There is no reason for Repentless to be any good. None. All the odds against Slayer could fill this entire review. And, for most bands, just one of the challenges Slayer faced making this album would be enough to crush any momentum or creative energy at all. Yet this may be their defining moment.
Brutal, merciless and pugnacious, Repentless is an unexpected auditory assault and a fortuitous surprise. Imagine, if you will, finding a missing Slayer album, a recording lost to time. Repentless single-handedly may revive a genre once feared lost and dead.
But Repentless is more than an homage or throwback. It's thrash redefined, upgraded and reborn. The songs sound as if they were written by a much younger Slayer. Co-written by Kerry King and Tom Araya, Repentless is a return to the essence of who Slayer is.
In that proverbial deck stacked against the band are a full range of paralyzing setbacks. Firstly, Slayer have been together 35 years. Imagine working with the same damn people for that long; how much creative collaboration after all those years can one muster? The exhaustion of ideas is a real threat. We’ve all seen good bands go down in flames, unaware that their musical gifts had long been expired.
Secondly, Repentless is their 11th studio album. Is a great album still possible after ten? Metallica lost it after the fifth (or sixth, depending on who you’d like to scream at on the Internet).
Thirdly, Slayer have joined Nuclear Blast record label after 20 years with American Recordings. No longer working with the famed Rick Rubin, Slayer drafted Terry Date, known for his work with Pantera and Soundgarden. Sometimes a change of producers, no matter how inspiring, can change a band’s signature sound to something unrecognizable. Or worse, they might embrace a tangent so unfamiliar the album becomes an odd chapter in an otherwise successful narrative. Call that a St. Anger novella, an embarrassing failed experiment that is the misstep of so many albums by older bands.
Fourthly, drummer Dave Lombardo’s departure (once again) is another ill-timed interference. Such a disruption in personnel makes fans nervous. Will the sound change? Will it suck? Why, God, WHY?
Lastly is the tragic passing of guitarist Jeff Hanneman, one of the main authors of some of Slayer's greatest songs. Add to that the changing face of metal and a thrash scene that is well, not making anything new or at least in this century entirely worthwhile. The frustration is enormous.
For all the reasons this album should be a great miscarriage of talent, but its not. In fact, it’s one of their best. From opener “Delusions of Saviour,” an instrumental with a haunting melody, the music marches ferociously end to end. Then it does something surprising — reappears, sped up, in the title track. That’s right, the melody resurrects itself (ironic pun intended) from one song to the next, switching from a marching beat to full-on punk/thrash rhythm.
The dozen songs on Repentless stretch from punk to hardcore to thrash, some all within the same track. Easily one of the most impressive is “Vices" — say what you will about former drummer Dave Lombardo’s contribution to the band, at this point it doesn’t even matter. Paul Bostaph, who played with Slayer from 1992-2002, is a beast. Within “Vices” alone, his drum work is so intricate and creative it took several listens to fathom all the nuances of his talent. The album speaks to his diversity as a drummer and his skills as a musician.
Perhaps the power of force comes from the collaborative vigor of additions altogether familiar. Besides Bostaph's return, Gary Holt of Exodus moving in as a permanent fixture, the renewed vitality is evident. The band is pushing the genre, expanding their sound, and improving their craft.
If any band was going to pull such an impressive feat as writing Repentless, it would have to be Slayer. Even the Smithsonian agrees. Recently spotlighted in the Institute’s National Museum of Natural History, Slayer is the voice of thrash — for once, academia gets it correct.
Repentless is undeniably doing something right. Songs like, “Take Control” and “Chasing Death” feel exactly as if they came off Slayer albums from the '80s. In signature fashion, lead singer, Tom Araya’s barabarous and ripping screams tear across the songs. Another standout on the album is “Take Control,” with gives the sensation of an old punk anthem, with deeper drums and an altogether aggressive feel.
“When the Stillness Comes” opens with almost whispered vocals (pianissimo) and a persistent yet foreboding guitar-and-cymbal intro. “Atrocity Vendor” and “You Against You” pulse through time changes, guitar riffs and shouted lyrics like, “Death forever REIGNS." Throughout, Slayer employs standard-issue thrash technique without sounding tired or repetitive.
Predatorial and fierce, this album may revive thrash into a viable genre again. Even the cover art is striking. Boldly defiant, openly blasphemous, Slayer is unapologetically embracing the identity of their roots. A decaying Christ figure with bleeding black eyes is surely going to offend those unfamiliar with Slayer's anti-religious views.
Artist Marcelo Vasco, who has worked with other Nuclear Blast musicians on cover art, was clearly returning to some of the original covers of the '80s. It's a welcome move after the near-absence of art on God Hates Us All and Diabolus In Musica. The cover is reminiscent of some of Slayer's greatest albums, like South of Heaven, Hell Awaits and Reign In Blood. The powerful presence of cover art can’t be denied. It’s a statement piece just as strong as the music itself, and sets the thematic tone for the entire collection.
Perhaps what makes the Repentless cover so audacious is its depiction of Christ, centrally placed as a celebratory dying figure. This is no cartoonish mockery like Christ Illusion; this is a preemptive religious strike, a direct hit on anyone remotely affiliated with Christianity. It's that unashamed attitude that rings through the entire album. There is no drag in intensity; the energy never fails, never slows. Slayer's latest is a cold-cock punch to the face.
In every way, Repentless moves forward. Musically, stylistically and artistically, it pushes thrash back to the center of metal where it belongs. Whether it stays there is up to the remaining Big Three.
Are you listening, Anthrax, Megadeth and Metallica? Because you should be.
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Kristy Loye is a writer living in Houston and has been writing for the Houston Press since July 2015. A recent Rice University graduate, when not teaching writing craft or reciting poetry, she's upsetting alt-rights on Reddit.