Slayer, Gojira, 4ARM Bayou Music Center November 12, 2013
2013 is likely a year that Slayer will be glad to see laid to rest. In February, the band split with original drummer Dave Lombardo in an ugly dispute over money. Even worse, the band's militant rhythm guitarist/songwriter Jeff Hanneman died of alcohol-related liver failure in May.
In the wake of that tragedy, Slayer has emerged on the shakiest ground of its long career. While the band soldiers on, led by front man/bassist Tom Araya and lead guitarist Kerry King, its future appears very much uncertain. Lombardo is one of metal's best, most celebrated drummers, and Hanneman was simply essential to the band's sound, look and ethos. Whether the group can sustain continued interest into a fourth decade without those two remains to be seen.
Tuesday night's gig at Bayou Music Center was a chance for diehard local Slayer fans (are there any other kind?) to check in with the malevolent metal gods and see for themselves if the band's latest lineup is still worthy of the name.
Warming things up was 4ARM, the Australian thrash import that did little to hide the headliners' obvious influence on their steely attack last night. Indeed, Slayer's shadow looms so large over modern extreme metal that it must be fairly impossible to find a suitable tour opener who doesn't idolize them.
4ARM had the strobe lights blasting full-tilt right off the bat as they pummeled the early arrivals with a thunderstorm of double bass-drum rolls and whipping leads. If fans closed their eyes, they might've believed it was Tom Araya himself belting out the vocals on the new song "Dying Time," a shred-tastic stomper that drew many horns and shouts from the fans of classic thrash in the crowd.
Taking a decidedly more humanistic approach to the carnage was France's Gojira, who took the stage to the atmospheric sounds of ominous wind chimes. The heavy, stuttering riffs of "Oroborus" gave way to wailing, anguished death-metal guitar passages on "The Axe," sending hair flying.
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Gojira showed off effortless musical chops during their set, bending and twisting 4/4 time signatures into wincing new shapes with their over-the-bar phrasing. Cruel blast beats and angry hornet swarms of guitar turned songs like "The Heaviest Matter of the Universe" and "L'Enfant Sauvage" into heady onslaughts heightened by unremitting strobe lights and dope smoke.
If the tail end of 2013 finds Slayer as a band in transition, Gojira looked and sounded like a band in its prime, ready to help lead heavy metal into a new era of artsy extremity.
Then again, Slayer has never been knocked off so easily. The other acts on the bill were quickly forgotten as soon as the curtain dropped and four enormous, inverted crosses descended from the rafters to the evil strains of "Hell Awaits." The audience rumbled and quaked with excitement and adrenaline. It was the kind of epic metal moment that only the legends can provide.
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Araya, whose mobility onstage has been severely limited in recent years by back and neck issues, sported a wizened, white beard that reminded me of the Norse god Odin as he towered over fans. For the rest of the group, Slayer remains very much an athletic enterprise, with fingers, feet and foreheads moving with astonishing speed on classic cuts like "The Antichrist" and "Mandatory Suicide."
By the time the band ripped into the ultra-crucial "War Ensemble," it was clear that Slayer is still in top performing shape, no matter their recent tribulations. Araya's vocals still have bite, and King remains the same burly, head-bobbing shredder he's always been.
While guitarist Gary Holt and drummer Paul Bostaph will likely always be overshadowed by the contributions of their predecessors, they can certainly slay with the best of 'em. Holt offered up a terrific solo on the ancient ripper "Die By the Sword," and Bostaph was consistently mesmerizing in his efficient battery of the kit. By the time "Seasons in the Abyss" rolled around, everyone was too busy head-banging to fret over lineup changes.
The evil was ramped up to a fever pitch for the concert's closing suite, kicked off by the diabolical "Dead Skin Mask." The stage was bathed in hideous red light for "Raining Blood," the main set's finale, before a gigantic backdrop honoring Jeff Hanneman was unveiled for a couple of the late guitarist's best-loved tunes, "Angel of Death" and "South of Heaven." Great as those songs are, it was a sobering reminder of the hole that now rests at Slayer's center. With respect to Mr. Holt, there's simply no replacing Hanneman.
Maybe that's why it was so easy to read a certain finality into Araya's farewell Tuesday night: "Thanks so much for all the years." Here's hoping the band can figure it out and slay on for many more to come.
Personal Bias: SLAYERRRR!!
The Crowd: The kind of metal fans you avoid.
Overheard in the Crowd: "SLAYERRR!!"
Random Notebook Dump: Two different bootleg T-shirt vendors were peddling their wares outside Bayou Music Center after the show. Their accents betrayed them as out-of-towners. Talk about a throwback.
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