Way back in the early ’80s, British bands like Motorhead and Venom infused a new spirit into the then decaying, spandex-clad corpse of metal music. Taking a hint from their English cousins, a few American outfits began forging a new sound, mixing metal licks with the speed, anger, and intensity of hardcore punk. Speed metal was born.
An unholy triumvirate of stateside bands came to the fore. Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer became the three that set the standard for a new generation of headbangers.
As fate would have it, the hard edge of the speed metal greats began to erode. Metallica became radio stars and Megadeth attempted to do the same, instead evolving into something similar to Aldo Nova. Only Slayer stayed true to their metal roots.
Though the band may not have had as many sales as their comrades from the early ’80s, Slayer has acquired a legion of die-hard fans that continues to grow. When all is said and done, Slayer will end up being the most influential band of the speed-metal era.
Throughout its 18-year history, Slayer has stayed hard. Lead vocalist/bass player Tom Araya says the band’s harsh viewpoint is not a pose, but that there are other facets to his personality when he’s not performing his duties with the group.
“In the past years I’ve learned to separate my personality, kind of like turning a faucet on and off,” Araya says. “I tend to separate my private self from what Tom Araya of Slayer does. Everyone can do that. It’s like a light switch where, when I turn the Slayer switch on, I can focus and know what it is that I want to say through the band.
“All I know is that what I say in a song is what I feel, and different people can have their own perception of it,” he says. “The only thing I can say to people who are critical of us is that God gave man free will, and with free will comes responsibility. So I don’t feel responsible if people take our lyrics too seriously. If you choose to do things that you know are wrong, then you should take responsibility for your actions.
“When we started, we wanted to be as extreme as possible. At the beginning of the band, we were up against a bunch of pretty boys—guys who were obviously a lot better looking than we’d ever be, so we tried to distance ourselves from that kind of thing. We tried to be ugly, not pretty. And that included an ugly outlook. People are fascinated by the dark side of things.
“I like to think of the band as being artists.” Araya continues. “Our art is this music, and this music comes from the heart. If someone else has the wrong interpretation of a song, that’s their problem. Our songs are like stories and observations that we share with other people. I never once said I was a god and I don’t want people to take my word as law.”
In conversation, Araya is much different than one would expect. Polite and articulate, he chooses his words carefully. Another surprise is that despite the violent and sometimes Satanic themes of Slayer’s music, Araya has a spiritual and philosophical side, claiming a sincere belief in fate and in a higher power.
“I do believe in God, and he is the one that has allowed me to do what I do,” says Araya. “If God didn’t allow me to do this, I wouldn’t be here. There’s a reason we’re here, just like there’s a reason for everything else.
“I think there is a reason why we’re doing what we’re doing. We’re part of a bigger picture. I don’t know exactly what that bigger picture is, but I think we’re part of it.”
Even though the band is often shunned by parents as being an inspiration for teenage problems, Araya sees the band’s influence as positive. “The band serves the purpose as being an outlet for the kids who like us. Our shows are an outlet for kids to come and go just completely nuts for an hour and a half. And when that hour and a half is over, there is release. There is almost serenity at the end of the shows, believe it or not.
“Everybody walks away from the shows happy, and it lasts for a few days even,” adds Araya, laughing. “I sing and play this music for a living, and I know how much peace I find after a performance. I think it’s very therapeutic to be in a mosh pit. You’re not only getting beat up, but you’re beating everybody else up too. If the kids are singing along with the music, they’re screaming as loud as they possibly can. Letting all your aggressions out is a very positive thing, and I see the band as being a conduit for that release.”
Almost two decades of hard work has paid off well for the band, earning them several gold albums and even grudging respect from music critics. Araya says that though the band does not write songs specifically aimed at pop success, he thinks it might still be possible for the band to achieve mainstream acceptance without compromising their original vision.
“The direction we chose is to stay true to what we do best. We’re not making a conscious effort to appeal to a mass audience. We are making a conscious effort to write good songs and make every song count on an album.
“We’re gonna write songs that we like because we’re fans of Slayer ourselves,” Araya continues. “We know that if we like it, then our core audience will like it too. It would be great if we did have a hit single. We thought 'Stain of Mind' (off the band’s latest album, Diabolus in Musica) might make a hit, but no nationwide radio stations picked up on it.
“Everything takes its course, and I think the band has still got a little more distance to go. We came this far, and maybe if we take it just a bit further, there’s a chance that we’ll finally be accepted. Maybe you just might see us on the Grammys one day. Fat chance, right?”