04 November 2016

On Going Home, And Banging Heads: My Trip Back to the Old Country, To See Slayer, Finally

I had never seen Slayer.

In nearly thirty-five years of metal fandom, and Christ, nearly thirty since I first heard South of Heaven, I was beginning to think I would slip gently into middle-aged metal-fandom without having heard the bombast of songs like “Angel of Death” at a volume designed to rip my scalp from my skull. You know, the way songs like that are meant to be heard. 

You see, for me, the prime time to have seen Slayer would have been during the 1991 Clash of the Titans tour - where it was them, Anthrax, Megadeth, and a young Alice in Chains as opener - all of the bands in their vital, hungry glory. My friends saw that tour when it hit Vancouver June 1, 1991. I was still fifteen and my parents thought I wasn’t quite ripe enough for a concert getaway in the big city. I made up for it once I turned sixteen that year and their ban was lifted, but it didn’t happen in time for Titans. But I had loads of chances to see Slayer after that, and even when they reunited with the original lineup in 2001, I still hemmed and hawed and thought I’d get around to seeing them “someday”. Then, Jeff Hanneman got sick in 2011 and in my head, I really didn’t want to see Slayer without him onstage – he wrote all of my favorite songs, it didn’t feel right without him there. Then, in 2013, drummer Dave Lombardo was fired again, and Jeff Hanneman passed away, and if I’m honest, it felt like my chances of ever seeing Slayer live passed with those events. No disrespect to a monster guitarist like Gary Holt, or a powerhouse drummer like Paul Bostaph, but given the history of the importance of Slayer in my life, I wrestled long and hard and convinced myself that without Hanneman and Lombardo, it was only half-Slayer.

I turned lucky-thirteen on August 30th, 1988 - the very same day the first Danzig album was released.  I was going in to ninth grade at Parkland Junior Secondary in Cranbrook BC. I was about to meet a friend who would wield considerable influence on the path my musical tastes would saunter down. And one of the bands that friend, Ferdy Belland, would introduce me to, was Slayer. Our crew was small – but we fell hard for metal. Metallica was the band that united us, like they united most metalheads of that era: and from them, we learned of the other bands who would come to comprise The Big Four. Slayer especially held us in thrall, given their cache of aggressive riffing and evil posturing. I remember the day Ferdy got South Of Heaven from the Columbia House Record Club. As soon as he’d torn the cardboard mailer open, the record went on the turntable and we all passed around the album jacket, unsure of what we were taking in. Giant bleeding skull pierced by giant inverted cross, various demons within it unleashing all manner of torment on damned souls. And Slayer’s pentagram logo festooned overtop. Flip the record over, and the four dudes on the back looked intense. Bands like Mötley may have postured with pentagrams, and then turned glam - but you knew it was all a pose, like everything they did. We weren’t so sure with Slayer, and therein lie the attraction: This music might have been everything they warned us about. From the first menacing chord shifts of the title track, our young ears pricked up, knowing we had unlocked a Pandora’s Box of something wickedly heavy. South Of Heaven remains my favorite Slayer record; it’s just heavier than anything else they did before or after.

By the time the next Slayer album, Season In The Abyss, came out in October of 1990, I had moved to a new town, and had a whole new set of friends - but again, our lives and our friendship centered around our music. The release of Seasons was huge news for us; heavily anticipated, it was the centerpiece of albums released that year for my friends and I. In addition, Slayer was one of the bands that made me want to start playing in bands myself, and the following summer of 1991, I would meet a fledgling guitar player who would become one of my dearest lifelong friends; Slayer especially would become a common tongue spoken between us. It turned out Mike Page lived across the alley from me, and one warm summer night, he knocked on my door, having seen an ad I’d put up in the local record store, looking for people to start a band with. We hit it off instantly, and that night he moved his guitar amp over to my bedroom, where my drumkit was – and we set to making godawful noise at once. The first song we played together was “Master of Puppets”, but very shortly thereafter, “Seasons In The Abyss” became a staple of our burgeoning setlist. When school convened that September, Mike & I lucked into the same band class together. Occasionally throughout the year, whether we were in band class or at a school assembly where the band was playing, we’d give each other a look and erupt into a gnarly rendition of “Seasons”, to the joy of any other metalheads within earshot, more often to the apoplectic dismay of our band teacher. But we didn’t give a shit – that was the power of a band like Slayer. People –love it or hate it- fucking ALWAYS reacted to it. And that was what you wanted. A reaction.

