Graded on a Curve: Slayer,
Divine Intervention

You’ve got to love a band that has been accused of Nazism, Satanism, Christian-baiting, glorifying serial killers, and advocating Jihad, not to mention poking blind orphans with sharpened sticks. Personally I don’t think they’re guilty of any of these accusations, except the last named, which has been thoroughly documented. But as one of the blind orphans told CNN, “We really rather enjoyed being poked with sharpened sticks. And they were careful to avoid our genitals.”

I’m talking, of course, about Slayer, Huntington Beach, California’s finest contribution to haute rock couture since The Vandals of “Power Mustache” and Live Fast, Diarrhea fame. If there’s one thing I love in this life it’s a great guitar solo, and listening to the mesmerizing solos of Jeff Hanneman—who tragically passed away in May 2013 at age 49 as a result of alcohol-related cirrhosis of the liver—and Kerry King I feel like I’ve died and gone to Hell (Heaven doesn’t allow guitar solos, just massed harps playing easy listening renditions of David Coverdale songs.)

Since Slayer’s 1981 formation, the multiple-Grammy-winning (which I try not to hold against them) thrash metal band has released 11 studio LPs including 1996’s Undisputed Attitude, an album of hardcore covers which is great even if it does include Minor Threat’s very iffy “Guilty of Being White,” which I find offensive although Ian MacKaye’s no more of a racist than Slayer are a bunch of Nazi lovers. Slayer has also released two live albums, two EPs, and two boxed sets, not to mention a collaborative EP with The Captain and Tennille, Muskrat Love Torture and Death.

Anyhoo, I am here today to speak of the utter brilliance and sublimely monstrous tones of Slayer’s sixth release, 1994’s Divine Intervention. It is not an album; it is a lightning strike straight to the solar plexus, and I am personally willing to gird my loins and go to battle, dressed like one of the doofi in Manowar (what was Ross “The Boss” Friedman of the immortal Dictators doing with those morons, anyhow?) to defend it.

The Slayer that produced Divine Intervention hadn’t released an LP in four years, and had just replaced drummer Dave Lombardo with Forbidden’s Paul Bostaph, who would later leave to concentrate on solo project Truth About Seafood—only to return to Slayer with his tail between his legs upon realizing Truth About Seafood was undoubtedly the worst band name since Horslips. The other members of Slayer on Divine Intervention included Hanneman and King on guitars and Tom Araya on vocals and bass. Araya in particular wasn’t in his happy place at the time, telling one interviewer that the LP “Came out of the past 4 years of hating life.” Four years? What a piker. I’ve hated life for at least twenty.

Divine Intervention created controversy with its songs about Jeffrey Dahmer and Nazi Deputy Protector of Bohemia and Moravia and co-architect of the Holocaust Reinhard Heydrich, who got his just desserts in a commando attack in May 1942. As for most of the rest of the songs, they’re your typical blood-and-entrails-drenched, sex-murder-obsessed blather that your faux Satanist bands like to spew to prove how “evil” they are. (About as evil as Garrison Keillor, most of ‘em.)

Divine Intervention is wall-to-wall caterwaul, one extended foray into blitzkrieg-fast tremolo picking, migraine-inducing double bass drumming, and big irregular-scale riffs capable of causing those tiny bones in your ears to run and hide. Oh, and the guitar solos, how I love the guitar solos! And we shouldn’t forget Araya’s shouted vocals, which aren’t the unbearable croak favored by some metal bands or the high-pitched shrieks and ululations favored by others but just a guy shouting, which is as refreshing as a big morning glass of mescal and milk. The result is a non-stop ear flogging that you will relish the way those blind orphans enjoy being poked with pointed sticks. Slayer should have called this baby Demonic Ear Hole Defenestration instead of blandly entitling it Divine Intervention, which when push comes to shove is my only problem with the album.

But let’s get to the music, shall we? Or I could tell outlandish whoppers until I’m blue in the face, about the time I took a strange pill and my beard fell off, or about my days as Slayer’s balaclava player (that’s right, I played the hat), or—okay, the music it is.

