Between this show selling out back in March (in an reported 3 minutes flat) and tonight, the band’s lead / rhythm guitarist and the pen-man for some of their darkest tracks Jeff Hanneman passed away from liver failure. His death last month sparked days of debate online as to whether tonight’s show would go ahead, although he had not been an active member of the group since 2011 due to ill health. Given that it would have been a huge shame for such an intimate performance to have been cancelled it would have been completely understandable if the band had wanted to do that. But recent interviews in the metal press prior to Hanneman’s death hinted there was a perceived distance between all of the individual members of the group and thus the general assumption was that the shows would go ahead in the form of a tribute to the deceased, which is what eventually came to pass.
Joining the iconic combination of Kerry King and Tom Araya (axeman and bassist/vocalist respectively) are de facto guitarist Gary Holt (of Exodus fame) who has toured with the band since Hanneman’s sabbatical, and reappointed drummer Paul Bostaph who returned to the skins after the band’s recent spat and firing of regular drummer Dave Lombardo. Knowing of the disruption within the group over the past months the assumption could be that this is a cobbled together group in chaos, however these four are no cobbled together motley crew. They’re the professional elite of their barbaric music and the general consensus among fans is there could be no better replacement musicians for the two missing stalwarts.
The Limelight is a legendary venue in this city; for all intents and purposes this isn’t the Limelight. It is the much more sterile, newly renovated, extended, and renamed ‘Spring and Airbreak’ club beside the old ‘Limelight’; having adopted the old venues name while the later was rebranded ‘Limelight Two’. Disappointed that I wasn’t getting to see the mighty Slayer in the small divey venue where I’d attended so many punk and metal gigs in my youth, I resigned myself to my surroundings. A trivial point to complain about really except that despite the venues recent and obvious size upgrade they had managed to retain the infamous view-obscuring pole in the front of the stage.
Now Slayer were never an arena band on their own without a considerable supporting line-up, yet they were able to headline such outings with huge arena audiences this side of the Atlantic through the middle of last decade. Nevertheless it is noticeable that the older thrash bands have waned in popularity in recent years with the noted exception of Metallica. Both Slayer and their ‘big four’ compadre Anthrax have played the nearby and much larger Ulster Hall in years past, and now following suit from Anthrax’s Limelight appearance last year the titans of thrash have themselves gone for this more intimate venue, although given the sell-out time it is reasonable to assume the venue size does not actually reflect the band’s potential audience. The Anthrax show here generated mixed reviews (mainly due to their singer’s vocal shortcomings), but the general consensus seemed to be that seeing such a legendary band in such a small venue was a really special experience for fans, and this show has a comparable if not amplified feel.
The audience is eclectic as is the trend at Slayer gigs, with the usual long haired metal crowd clad in black and the old timers harking back to the old days. Slayer are (maybe more so than other bands in the genre) able to command the respect of legions of punk and hardcore fans as well. This may be because of the sheer brutality of the sound or maybe because they have respect for not making many divisive changes to their sound through the years and stuck to the blueprint that always worked (with the possible exception of 1998’s Diabolus in Musica). The atmosphere in the venue pre-show is one of building electricity, and it has been building in the pubs surrounding the venue all day. I read an article in the rock press several years ago that suggested Slayer lost some of their venom by the early 2000s; this opinion could potentially be explained to an extent by their front man’s tendency to appear jovial and nonchalant at the mic these days which doesn’t really seem to fit with the hostile Slayer aesthetic. With regard to the performance even if it was to be Slayer by numbers that would be in no way a bad thing; tonight it wasn’t Slayer by numbers.
When the band take the stage it a no nonsense visceral bombardment of sound, it’s stripped down and it’s raw both in performance and visually. Slayer don’t need frills, an eerie blue light silhouettes the band in front of that trademark wall of speaker stacks as they burst into title track of their latest record 2010’s World Painted Blood. The band then proceed through a career spanning set list giving nods to all of their albums with the notable exception of the double Grammy Award winning Christ Illusion. There is minimal stoppage between tracks as they power through the fan favourite classics War Ensemble, Mandatory Suicide, Chemical Warfare and Dead Skin Mask along with the ‘hits’ if you want to refer to Slayer as having hits; Seasons in the Abyss, Raining Blood and South of Heaven. The band finish the night with thunderous version of Hanneman’s riff laden, and controversial belter Angel of Death about Auschwitz ‘Doctor’ Josef Mengele. A set missing a few of their more recent triumphs; specifically Beauty Through Order and Exile was understandable given their obvious intent to give a nod to their 80’s glory days and a salute to Jeff’s material.
Slayer are a truly excellent band, irreplaceable masters of their craft and this was an incendiary set from first to final riff and leaving the venue you couldn’t help but feel that you had just bore witness to something altogether unique. Dissecting the night on the way home there was a mutual agreement that we’d experienced something you generally understand is reserved for invite only LA album lunches, not clubs in Belfast. Out of the ‘big four’ of thrash metal, Slayer will not generally inspire dissent among the ranks of opinionated gig goers, and I cannot say I recall anyone whose musical opinion I respect ever saying anything remotely derogatory about Slayer the band (as opposed to the personalities). As I finish typing this review I find have just found out that the band intend to play The Limelight again this August so maybe it won’t be such a unique experience after all. However we were there first.