Through Mr. Page, I met other people, people who would become lifelong friends, the common thread always being metal music. Strong bonds, bonded by blood. One of these people was Guz: Ryan Guza to his parents, but Guz to the rest of us, and he and I would also later play music together, and form equally as strong a bond over this infernal racket.  You see, me and my friends, we played this music together, turned each other on to new records and bands, traveled on long road trips together, usually to Vancouver to see our favorite bands when they came to town. This music was the language we spoke, and the air we breathed, and it was always in our lives. This is why whenever someone tells me they “used to like metal”, I can only shake my head. If you truly love this music, you’re a fucking lifer, and there’s no growing out of it. 

The years passed, though - quicker than I could believe. Eventually, I moved to the big city, settled down, got married, didn’t see my old friends as much as I wanted to. Didn’t lose touch, exactly - but didn’t get to see each other as often anymore. All of a sudden, a decade went by, then two. Bands –my own, bands I listened to- came and went. Slayer remained untouchable, if only for the big trilogy of records they’d kicked off with Reign in Blood, and followed with the two above-mentioned records. Theirs was a name spoken with reverence in our subculture, and for better or worse, outside our culture they became the cliché band name spoken by anyone looking to mock metal subculture – because their fans were insane. Let’s face it:  as lifelong metal fans, we all know a “Slayer fan” or two – those hammerheads we love who always take it to the next level of extreme, bless ‘em.

All of a sudden, it’s 2016. I’m forty-fucking-one. Where did the time go?

A couple things converged to conspire this year, that would set in motion one of the best gigs –and nights- of my life.

One: In May, Slayer announced a tour of North America with Anthrax and Death Angel in tow. The fact that I’d never seen any of these bands, all of whom had figured so prominently in my formative teenage years, and now they were touring together, was enough to prick up my ears. But then it turned out one of the last dates on the tour was in Penticton, BC – the town where I’d lived from the ages of fourteen to twenty-three, where my first bands were started, where I met Page and Guz, who became lifelong friends, because of what bands like Slayer –especially Slayer- meant to us. You have to understand—if Slayer had deigned to play a town like Penticton in those days, we would have gone mental. The fact that they were coming to Penticton in 2016 made no difference, I had to go.

Fuck, we all had to go.

Two: A few months after the Slayer tour announcement, my sister Darcia, who lives in Penticton, and is an avid gig-goer all her own, won a contest put on by the local media wherein she won a year’s worth of a pair of free tickets to every event being put on at the town’s new arena, where all of their big rock gigs are held – and as luck would have it, Slayer would be one of these. As her husband already had tickets for the gig, and Darcia herself had no particular inclination to see Slayer, she graciously offered the tickets to me.

So, let me get this straight: Free tickets? To see Slayer? In my hometown? With Anthrax and Death Angel? And all my hometown friends? Are you fucking kidding me?!

Sometimes the metal fates align in mysterious ways.

Texts were rapidly sent, and confirmations made – I would be coming home for one night only, to see Slayer. Finally. With the friends who were listening to this music with me twenty-five years ago. The people who lived and breathed this music like I did. Most auspicious was that I would be going with Page and Guz. Page and I see each other every year or so, when one of us visits the other one’s town. But for Guz and I, it had been over a dozen years since we last were in the same room together. This would be a very special night indeed. Truth told, while there were a raft of friends I hoped to see –and would get to see- while I was in town, there were no other two people I wanted to see Slayer with. For the three of us, Slayer was our band – a huge influence, records we’d listened to, songs we’d covered faithfully - thousands of times.

The night finally arrived. When I got home to Penticton, Page and I beelined it over to Guza’s place for pregame reunion beers. There’s that feeling when you haven’t seen an old friend for –in this case- a dozen years, but you immediately pick up right where you left off like it was yesterday you saw each other last; I’m sure the Germans have a word for it. Anyway, that’s how it was with the three of us. It was also wonderful to finally meet Guz’s partner, Heather. It’s always good to see your friends’ lives have turned out good, and that they’re in healthy, satisfying relationships. We all quickly caught up and quaffed a few, and then quickly enough, it was time to go bang heads.

Arrival at the arena proved interesting. Penticton’s events centre houses the main arena for their hockey team, where the concerts are held - as well as a secondary ice rink, which, when we arrived was hosting a free skate for parents and kids. There was something vaguely incongruous, but altogether ironically satisfying about the wee ones happily ice-skating away, while right next door, three thousand headbangers in various satan-praising t-shirts howled at the moon for their favorite heavy metal band.

We parked and made our way to the back entrance of the arena, and as we entered, two RCMP officers, one security guard, and one ticket-taker were manning the door. All greeted us warmly as we entered, scanning our tickets and pointing us in the direction to go, friendly the whole time. No frisking, no metal detector, no hairy-eyeball, no hassle whatsoever – was this a Slayer gig? For real?