“Killing Fields” opens the LP like a behemoth stomping on heads, thanks to Bostaph’s barbaric introductory drums. Then the guitars give you whiplash and what follows is over a minute of guitar pyrotechnics before Araya comes in, singing one of many (too many) lyrics having to do with a psychotic killer. The song isn’t particularly fast but it’s heavy as a trunk full of dismembered body parts, with Bostaph throwing down on the skins and Hanneman and King playing titanic riffs that don’t just stand there but actually dance. Araya really gives his all to the line, “Life stands still now you’re standing in my killing field!”, then King delivers a mind-blowing solo that is followed by Bostaph’s drums, before Araya closes the tune with another cry about his killing field. And here I was certain the song would be about the Khmer Rouge.

“Sex. Murder. Art.” is a great song title and “Sex. Murder. Art.” is a great song, which opens with some great riffage and drum pummel before Araya commences barking real fast, like my ex-Chihuahua Rudi at the sight of, well, anything. The song is fast, real fast, so fast there isn’t even enough room to tuck in a guitar solo. As for the subject matter it’s, er, unpleasant, but Araya sings it so fast I don’t need to dwell on the sexually sadistic subject matter but can simply appreciate the final line, “God is dead I am alive,” which I would agree with except I’m a skeptic on all matters metaphysical, like Samuel Beckett who once wrote, “What do I know about man’s destiny? I could tell you more about radishes.”

I have no idea what “Fictional Reality” is about (democracy turning into socialism or sumpin’) but I love its three guitar solos, Bostaph’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious drumming, and the song’s sheer propulsion, which slows into a Hanneman solo so twisted, feral, and brilliant it leaves me at a loss for words. It’s followed by a big instrumental passage featuring lots of hammering power chords, then Araya returns to sing a load of indecipherable gibberish ending with “Castrate society/Fictional reality,” followed by a brief but bloodthirsty King solo that takes the song out.

The superfast “Dittohead” is about Rush Limbaugh, natch, as well as a country that adores violence and gives criminals a slap on the wrist, and features Araya singing at speeds that should cause his vocal chords to snap (“Twaaang!”) and his neck to collapse, sinking his head straight into his shoulder blades. “Reality on vacation/All across a blinded nation/Mentality under sedation” he speed raps, going on and on until Hanneman spits out a solo that would make Hendrix happy, after which the guitars play a repetitive riff leading up to King’s solo, which makes me happy. After that Araya returns, Bostaph attacks the drums with a ferocity bordering on sheer lunacy, and Araya sings, “I will never be contained/Living with aggression and its/everlasting reign,” whatever that means.

The title track opens with some aggro guitars playing repetitive riffs and then speeds up before opening into one strange slow soundscape and then another, both ruled by Bostaph’s cymbals and drums. Then the song, which is a not-so-great lyrically description of generalized psychic pain, zooms off, with Araya really throwing down (love the way he shrieks, “Violated!!!”) until King’s solo, which is splendid. Then Araya returns and sings some more before King and Hanneman play back-to-back solos accompanied by Bostaph’s astounding speed drumming. King’s solo reminds me a bit of BOC’s Buck Dharma, while Hanneman’s solo reminds me I have a book about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis (lots of shark deaths, very gory) overdue at the library. As for the stellar piece of shred work that closes the album I don’t know who plays it, although if I were a betting man I’d place my money on King, and probably lose my t-shirt, which bears the image of Charles Manson and the words, “Helter Skelter Is Groovy!”

“Circle of Beliefs” comes fast out of the blocks and before you know it King is soloing, shredding notes like they’re top secret documents. Meanwhile Araya is singing really fast about somebody he obviously thinks is a moron who I hope is not me, and wham right after the chorus Hanneman plays a short solo, and then King rips into a solo in reply, and then there’s an instrumental section. After which Araya returns singing in a modulated voice, and then Hanneman launches into another solo that makes me really, really happy. And upon reading the lyrics again I see this is a song directed at the idiocy of Christians (whew, I really was worried it was about me) who are “Born without a brain/Helpless in your name/All you do is pray/Living is your pain.” Personally I can’t say I dislike Christians; people have every right to worship a wild-eyed, 2,000-year-old hippie who obviously took too many magic mushrooms. But as for me, I’ll stick with the skeptics and worship nothing.

