Words by Natalie Zed; Concert Photography by Albert Mansour
This is not going to be a straightforward review. I could easily write that piece. I could relate each band’s setlist, describe the quality of the lighting. I could talk at length about Testament’s sound issues (all drums and vox, swallowed guitars), Dave Mustaine’s hair, Tom Araya looking great on stage after surgery. Lots of other people are going to write about these things. I will let them. I want to write about something else that happened during this show. While listening to the opening chords of “World Painted Blood,” a series of loose images finally clicked together in my head to form a complete idea.
We arrived just as Testament began to play. Even in the full sunlight of the early evening, every tattered edge of their set exposed to unforgiving daylight, I was struck by the heaviness of both their sound and their overall aesthetic. I’ve certainly experienced music I could describe as heavy, or crushing, before, but this was something more forthright in it’s intention and execution. There’s a controlled savagery in their sound, as though every riff were another brick stacked on the audience’s chest. And we, like a defiant victim of the Inquisition, howled “More weight!” Viscerally and conceptually, their performance clarified my perception of heaviness.
Megadeth were less of a revelatory experience, but still significant. What struck me most while watching them on stage was a sense of earnestness, an almost wholesome quality to their manner on stage and their approach to the material that they played. Dave Mustaine is now not only sober, but a Christian. The changes he has made in his life have altered Megadeth’s aesthetic. Their current incarnation reveals a sense of discomfort with their former identity and with the current identities of their stage-mates. In trying to obscure the inherent darkness and ugliness in their music with bright stage lights reflecting off pristine white guitars, they only further expose what they once were. They’ve taken what was violent and grotesque about their music and attempted to show it to be tameable. A lion is still a lion though, no matter for threadbare its fur, how dulled its claws and fangs.
Then Slayer took the stage, and everything changed. The crowd had been almost thin when Testament played; now, the Amphitheater suddenly swarmed to life, an ant’s nest that had been doused in boiling water. I’m usually a front-row, en garde kind of concert goer; I often determine how successful a show was by the number and severity of the bruises I come out with. However, for the majority of this show, I was still (barring headbanging). This was not just because I was in the nosebleeds either—more than one friendly two-man-mosh broke out in the aisles around me. I spent Slayer’s set having a serious metal think; figuring some things out.
About a third of the way through Slayer’s set, I looked over at Lily the Pirate. She was frowning slightly, her brows furrowed and eyes very serious. A moment later my phone buzzed. She’s texted me the phrase “this is very important.” Our eyes met and we nodded to each other.
Testament and Megadeth have both been around as long as I have been alive; Slayer is two years older than I am. These bands have been around for a very long time and have gotten exceptionally good at what they do. More that that, they have defined their genre. Watching Slayer perform, it suddenly hit me: this is what everyone else is going for. This is the aesthetic so many other bands attempt to emulate. Not just the sound, either, but the presence, the charisma of the band members. Their personal and collective aesthetics have served as an inspiration for countless thrash metal bands over the decades. Watching them perform live, I suddenly understood what so many other bands were going for, what they had been building on. Being able to see and appreciate Slayer as the starting point, I was suddenly able to appreciate (and judge) so many other bands I’ve seen perform live with a new ear and eye.
Slayer is not the progenitor of all metal. Many genres and sub-genres within metal owe their allegiances to other musical deities. But there is a specific kingdom over which Slayer rules undisputed. When they do ultimately retire (as Araya has hinted may be sooner rather than later), there had better be an heir apparent. Hear that, thrash bands of this generation? Do better. Get better. One day there’s going to be a crown to claim.