After a small hike through the mazelike rear entrance, we found our way to the arena’s main concourse, and there we were among our people. Peals of “SLAAAAAAAAAYER!” rang out, right on cue. A quick perusal of the merch situation revealed about a dozen different t-shirt designs for Slayer, a handful for Anthrax, and two or three for Death Angel. Shirts were $50, but the gnarly Show No Mercy hooded hockey jersey was $150. I made a mental note to pick out the ugliest Slayer shirt available, made sure it had tour dates on the back, and earmarked it to buy later when the merch line wasn’t so long.   

Standing in the arena’s main concourse before Death Angel’s set, and between bands, I was struck by the endless parade of faces in the crowd I’d not seen since high school twenty-five years ago. But I was more struck by the old friends who also happened by, and many catch-up beers, and lots of brotherly metal bear-hugs abounded. It was so great to be surrounded by old friends for such an auspicious gig.

As the opener, Death Angel’s set was only six songs short, and while they opened with “The Ultra-Violence” and “Evil Priest”, the rest of the set was mostly newer songs I didn’t recognize. They still packed a punch, though. Mark Osegueda especially was in fine form, his pipes still as powerful as they were the first time I heard “Bored” way back when, and I was kinda bummed it didn’t show up in their set. Short and sweet, it was still one hell of a primer for the rest of the night’s proceedings.

There was time for a quick beer and some more hey-man-long-time-no-sees between bands, but I didn’t want to miss any of Anthrax’s set, so I high-tailed it back to my seat at the first strains of “AIR”. Again, as direct support, it was a short set from Anthrax, only nine songs, and half of those were off the new album they’re currently promoting. But, the third song in the set was “Caught In A Mosh”, and you can bet as soon as we heard Scott Ian’s opening power chord, for the first time that night, me and three thousand other bangers went gloriously fucking NUTS. The follow-up of that one-two punch was their cover of Joe Jackson’s “Got the Time” and it was almost perfect: Skawty’s deathstomp, Frankie’s strut, Joey’s perfect voice and acrobatics and hair-that-looks-like-a wig-but-it-isn’t. That is, it was almost perfect: While erstwhile substitute Jon Dette was certainly no slouch on the kit, it didn’t quite seem complete without Cholly on the skins. But we got their cover of “Antisocial”, and they closed out the set with a killer “Indians”, so ultimately I was satisfied. The best part for me, though, had to be during “Got The Time” when the dude in front me, similar in age, paunchiness, and grayness of hair, was also going visibly nuts like we were, and we wound up shouting the chorus TICKIN’ IN MUH HEAD! at one another for the rest of the song. The dude then tried to drunkenly educate me on Scott Ian’s picking style, pointing at him and shouting at me, “Look. Only downstrokes! Scott Ian only plays downstrokes!” Dude, come on, I know.

So much joy in the room. Dad-aged metalheads, kid-aged metalheads, everyone in between. No hassles, no fights, no fuckery . Well, a little fuckery – one thing the small-town arena seemed to have in short supply were well-trained security. You’d think for a Slayer gig they might have wanted to beef up their arena security a little bit, to include maybe some bouncers or MMA fighters or something. But I have to admit, there was some comedy in watching the senior-aged ushers and security I saw dressing down the occasional burly metalhead for infractions like smoking in the arena, or standing in common areas instead of their own seats. They might as well have just left well enough alone for all the good it did.  But again, all in all, a fun night was had by everyone from what I could see.

But the best was still yet to come.

The feeling –indescribable- was palpable. Something, a random chaos, bubbled away inside, just under the surface, begging to tear loose – inside me, inside my friends, inside everyone in the room. And suddenly, the lights dropped and the curtain across the stage emblazoned four inverted crosses, to the opening strains of “Delusions of Saviour”, that flash of white-hot-but-ice-cold shot its way down my spine:  I was here. Home. With my friends, people who meant the world to me. Hearing the music that meant more to me –to us- than anything else we’d ever heard in our entire lives. There was really only one thing I could do.

As the curtain finally dropped, and Slayer kicked off “Repentless”…

My throat opened, my hands curled to horns, raised to the heavens, face to the sky, and from deep in my gullet, I howled with every last ounce of my reptilian being, the only thing that mattered to say:


Catharsis at its most primal. From there, for the rest of the set, I was every fucking cliché of every metalhead you’ve ever seen in the media. Hooting, howling, growling, headbanging, fingers cast in arcane gestures praising various devils, fists raised again and again and again, more headbanging, more howling; and more and more, ad infinitum.

