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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Slayer Mastermind Kerry King

It's true: Slayer is a musical force of nature. People who dismiss them as “a metal band” are missing the point of a musical power that is daunting when witnessed in person. Precision and talent, craft and endurance: these are hallmarks that characterize the music of Slayer, raising them to a singular level.

You can be forgiven for watching recent video interviews with the voice of Slayer, bassist Tom Araya, and coming to a surprising conclusion: “He seems like a really nice guy.” But the black soul of Slayer is guitarist Kerry King: scowling, wrapped in chains with spikes protruding from his imposing build, shaved head pitched with broad swathes of black tattoo ink. King lords over the stage of Slayer with each performance, plugged in to the aural overload, rarely pausing to survey the chaos playing out in the pit at his feet. He is consumed by a singular purpose – to ensure that Slayer is never anything less than a precise, frightening, and stunning sonic maelstrom.

One of my favorite works by this greatest of metal bands is Diabolus In Musica, and I had an opportunity to talk with Kerry King upon the release of this recording as the new millennium neared...

Kerry King surveys Slayer mayhem, 2009.

Even members of Slayer get phone calls at awkward times. When Kerry King, guitarist for the mightiest of metal bands, is phoned and asked how he’s doing on the morning of Slayer’s 1998 American tour kickoff, King replies that his head still bears shaving cream from a pre-tour shaving touch-up. But King is not one to let grooming get in the way of talking about Diabolus In Musica (American Recordings), Slayer’s latest testimony to the power and glory of unrelenting heavy metal.

From the opening seconds of the dramatic “Bitter Peace,” it’s clear that Slayer’s latest not only retains the fury characteristic of the band’s catalog but also introduces a new element of sophistication in the song construction and performances. Slayer sophisticated? Those who dismiss the band’s music as Neanderthal pounding might be surprised at what they’d discover if they actually listened to Slayer.

The process of recording a Slayer opus comes after months of intense rehearsal. By the time the band occupies the recording studio, the battle plans are well laid out.

Kerry King in the studio. Many of Slayer's most harmonically-complex compositions are the work of King.

Musically, it is 99% done,” King explains. “Sometimes we’re lagging on the lyrics, but musically we’re 9/10ths of the way there. The only thing that might change is if we get a cool lyric idea that might call for altering the riff.”

With Diabolus in Musica safely recorded and in the stores, King is anxious to hit the road. Intricate riffs – hurtling back and forth between King and co-guitarist Jeff Hanneman – are a hallmark of the Slayer live sound. Launching these complex communiqués over the rumbling foundation built by bassist Tom Araya and drummer Paul Bostaph requires intensity and concentration.

I think this is one of the coolest things you can do musically, because you have to be on it for the entire show,” King notes. “From my perspective, as a guitarist, your average rock act only has to be on it come lead time. If you’ve got a lead coming, ‘Well, I’ve got to be on it right here.’ But in a sense, some of our songs are pretty much entirely lead-like.”

Aside from the musical merits of Slayer, the aura that surrounds the band has spooked parents since their inception “at the dawn of time,” as King jokes.

In the beginning we were just the bad guys, more or less, and I think that just stuck with us over the years.”

Though Diabolus in Musica song titles like “Death’s Head” and “Perversions of Pain” betray no softening of Slayer’s attitude, new competition has arrived. Now acts like Marilyn Manson occupy the nightmares of parents who seem to have forgotten that Alice Cooper played the same shtick two decades before.

I think parents are going to be more worried about him than us when we’re on tour, because we don’t change the way their children look,” King speculates. “He inspires kids so much they want to emulate him. And we’ve never really done that – we’ve just been part of a genre where it’s about the music. I’ve got a bald head, the singer’s got long hair – nobody ever wants to come out and just look like us, like they do him. So I think that’s why he gets so much more flak than we do.”

One of the first bands to rouse parental ire was Black Sabbath, and Slayer has joined the lineup of Sabbath vocalist Ozzy Osbourne’s hugely successful Ozzfest. King feels that Ozzfest’s congregation of hard music fans creates new opportunities for his band to present their music – especially for people who might find a typical Slayer gig a bit too intimidating.

Kerry King, bringing the Australian masses around to Slayer's way of thinking, February, 2011.
Photo: Andrew Stuart/

Oh yeah, any big festival like that would help,” says King. “When you’re playing to giant masses like that, they might have always secretly wanted to go check out Slayer, but they never could. When Ozzy’s on the bill, or somebody more tame, they get the opportunity.”

King feels that bringing new fans under Slayer’s influence through high-profile shows like Ozzfest would be a positive development.

I’m happy with my success, but for me the goal would be to get to another level,” King admits. “I mean, we’ve been here forever, I’ve played everywhere I want to play. So if there is any goal for me to have, it would be maybe to get a platinum record instead of a gold record. But if I don’t get it, I’m not going to dwell on it.”

Regardless of whether the ranks of Slayer followers swell in the years to come, for King the sonic impact of his band remains his primary focus. And though Diabolus in Musica offers further proof that Slayer is one of the most inventive of metal bands, King feels that there are greater discoveries ahead for his band.

Personally, if I wasn’t in Slayer and I wasn’t playing this kind of music, this is still what I’d be listening to. It’s the kind of stuff that I really like. I think there are all sorts of opportunities that I haven’t even touched yet in this stuff.”

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