Sunday, 8 November 2015

Slayer's 'Repentless' - Album Review

No band defines the thrash metal genre quite like Slayer. As a member of the famed 'Big 4 of Thrash', Slayer kept things heavy during the 1980s when hair metal and new wave were filling the airwaves. Their 1986 release Reign in Blood is arguably the greatest and most important thrash album of all time; and it is certainly a yard stick when evaluating other thrash releases. Out of all the members of the Big 4, Slayer are the band that have stuck closest to their formula and sound over the years. Slayer albums are instantly recognisable from the outset, and the band have never tried to chase trends like some of their contemporaries. Repentless, the band's twelfth studio album, has been some time coming. The band's last album, World Painted Blood, came in 2009 and the band have been touring relentlessly ever since. Repentless is also key in the respect that it is the first album without founding guitarist and songwriter Jeff Hanneman who sadly died in 2013 after a long illness. Hanneman was key to the band's early success, writing many of their most well known songs and helping to form the band's dual guitar attack with Kerry King. Over the years however, King has come to dominate the band's songwriting and has become the focal point of the band. On Repentless, King has written the vast majority of the material single-handedly. One song, Piano Wire, was written by Hanneman before his death; but the rest is all down to King. I suspect the tragic events leading up to this album has actually working in King's favour, as he now has total control of Slayer's sound and songwriting - something you felt he always wanted. Filling the void left by Hanneman is Gary Holt (Exodus), a thrash legend in his own right. Exodus' 1985 album Bonded by Blood is another album often cited as the most important thrash album ever, so there are few better people that could step into Hanneman's big shoes. His contributions to Repentless are unfortunately limited to a few solos scattered throughout the album, as King handles all of the album's rhythm guitars and the vast majority of the leads and solos. It would have been interesting to see what Holt could have brought to the table, but it was clear from quite early in this process that King was not going to let that happen. Drummer Paul Bostaph (Forbidden; Testament; Exodus) has returned to the band following the third departure of founding member Dave Lombardo. His last Slayer album was 2001's God Hates Us All. This is also the first album since 1985's Hell Awaits to not involve Rick Rubin in some way. The band have also moved from his record label to modern metal giants Nuclear Blast. Repentless is instead produced by Terry Date, who in the past has produced Pantera and Korn among others.

After the doomy instrumental opening Delusions of Saviour, which helps to build tension and expectations for the album; we get underway properly with the furious title track. Repentless is classic Slayer, and from the opening riff you know exactly what you are going to get. The song is then built around a slow-changing chord sequence that sits on top of a schizophrenic drum beat from Bostaph. One thing that is clear is how good Tom Araya's vocals have held up, at least on record. As he bellows the song's angsty lyrics, you realise how key his vocals are to the thrash legend's signature sound. A guitar duel between King and Holt sets the song alight midway through, before the song's main riff returns to see things to an abrupt end. Take Control has a really interesting guitar riff, and one that is possibly one of the most catchy in the band's history. After the furious speed of the previous song, this one aims to change things up a bit by mixing fast and mid-paced sections together for a good contrast. In some respects, the slower sections are actually heavier as the big ringing distorted guitar chords just fill the speakers. King's crazy solo injects some speed back into proceedings, before the song's catchy riff returns once more. Vices has a grinding riff that comes right out of the extreme metal handbook, that sits above a slightly awkward drum pattern than only helps to accentuate the song's creepy feeling. The song's chorus is fairly anthemic, and catchy for a Slayer song which is a nice change from the usual barrage of vocal lines. The song evens out in the middle with a classic heavy metal-type riff before King and Holt again show their guitar skills off. Holt's contribution is a tortured effort that has all the hallmarks of the classic Slayer sound. Cast the First Stone has a very low-fi sound that works in the song's favour. There is quite a hollow, echoey sound during the song's intro which sees Bostaph's drums booming over the droning guitars. This is quite a mid-paced song that with downtuned, palm muted guitar patterns and drumming that is heavy on the cymbals which helps to give that abrasive sound. Songs like this prove that Slayer are not just on trick ponies, and do not always need to rely on speed to make memorable songs. When the Stillness Comes opens with some creepy clean guitar melodies that soon morphs into a really dirty, slow riff that has something about early Black Sabbath about it, along with the sound of doom bands like Paradise Lost. Araya's bass guitar is very prominent throughout the song's verses and helps the dark sound of the song by adding some great low notes. His vocal howls during the choruses are great too, and help the song to stand out from the rest. Slower songs can sometimes be the heaviest, and this is one that really stands out on the album.

Chasing Death picks up the pace a little somewhat from the last track. It is not a fast thrasher however, but features a great driving riff that is perfect for Araya to sing over. This is a perfect headbangers' song though, and the rhythms here are made for the live arena. King's solo here uses quite a lot of wah effects, which helps to cut through the dark rhythms and grinding bass. The mid-paced crunch continues in Implode which has some really dark-sounding riffing initially, but the speed soon returns with some tremolo picking and an upbeat drum pattern. The song's chorus does feel very similar to the album's title track however, which is very noticeable considering not much time has past between the two songs. That is only thing about this song that I wish was different. King's solos are great however, and show is strange shredding ability with a fast flurry of notes. Piano Wire, Hanneman's final Slayer contribution, is very similar to the rest of the material found on this album. Some great ringing guitar parts help it to stand out however, and another reasonably catchy chorus helps to make the song memorable. King has a slightly extended solo here which is probably the best part of the song. Atrocity Vendor is actually a re-recording of a bonus track that featured on certain versions of World Painted Blood. I am not quite sure why the band decided to include a new version of this on Repentless, but I suppose as it was only a bonus track there will be quite a few people who have not heard it before. It is a good song though, and has that classic Slayer speed to it. After a few more mid-paced numbers, it is good to have a song that is just out and out speed. You Against You returns to the mid-paced style that dominates the album for the song's first verse, but a Holt solo soon ensures the pace is raised. This is his best solo on the album, and shows exactly what he will bring to Slayer going forward. Araya's vocal performance also stands out on this song for me. He has always had this knack for being able to sing fast and still make the lyrics audible and clear - many would just descend into an intelligible mess! For me, this is one of the album's standout tracks. The mix of fast sections with the mid-paced intro; Araya's vocals; and the excellent lead guitar of both King and Holt showcase the best of the modern Slayer line-up. The album's final song Pride in Prejudice is another slower, grinding track that again uses a slightly low-fi sound to stand out. Bostaph's hi-hat work rings out, cutting through the guitars, and really makes the song sound heavy. It is not the album's best track, but it does work well as a closing number because of the slightly lumbering quality of the riffs that drags the album to a close. Overall, Repentless is a really good album from the thrash metal legends. While nothing has really changed when it comes to the band's sound, it is good to see a veteran band releasing an album that contains so much energy and conviction - it sounds like Slayer really mean it on this album, and that is always a good thing!

The album was released on 11th September 2015 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Repentless.

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