Slayer at the Theater at Madison Square Garden
Slayer’s “Old School” Set, New York, NY
The Theater at Madison Square Garden, November 27, 2014
Ed. note- So here’s the long awaited Part 2 of my Slayer Old School set review. (Read Part 1 here) I know this took about a season in the abyss for me to get done, but I realized a Slayer concert is like the best sex. And no, I don’t mean that because there’s a thousand sweaty dudes with long hair crammed around you while a crazed, bearded guy in his 50s screams about how Hell awaits you. I’ll leave you with this thought as you begin to read: People have it wrong. Slayer doesn’t serve Satan. Satan serves SLAYER.- P.F.
Part 2: Sporting the War, and Surviving
The opening strains of “Hell Awaits” boomed out across the crowd, that angry energy picked up by the second, the crowd started to press in, sweaty flesh crushing in on heaps of more sweaty flesh. The lights dimmed. The curtain dropped.
And then the whole place broke into pandemonium.
Before I had time to realize how, I was now the first person at the feet of Tom Araya, clutching the security rail for dear life. The crowd had swelled forward and in on me from all sides, and I knew if I lost my grip, I was going to die. The rising survival instinct within me met with unparalleled euphoria as Araya plucked out the thudding strains of “Hell Awaits.” As I tore out my ear plugs, glee and fright smashed into one another inside me as they would for the next hour and a half. This concert turned out to be one of the hectic, furious highs of my entire life.
And it was an insane ride through Hell, as every Slayer concert is. As I looked up at speed metal’s god, I was astounded at how much more breakneck speed “Hell Awaits” accelerates at when Tom Araya is singing it right to me. Older bands such as Iron Maiden tend to lay off the gas pedal as they reach old age, but Slayer presses the foot down harder and angrier by the year. I’ve seen Slayer open with four different songs, but “Hell Awaits” is by far their best starter, because it set the stage. Rushing into a Slayer concert is a welcome invitation through the gates of Hell, even if I started out at the wrong gate.
As the band burst into a pulsating, angry shot of “The Antichrist” and “Necrophiliac,” I realized just how excruciatingly vicious the Old School set was. Araya tore ferociously through lyrics about the pits of Hell, the evils of Satan and the deadly consequences of sex with a corpse. Speed demon Kerry King blazed away through solos and rhythm sections, and Gary Holt matched him with a dark beauty. He’ll never be Jeff Hanneman, but I can’t imagine a better second guitarist. All the while, Paul Bostaph mashed the drums, driving the band forward as he embellished on Dave Lombardo’s beats. The reconfigured lineup pounded along Hellaciously, and were brutal to sweet perfection.
The chaos pushed on with few breaks, and two of them were because Araya got pissed off. The first, he made fun of some dude who was slamdancing on ladies far to my left. I take it that guy’s blood froze right before his body splattered in a spontaneous explosion right after the show, rats devouring his bloody remains. Prior to the second, I saw Araya pointing out parts of the stage to MSG security, clearly pissed off at them. Before the next song, he blasted them for throwing out crowd surfers instead of expelling them back into the crowd. Earlier, he had thanked MSG for inviting Slayer back after 25 years, but that all went sour a few songs later. As a singer, Araya is one nasty fuck. But as a man, he cares for the fans and the money they spent to support him and the band. I cheered him on, as others in the crowd proudly screamed, “Beat up the security! Kill the guards!” I am so glad that didn’t happen, given that fans tore apart the hall and flung seats last time Slayer played here; and that Slayer fans would likely have torn the security guards to pieces, had Tom encouraged them to. Araya shrugged it off, and the set went on.
The set itself was the favorite of the four I’ve seen live. Slayer introduced me to bloody classics such as the vampires from Hell in “At Dawn They Sleep” to the aggressive takes on the flip sides of religion in “Altar of Sacrifice” and “Jesus Saves,” from their brutal classic and Hell of Fame entry Reign in Blood, pound for pound the heaviest speed metal album ever recorded. I’d never seen them perform any of these, as well as a good portion of the rest of the set, so this was awesome. The songs I had seen before and counted on being in the set were all there in their angry, beautiful glory: Araya screaming, “ARE YOU READY FOR WAR?” to open “War Ensemble;” the lead singer speaking out the chorus before thrusting into “Dead Skin Mask;” the triple drum beats and screeching guitars that ushered in “Raining Blood.” Each whipped the crowd into a frenzy. As long as I kept clutching the rail, I would survive, even with the masses doing their best to tear loose my grip and fling me into the swirling behind me.
I wasn’t the only one clutching for dear life. A cute, skinny little woman clutched me for most of the show. She was the only thing diverting my attention from Araya, and I got to know quite a bit about her as the show went on. She asked a few times if I could let her in on the rail, but as the crowd was crammed tighter to me than my jean shorts, I couldn’t. Eventually, as the band took breath between songs, I let her in. There she stood, next to the slinky little girlfriend of the guy next to me, with me shielding both of them. It’s funny that even at a Slayer show, when the world is decaying around me in a swell of brutality, I can still be a gentleman. After a few songs, she snuck back out and I was again front and center. I enjoyed that I could make this human connection, and that her much-smaller-than-me husband asked me not to hurt him, when I thought he would’ve wanted to do the same to me, given his wife was clinging to my arm. My sister explained to me the next day on our way to Thanksgiving dinner at Aunt Diana’s house that it’s not abnormal for a woman at a metal show to find a big, strong male to act as her protector. My only regret is that I didn’t get to join them for a drink after the show, as she suggested to her husband. If you happen to be that woman, by all means please email me, as you were a great part of a great experience.
All brutal, evil thing, to put a spin on a cliché, must come to an end, and as the pre-recorded strains of “South of Heaven” led into the final two songs of the night, I knew the show was nearing its close. As the fallen Jeff Hanneman was surely on everyone’s mind, fitting that a banner with the guitarist’s spin on the Heineken logo swept down, emblazoned with the phrase “STILL REIGNING.” “South of Heaven” is a tour de force about the insanity that happens down here on Earth as God looks on above, and it acted as a reminder of just how senseless Hanneman’s death had been. There was one more reminder of Hanneman that would end the show on a vicious high note, his thrash masterpiece “Angel of Death.” Slayer closes almost every show with the sickening savagery of Josef Mengele, and here it was the most fitting tribute to Jeff Hanneman as I knew him, speed metal god. About 4 minutes later, the song complete, the show was over. The madness came to an abrupt halt as King threw picks out to the sweaty mob and Bostaph hurled drumsticks. We huddled out into the rainy streets of NYC, my body beaten and bruised, full of painful euphoria.
And that’s the frustration in writing a review of a Slayer show. It’s like the best sex. It’s all about being in the moment, body, mind and soul. And a few hours after the adrenaline wears off, it’s impossible to capture the feeling without going through it again. I can watch all the songs on Youtube; I can feel the crowd pressing in, the girl’s hand clinging to my arm. But as talented as I am with words, I can never really describe the clash of dread and ecstasy that is a Slayer show. All I can say about this show is, I’ve never seen Slayer better. That’s probably a mix of my feelings about honoring Hanneman after death, standing right in front of Tom Araya, and a bunch of songs that are 30 years old to Slayer fans, but were brand new to me live. The highest compliment I can give is that I can’t wait to put my body and soul through it again. I just hope it doesn’t take another 3 years. There’s something to be said about the greatness of Old School.