Live Report: Slayer @ Rockstar Mayhem Festival

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The world had turned upside down. Motörhead were opening for Slayer, who were opening for Slipknot – and I didn’t need earplugs. As three figures dotted a distant stage, “Ace of Spades” floated through the air, then dissipated halfway towards us. My friends and I stood on the lawn in back of the San Manuel Amphitheater in San Bernardino, California. We could comfortably hold a conversation, and that was wrong.

Even worse, it was daylight. The sights weren’t pretty. The Amphitheater afforded great views of the San Gabriel Mountains, but we were focused on our immediate 20-foot radius. At any point, any of these things could have entered it: drunks, brawlers, Korn t-shirts, impromptu mosh pits, projectile vomit, plastic trash fires (escalating in size, number, and acridity as night fell – you don’t know terror until you’re in the dark, surrounded by blazing fires and thousands of people singing along to Slipknot), males openly sporting Nazi insignia, children-with-sisters-or-mothers-one-couldn’t-tell-which. As Buzz Osborne of Melvins said about ZZ Top’s audience: “If you could stack up all the warrants that were due in the crowd… Jesus!”

Jesus was not in the house tonight. (If he had been, water would have been cheaper.) To drive home the point, a man in front of me wore a t-shirt that said, “Dios no está aquí” (“God is not here”). God probably gave up on this corner of creation.

Naturally, Slayer started with “Disciple”, whose refrain is “God hates us all”. Marshall cabs formed a backdrop of two large inverted crosses: clever. A friend of mine once referred to Slayer shows as the closest metalheads get to going to church. It’s true. Instead of “Amazing Grace” and “Holy, Holy, Holy”, the hymns are “Angel of Death” and “Piece by Piece”. Most everyone knows the first verse and fakes it through the rest. People dress up and convene, repeat words like mantras (“Jesus-uh”, “Slayerrrrrrrrr”), and pay for a performance of fire and brimstone. It’s like the Super Bowl for most: pick a side and enjoy the snacks.

I actually enjoyed no snacks or refreshments during Slayer. This was because my head was trying to rip itself out of my body. Low volume and grim setting be damned, Slayer tore it up like they still had something to prove. Live, Dave Lombardo and Kerry King have never disappointed me. Those guys can play. Even from a quarter mile away, you could feel Lombardo pushing and pulling songs. “War Ensemble” thundered like angry horses. “Dead Skin Mask” sounded the best I’ve ever heard it live – slow, deliberate, creepy. King was a precision saw, and Tom Araya hit most of his screams.

When I talk about these details, I probably sound like Deadheads arguing about which version of “Mississippi Half-Step” was better, Boston ‘73 or Santa Fe ‘82. Maybe you’ve been doing Bikram yoga for 10 years, the same 26 poses week in and week out – and goshdarnit, that April 3 class in 2007 really blew your mind. It’s all about the ritual. You do it regularly because you subscribe to the system. Whether that system is God, Satan, the Dead, Slayer, yoga, or Sunday football, you find meaning in in it. Usually it ranges from OK to good – otherwise you wouldn’t keep coming back – but every once in a while it’s better than sex, and you remember again why you signed up.

Surprisingly, the reason why San Bernardino ‘12 will stick with me was Gary Holt. The Exodus guitarist filled in for Jeff Hanneman, who almost singlehandedly ruined the last Slayer show I saw (Long Beach ‘10). Hanneman’s playing then was a sloppy mess. It left a bad taste in my mouth, and not just because Slayer tickets aren’t cheap. Slayer are supposed to be invulnerable live. You anticipate the show and obsess over the setlist because the payoff is so big: Slayer channel metal thunder. They don’t just look it or act like it. When the lights go down and the first note hits, a Slayer room changes chemistry. For a limited time – in this case, an all-too-brief hour – Slayer channel elemental forces and share them with us. We can forget daily life and touch the beyond. This might sound a bit mystical, but it’s true. If a Slayer show doesn’t make you feel bigger than you are, check your pulse.

Hanneman was sidelined by an arm injury this time, so Holt did his job: raising pulses. He nailed the rhythm parts, nailed the squiggly Slayer leads, and bounded around like he owned the stage. Funny thing was, he didn’t. He was playing songs that weren’t his, with a band that wasn’t his, to crowds much bigger than his. I wonder how that felt. If he had mixed feelings, it didn’t show. Holt was a true professional and delivered Slayer music. He was exactly what the music required.

Classical music privileges the composition over the performer. A great orchestra can elevate a composition to the sublime, but so can another orchestra in another century. The composition is a monument that performers temporarily borrow. Slayer aren’t of that tradition. They’re part of metal, and thus part of rock music, and thus part of whatever “popular music” is. In popular music, the performer is inextricably tied to the composition. No matter how good a Judas Priest tribute band is, you’ll always prefer the real thing, because it has Rob and Glenn and K.K. But for a moment this night, while watching Holt be Slayer, I wondered if Slayer were subject to the same rules. Must Slayer music die when Slayer hang it up? The recordings might live on, but the ritual doesn’t. The parking lot filled with shouts of “Slayer”, the timeless denim warriors, the change in state from fan observer to ritual participant – those will go away. I wish it weren’t so.

The harmonies of “Raining Blood” arced through the air and filled me with a charge. Involuntarily, I raised my arms, shook my fists at the sky, and cried, “FUCK YES”.

— Alan Smith
Photos by Julia Neuman

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