To say that Slayer have been through the mill over the last few years is something of an understatement. Original drummer Dave Lombardo left the band, supposedly over issues concerning the band’s financial affairs. Then, guitarist Jeff Hanneman contracted necrotizing fasciitis from a spider bite that apparently nearly led to amputation of his arm. Having almost recovered from this, Hanneman passed away from liver failure in 2013.
Repentless finds Slayer at the end of a prolonged period of unrest and doubt, with the two remaining original members apparently operating at different ends of the optimism spectrum. Kerry King remains bullish and driven about the band’s future, whilst Tom Araya seems to be apprehensive about what might happen next.
That’s all in the future. Right now there’s a new Slayer album, in itself something of a miracle considering the upheaval since World Painted Blood. The recruitment of Paul Bostaph to replace Lombardo is no surprise, as he played on four of their previous studio albums after joining during the ’90s. His presence here offers a little reassurance; after all, he’s filled the void left by Lombardo before and does so admirably once again. Filling Jeff Hanneman’s shoes is another matter altogether. It was Hanneman’s riffing, blending hardcore punk and metal, that gave Slayer their distinctive sound, whilst his discordant, fevered solos were utterly idiosyncratic. Gary Holt, who had filled in for Hanneman following the spider bite, is now a full time member and fits in well, but beyond some solo spots, his contribution is minimal. All of these songs – with the exception of Piano Wire – were written by King, and for the most part he shoulders the burden well.
Part of Slayer’s appeal is that they are practically impervious to trends. If you put on a Slayer album, any Slayer album, then you know what to expect. There have been no flirtations with the mainstream, no projects with orchestras and no late period conversions to Christianity. Admittedly, the band has struggled to match the sheer inventiveness and vim of their early albums (the run from Hell Awaits to Seasons In The Abyss is practically unmatched in any genre) but they’ve delivered each and every time. Repentless is a solid album, which might sound like damning with faint praise, but considering the shifts within the band it’s perhaps better than might have been expected. It’s not a facsimile, nor an attempt to write according to expectations but it does set down a marker that proves that Slayer are bigger than the sum of their parts. Perhaps the only problem is that at times it sounds like the band are playing it a little safe just to maintain that Slayer essence. When they settle into a midpaced chug such as on Cast The First Stone or the Slayer-by-numbers Take Contol, they sound too comfortable. There’s no mistaking the Slayer DNA, but at first it appears that a little of the spark has gone.
Things start to pick up with When The Stillness Comes. Essentially Slayer’s take on the murder ballad, it’s a slow burning and unsettling thrum that revisits the likes of Seasons In The Abyss and Dead Skin Mask. From here things start to open up a little. Implode continues to chug safely, but at least features some barbarous guitar solos and Araya screaming like his lungs are full of bleach. Piano Wire (written by Hanneman) is a nice inclusion as a salute to their fallen colleague but doesn’t really kick as hard as might have been hoped. Atrocity Vendor is perhaps a more fitting tribute, heartily embracing hardcore influences and speed; that it first appeared as a b-side for World Painted Blood is perhaps telling of the need for material. Its head down charge is utterly invigorating, and it is followed by another sledgehammer in the shape of You Against You, which alternates between blistering pace and anger and an occasional concession to groove. Pride In Prejudice closes the album, which grinds admirably but does little to impose itself.
Repentless does possess a few standout moments but, whilst Slayer’s return is welcome, there’s little here to suggest they’re ready to push on and dazzle their fans with something mindblowing. Perhaps when King lets go of the reins a little, allowing Holt to integrate fully and Slayer begin to operate as a band again, things will change. For now, and despite everything the band have gone through, it’s business as usual.