibly technical form of metal known as thrash. Twenty-one years later, the forefathers of extreme metal have taken divergent roads. Metallica enjoyed massive commercial success before enduring the public humiliation of the Napster debacle, the albums Load and ReLoad and--perhaps the most unintentionally hilarious movie about group therapy since One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: 2004's Some Kind of Monster.
Slayer, on the other hand, has pretty much remained Slayer. Their latest record, Christ Illusion (American Recordings), harkens back to the pure speed and intensity of their youth. The album's graphic lyrics (topics include 9/11 and post-traumatic stress disorder) and cover art (a disemboweled Christ) were enough to get their record recalled by EMI in India. Twenty-five years into their career, Slayer is inspiring vicious pits, winning Grammys and pissing off enough people to have their records burned and banned.
Not bad for men who tour with their families and will be eligible for AARP benefits in the near future.
'My son sits behind Dave [Lombardo] and mimics his drum playing,' says vocalist-bassist Tom Araya, speaking from a hotel room in Toronto, where Slayer is on tour with Marilyn Manson. 'He gets all into it. [My kids] are 8 and 11. They think it's crazy how some of the fans are--the pits and everything. But it's good. They get to see what I do when I'm away.'
Despite Slayer's rigorous touring schedule and the renewed vigor that's come with having Lombardo back behind the kit (he quit in 1992, rejoined in 2001), Araya seems most content to talk about his life away from the stage. Fans and detractors alike may be surprised to hear that, though our discussion turns to cattle, it's not as prelude to a Satanic bloodletting. It's a description of his ranch in Texas, where Araya spends his days away from the band.
'I've got nine head of cattle--Black Angus,' he chuckles. 'They're not much, but they're growing. They're like big dogs. I walk out and there's this huge, 2,000-pound bull that'll come up to me and nudge me, asking me to pet him.
'I get a lot of pleasure in knowing that they can trust me with their lives. [Listening to] the subject matter that I write about, you wouldn't [expect] that. But what I get out of them is the trust they have in me. I hold their lives in my hand.'
Araya embraces the dualism: metal messiah in major U.S. cities, just another guy at the feed store in the boondocks.
'Where I live, there are a lot of people that live with very little means, and they're happy. It just blows my mind how people are in the country. They don't look at you before they help you--they just help you. In the city out here, they'll look at you before they'll decide to help you or not.'
For the most part, the Texas locals seem dimly aware of Araya's day job. Some of his immediate neighbors know 'who he is,' due to gossip and access to the Internet. Yet despite the wealth of information (and Google image searches that yield pictures of fans with 'Slayer' carved into their backs), Araya says 'it's not brought up a lot. There's other conversation than that. Just normal conversations with everybody in town. I would just rather be their neighbor, Tom.
He tells them: 'My occupation requires me to leave every now and then, but I'm a rancher just like you. I've got my big sombrero hat.'
Like the image of a metal standard bearer in a sombrero, the current tour with Marilyn Manson is a bit curious. Though the two have exchanged pleasantries back stage, both largely keep to themselves.
The unifier seems to be their status as cultural pariahs. Both Slayer and Manson have felt the accusatory gaze of parent and music-watchdog groups that want to lay blame for teenage tragedies. In 1996, the murder of Elyse Pahler resulted in two lawsuits against Slayer that were ultimately thrown out of court. Manson endured similar allegations after the Columbine massacre in 1999.
'Everybody's pointing fingers, and no one wants to take responsibility,' Araya says. 'It's hard to look in the mirror as a parent and realize that you could have been so blind, so unaware.'
From a commercial perspective, extreme metal is hotter than it's been since the late '80s. Killswitch Engage, Lamb of God, Shadows Fall, Mastodon and San Diego's own As I Lay Dying are all doing well. And they're all using variants of a sound that Araya and company played a massive role in creating.
Despite the resurgence, he seems largely uninterested in metal's new crop. When talk turns to what he's been listening to, Araya seems less like the Angel of Death and more like somebody's uncle. He says he just got Love--the Cirque du Beatles album. He's listening to AC/DC, The Beach Boys and Bad Company.
He does respect one newcomer, though. Of all bands, it's Taking Back Sunday.
'I like that band. We went and saw their show in Dallas and got to hang out and meet the band. They were all excited to meet our kids. That's it for the modern day bands--there just doesn't seem like there's much happening.'
Slayer plays with Marilyn Manson at the Sports Arena on Saturday, Aug. 25. Doors open at 7 p.m. $50. 619-220-8497.