Seasons in the abyss

Outside Slayer’s dressing room, Cannibal Corpse’s twisted murder metal can be heard grinding out of the speakers from a few hundred meters away. It’s evening in Sacramento, California, on the first stop of the Mayhem Fest, which also features Marilyn Manson and 14 other metal and metal-inspired acts. Slayer guitarist Kerry King barges out of the dressing room. With a scowl, he mumbles to nobody in particular, “I’m gonna go out there and talk to people I don’t want to fucking talk to.” He lumbers away, disappearing around a corner. A minute later, the dressing-room door opens again. This time, it’s Tom Araya, the band’s singer and bassist, who emerges.

The wood paneling in the Slayer dressing room gives the room the feeling of a backwoods shack, or one of those Calvin Klein commercials in the ’90s that reeked of pedophilia. There’s only one dimmed lamp turned on, and the cavernous space, decked out with a nice television and wardrobe closet, is a little bit scary, like a waiting room to hell — except it’s cold. Nipple-stiffening cold.

But Araya seems to enjoy the sub-zero temperature and lack of light. And despite being only a couple of hours away from his performance in front of thousands of people, he looks calm and relaxed as he takes a seat on a giant, black leather couch. Araya’s wearing a deranged Mickey Mouse shirt, a peace symbol necklace, and long, graying hair in a loose pony tail. His trademark goatee, shaved to look like the hair of a billy goat, is almost white. It’s hard to imagine, but Slayer — hailed as one of the greatest metal bands of all time — is quickly approaching 30.

Araya talks about one of Slayer’s first legitimate tours, which was in 1986 (the same year Metallica bassist Cliff Burton died in a tour-bus accident). The band, promoting Reign in Blood, opened for W.A.S.P., the more popular band at the time. Instead of the huge arena Slayer expected Blackie Lawless and co. to fill, they ended up playing to modest crowds in smalltime venues. “We were in the same buildings that we already played,” Araya says.

But little did he know that big-time success (especially for a thrash-metal band) would be just around the corner. “We played the L.A. Sports Arena in 1990 when we did Seasons in the Abyss,” Araya recalls. “And it sold out — 15 thousand people. That was a first.”

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But it certainly wasn’t the last. Slayer would sell out many arenas in the years to come. “Sell out” is probably a poor choice of words, though, considering Slayer have managed to keep their hardcore fan base happy since 1981. Which is not to say the band has had no commercial or critical success. Slayer achieved a number eight spot on the Billboard chart for Divine Intervention, and won two Grammys for “Best Metal Performance.” However, Slayer fans — some of the most shirtlessly aggressive, tattooed, sweaty, and violent beings in the mosh pit, and perhaps on Earth — kept loyal to the band because Slayer stayed true to their straightforward formula, which was, and is, head-snapping speed, wickedly gory and satanic lyrics, bazooka-cannon double bass, and chaotically technical guitar solos.

“We have, like, a lot of loyal fans,” says Araya. “From the very first day on you start recognizing people in the audience. I’ll look at them, and they know that I recognize them … 30 years and they’re coming back, which is cool.”

And their new album, World Painted Blood, due “late summer of 2009,” is rumored to be just as furious and twisted as their previous albums. “It’s classic Slayer,” says Araya, with a certain boyish smile that offers a bit of insight into how (and why) he’s been fortunate enough to play heavy metal for such an extensive period of time.

He’s sober now, he says, and feeling healthy and happy. “After `touring` for so many years … I’ve gotten to the point where I kind of isolate myself. I’m either on the bus or I’m in the dressing room, not out mingling. I don’t socialize. I don’t want to see people. Everybody wants to hang out and party, and I just don’t do that anymore,” he says, leaning forward on the couch, smiling. It’s obvious that Araya is content — even in a dressing room with a temperature that could keep raw fish fresh for days.

A knock on the door interrupts the interview. It’s the tour manager checking in. Araya wants to know where his wife and two kids are. “They were following me, and I don’t know why they didn’t come in here,” he says. “Tell them to come in.”

“They said it’s too cold in there,” says the manager.

“Yeah, it is kind of chilly in here,” says Araya, shrugging his shoulders in defeat.

Shortly after the interview, Slayer takes to the stage. Fans are visibly weary from a full day of metal and beer. Behemoth, Black Dahlia Murder, and Killswitch Engage all played terrific sets. And now it’s Slayer’s turn. The curtain drops, pentagrams flash at the back of the stage, and Araya, with no introduction, growls his way through a set list with virtually no banter between songs — just a blistering metal onslaught. When Jeff Hanneman’s wailing opening riff to “South of Heaven” slashes through the speakers, Dave Lombardo’s drums ring out like the first shots of war. And the mosh pit, as it has for the past 30 years at Slayer shows across the world, once again becomes a cyclone of tattoos, bad breath, swinging flesh, danger, and a shitload of blood.

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