Back when they were still the most highly decorated underdogs in thrash – Kerrang!, after years of having little use for them, would belatedly acknowledge Reign of Blood as the greatest thrash album of all time, Master of Puppets included – Slayer received unconditional love from their ardent supporters, while anyone who might be counted among the detractors were generally aware of their presence but hadn’t actually heard enough of their music to slag the band without fear of repercussion. Fast forward to drummer Dave Lombardo’s second tenure in the group (2002-2013[ish]) and the enhanced exposure, not to mention a hardly deniable case of diminishing returns, have seen the last decade subject the band to harsher criticisms than they’d generally had to bear in the 80’s and 90’s. Not that Slayer had ever out and out embarrassed themselves (Diablous in Musica arguably aside), but the writing was on the wall: it’s time for a comeback.
The stakes are even higher now that Lombardo is out of the band once again due to business differences but also Jeff Hanneman, the most eccentric of Slayer’s songwriters and one of their more prolific, is straight up deceased and not exactly a contract re-negosh away from jumping back on board. Gary Holt (Exodus) has done an unassailably admirable job filling Hanneman’s shoes, even back when Hanneman was alive but sidelined for necroticizing fasciitis – that most metal of spider bites – but there was still a question of whether Holt could step in and fill Hanneman’s shoes as a songwriting.
Repentless punts on that question. Aside from a leftover Hanneman outtake (“Piano Wire”) the rest of the album is almost entirely the work of fellow founding guitarist Kerry King. This is not a fault, by the way: King steps up to the plate in a manner which will go down as one of his defining moments in a career full of them. Repentless is no more chock full of instant classics as Christ Illusion or World Painted Blood, but the fact that it gains any ground at all in spite of the loss of songwriting input is a huge gold star on Kerry’s resume.
If anything, Repentless is tighter and more focused due to the decreased input, coming in as hands down the band’s most essential out-and-out thrash album since Divine Intervention. By comparison, there aren’t really any showcase pieces like Paul Bostaph’s deliberate Lombardo kiss-off in Divine‘s opener, “Killing Fields”, but Bostaph’s previous tenure in the band makes his return here more of a homecoming than a proving ground, and as far as guitar work goes it would obviously be unseemly to attempt to upstage Jeff Hanneman at his own game.
As such, this is a songwriting record, and at that it actually shows Slayer to be quietly more invigorated than they have been in years. Shit, they actually save “Pride and Prejudice” for dead last and it’s probably the best song on the album! You’ve no doubt heard the title track, “Repentless”, which is decent enough but kind of cookie cutter Slayer, with a vocal pattern that Tom Araya has frankly made a frequent crutch out of when the band feel the need to (falsely) prove that they still have the old Reign in Blood energy, but don’t let that sour you: in spite of a few minor misgivings, Araya has actually become the driving force behind late period Slayer.
Sure, the unrelenting riffs of Kerry King (and formerly Jeff Hanneman) are the most visible facet of whether any given Slayer album succeeds or not, but it’s easy to overlook Araya’s vocal contributions. He’s the one that has to sell it all vocally, and while he’s never been the most versatile metal vocalist – and it’s certainly been a minute since he could hit the early era’s high notes – damn it, Araya is still holding down the fort, convincingly belting out new school setlist sureties like “Vices” (“A little violence is the ultimate drug / let’s get HIIIIIIIGH!”) with no audible worse for wear.
I have to admit, the first couple of times I listened to Repentless – a terrible title, by the way, but one in keeping with the Slayer tradition of awkward puns and analogies – it struck me as little more than a slightly improved variation on their previous two mixed efforts, but after pushing through that built-in bias of expectation the fundamentals started to stand out: while ostensibly sounding much like their last few from a production standpoint, Repentless is actually the band’s most unapologetically thrash album in years. It may not be quite sufficient to regain the fans that have abandoned them since Christ Illusion (or prior) but the faithful who have just being laying back in the cut waiting for another legit show of faith are gonna shit their pants over this one. Ah, fuck it, let’s just spell it out: Slayer is back, and in what fine fettle.