Slayer, for their part, did not disappoint in the least, and I’ll admit, they shattered my incredibly-high expectations. Araya and King, I mean, it’s their show, and they are well-seasoned veterans at this point, but never once in the least did their performances seem phoned in or by-the-numbers, which is honestly something I half-expect when large acts play more provincial markets. Bostaph has always been a monster drummer, and this is no mean feat when you’re replacing one of metaldom’s most beloved drummers of all-time. But his playing was especially inspired this night, or maybe it was just me, finally hearing in all their pounding glory the drum licks that shaped the way I learned to play drums myself. It all sounded so fucking good. And Gary Holt, satan bless him, more than held his own as foil to Kerry King, even if his guitar channel was noticeably quieter than King’s.

The set, two hours, was a perfect mix of old and new. A caveat: I couldn’t help it - I was so excited I cheated, and studied the band’s recent setlists, and made a playlist the week prior to the gig. But the unexpected fringe benefit of this was how much of a newfound appreciation this gave me for the latter-day material. I’ll admit, when Repentless came out in September 2015, I gave it a few cursory listens -out of respect-  but at the time, it didn’t really stick with me. And honestly, this is true of most Slayer records after Undisputed Attitude for me. While they always put out solid records, nothing will ever touch the Trilogy in my eyes.

So when “War Ensemble” showed up sixth in the set, you can bet I was ready. And I went off accordingly, wrecking my neck in the process, but who the fuck cares: A wrecked neck is how you know you did it right. Even still, the best was still to come, and come it did: “Mandatory Suicide”, “Dead Skin Mask” (“we’re gonna play our love song”, joked Araya), “Chemical Warfare” all set the place alight. These balanced perfectly against newer cuts like “Pride in Prejudice” and “Vices”, and the mosh pit on the floor was a perfect indication – the hammerheads in the pit never flagged, never waned.



I screamed, my face in a permanent rictus of gleeful wrath (or was that wrathful glee?), hands curled into devil horns, as I air-drummed along for satan, my throat at this point a scorched husk of itself but who cares?, still howling and growling and exercising all my pesky demons righteously. I looked over to my seatmate Mr. Page, and saw that same look in his own eyes – reckless, wild abandon. I looked across to Guz in the next section over, and there it was again - The Look. And the three of us in our rightful places worshiping at the altar of Slayer.
Anticipation, the stimulation, To kill the exhilaration,

I howled it again:
It was probably the thirty-seventh time at that point in the night, but it was still necessary.
It had never felt less necessary.

The rest of the set was pure black magic (no pun intended, though “Black Magic” was the penultimate song in the set) - there’s no other way for me to put it. Whenever I thought my forty-one-year-old, rapidly-middle-aging body would simply give up and slump to the ground, Slayer would play another warhorse-chestnut in the set, and somehow I would dig down deep and call up the energy to keep raging away.  

As the set wound down, “South of Heaven” tore my head off anew and it remains now and forever quite probably my favorite song in their canon. Slayer at their slow-handed, menacing best will always ring entirely more evil to me than any of the lightspeed songs in their catalog. Followed by the thunderous DUN-DUN-DUN of “Raining Blood”, Slayer kept up a furious, wild-hunt momentum right to the last song of the night, played in tribute to the fallen Jeff Hanneman (complete with Heineken/Hanneman backdrop) - their paean to Mengele’s atrocities, the mighty “Angel of Death”. It was as glorious live as it was the first time I heard it nearly thirty years ago, and the only ending to the night I could have imagined, or would have accepted. There was no encore, because there didn't need to be. It was the perfect ending.

The lights came up.
As Osegueda & Ian did before him, Araya stepped to the front of the stage and spoke to the crowd at the end, thanking us profusely for our time and welcome, and promising to be back again real soon. Penticton, their bloodlust sated for the time being, roared their thanks in unison.

Suddenly it was over. Three-thousand-odd satiated headbangers made their way out into the rain-soaked October Penticton night, Kerry King’s discordant solos ringing in our ears. I’m glad I waited to see them, because that show gave me a newfound appreciation for a band I have loved a very long time. This show now ranks in my all-time Top Five of gigs attended.


Slayer setlist:

Delusions of Saviour/Repentless
The Antichrist
Hate Worldwide
War Ensemble
When the Stillness Comes
You Against You
Mandatory Suicide
Fight Till Death
Dead Skin Mask
Chemical Warfare
Pride in Prejudice
Seasons in the Abyss
Hell Awaits
South of Heaven
Raining Blood
Black Magic
Angel of Death

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