“SS-3” (the designation on the license plate of the automobile Heydrich was in when he was attacked by Czech freedom fighters) doesn’t soar along like a nuclear rocket sled like many of the songs on Divine Intervention, but starts with some monster riffs, a long guitar introduction, and some powerhouse drumming. The lyrics aren’t particularly great, but they tell the story of Heydrich’s assassination and its bloody aftermath in an intelligible way. I like the lines, “Murderous power brought to an end/Only to rise again/Cold and ruthless and iron will/Protectorate of the dead,” which refer not to Heydrich rising again or ruling in Hell but to the Nazi destruction of the town of Lidice (and the execution or deportation to concentration camps of its residents) in reprisal for Heydrich’s assassination. On the instrumental front, Hanneman’s solo is a short and mighty shredfest, but not as good as King’s, which may be my favorite solo in the history of the entire world.

“Serenity in Murder” is told from the point of view of a sex murderer (not Dahmer) and opens with some whiplash thrash before slowing to introduce some cool, almost psychedelic dual vocals, before Araya takes over. Then Hanneman plays an echoing high-pitched whale of a solo, Bostaph’s drums crash and explode, and King trumps his fellow guitarist with a solo so far-freaking-out in the wailage department I want to somehow convert it into pill form and take it. Araya then closes the song with the words, “Quench the fire that drives my soul/Soothing me as death takes hold/Divine godsend enveloping me/Spiritual ecstasy sets me free.” Funny, I feel the same way every time I have an orgasm.

The slow by Slayer standards “213” (Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment number) opens with a quiet guitar and cymbals before the crushing power chords come in, then the song picks up some speed, morphs into some heavier, more brutal beast, and Araya starts shouting. The lyrics aren’t bad (I particularly like it when Araya sings plaintively, “I need a friend/Please be my companion/I don’t want to be/Left alone with my sanity,” echoed by another voice.) Immediately afterwards Hanneman delivers a soaring, tremolo-heavy solo so sharp-edged it could fell a giant sequoia. Great song, and like SS-3 it’s absurd to say that Araya actually sympathizes with Dahmer or his unspeakable crimes; like Truman Capote does In Cold Blood, Araya simply attempts to describe Dahmer’s mental landscape, and declines to moralize about it.

“Mind Control” takes the LP out on a supersonic note, with the band’s members seemingly competing with one another to see who can play the fastest. I don’t pretend to understand what Araya’s singing about, although this might as well (so far as I do get it) be a sequel to “213.” Then again I don’t really care, I’m so caught up in the sheer adrenaline of the song as it rushes along, with Bostaph performing superhuman feats on the drums and King delivering a devastatingly fast solo while Araya does an amazing job of cramming all the lyrics in. I do wish he’d not opened the song with the lines, “Unknown are the caverns of the mind/New realms of affliction lurk inside” because they stink, but so what? You don’t ask a V2 to produce great poetry, just to make a really big boom.

Slayer has not released a studio LP since 2009’s World Painted Blood, but they’re not dead like most of the people in their blood-spattered songs. They’ve been working on a new album that’s slated to come out this year, though I’ve heard there are complications so who knows? What Slayer will sound like sans the mighty Jeff Hanneman remains to be seen. I’ll certainly miss him. He was one of my favorite guitarists, along with Brother JT, the late Frank Zappa, and Sonny Sharrock, and replacing him will be one difficult feat.

Anyway, I love Slayer, though why I don’t much care for their thrash metal contemporaries Metallica and Megadeth remains a mystery. It could be as simple as I don’t like their names. Or that they’ve never come up with an album title as cool as God Hates Us All, although Megadeth’s Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good comes close. Or it could be they lack that certain élan that leads a band to poke blind orphans with sharpened sticks, not out of sadism mind you, but just for the sheer thrill of it.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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