It would be difficult to listen to Slayer’s latest album, Repentless, impartially. It’s no secret that the release follows perhaps the toughest time faced by the band in their decades long career, and for some – including the band themselves – it may be surprising that this record even came to fruition. Slayer fans were rocked by the news that founder and legendary guitarist Jeff Hanneman had passed away in 2013. Followed swiftly by an announcement that drummer Dave Lombardo had quit the band, citing concerns around contracts and payment. Slayer called on previous drummer Paul Bostaph to take his place, and while Lombardo is definitely hard to replace, Bostaph stepped up.
Replacing Hanneman however is barely even a question. Bringing punk and hardcore influences in his writing and style, he arguably was ‘Slayer’ – giving them the speed and aggression, spawning thrash metal and ultimately extreme and death metal. Remaining members, bassist/vocalist Tom Araya and guitarist Kerry King, were understandably unsure as to whether Slayer could even continue without Hanneman’s driving force.
There is definitely a caution to Repentless, and Slayer have remained very much within the confines of their recognisable style. The album feels like both a testing of the waters for Slayer without Hanneman, and also a decisive move to battle on regardless. Repentless lurches onwards with the speed and acceleration that is so synonymous with Slayer and their 1986 triumph Reign In Blood. Opening with the looming Delusions Of Saviour, they set the precedent for a band who still know exactly who they are. Launching into the title track, Repentless defies any doubt that Slayer will be taking a different road. Bostaph steps up with precise but battering drumming and lyrics spit disdain, speed and aggression from the start; “Arrogance, violence, world in disarray / Dealing with insanity every fuckin’ day”.
King should not be underestimated in a guitarist in his own right, but what is missing from Repentless as an album is the double guitar attack that comes from two different players. Exodus’ Gary Holt contributes a few solos to the album, the racing Take Control in particular throws out a good effort from him. But for the most part King is juggling both sides, bringing less of the chaos that came from his duelling with Hanneman.
Solid tracks like Vices feel like familiar ground for Slayer, not re-worn territory but immutable and grounded. Cast the First Stone has more excitement about it with a menacing riff, a speed that isn’t quite as flat to the floor and lends itself to Araya’s vocal and a satisfyingly metallic guitar solo. Slayer possibly made the best decision to keep Repentless from being a homage to Hanneman. Involved at the initial conception of the album, his touch is still there (whether by his hand or not) in the punked up Atrocity Vendor, which has more of the tumultuous style of Diabolus In Musica. Also featuring material by Hanneman, Piano Wire sits comfortably in the track listing and serves to prove that Araya and King can continue as Slayer – at least for now. With one unsung dedication to Hanneman, Chasing Death is unfortunately not one of the stand out tracks on the album. Especially following on from the slower When the Stillness Comes; despite being the godfathers of thrash Slayer bring an expert intensity and menace to this one.
It’s hard to fault Repentless and the album needs no excusing. It may not be the crowning glory from such a legendary band, but even as such Slayer still sit confidently on their throne with its release. Only time will tell whether that confidence carries them forward still, or whether this will be the last stand from the force that is Slayer.