Choose the Other Side: Lyrical Complexity in the Music of Slayer

Slayer is traditionally known as one of the four main metal bands in the 1980s that brought metal music to its next level of development through the use of thrash: lower toned, aggressive guitars and drumbeats played at an incredibly fast speed. Along with Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax, Slayer ushered in a new style of metal music that has been utilized by a variety of metal bands over the last forty years, ranging everywhere from groove metal to death metal. Thrash metal also had its influence on punk music, creating the subgenre of thrash punk, which continues to flourish. Much has been written about thrash in terms of its musical elements and influence on the metal genre as a whole; Slayer is particularly known as the band that took thrash to its limits through its intricate guitars, percussion, and through the dark subject matter of its music. Out of all the thrash bands, Slayer is the most hardcore and controversial in terms of its lyrics. The aim of this essay is to explore Slayer’s music from a lyrical perspective as a way to emphasize the deeper poetic elements that reside within the literary content of the music. Slayer is very much a poetic band; its music is full of metaphor, allusion, and satire, as well as an overall sense of aesthetic artistry that does not shy away from the darker side of contemporary civilization. Through its exploration of heavier topics, much is revealed about modern society and the ways in which subjectivity is threatened and suppressed. Slayer’s music is particularly interesting in how it goes about shedding light on oppression not only through religion, but through systems of thought that have developed in accordance with religious dominance. This essay will look at five important songs within the Slayer cannon that highlight this conflict between the individual subject and societal oppression and how certain literary elements are used to great effect in order to encourage higher thought on both a conscious and subconscious level.

“South of Heaven,” from the band’s fourth album South of Heaven (1988), is incredibly brilliant in the way the song is structured musically and lyrically. This song is unique because the chorus, which mostly consists of the repeating phrase “South of heaven,” doesn’t appear until near the end of the song, as a climax to the rhythmic build-up that slowly intensifies and increases in speed. The song starts out with a slow riff that is repeated which immediately sets the ominous tone as a second guitar begins playing higher notes, emphasizing the heavy mood from a brighter musical register. Once this pattern is established, the drums announce their presence with great force, but the rhythm is still slow. Tom Araya doesn’t start singing until about fifty seconds in, once the melody and percussion have been firmly established. He sings the first verse as the song continues to build:

An unforeseen future nestled somewhere in time
Unsuspecting victims no warnings, no signs
Judgment Day, The Second Coming arrives
Before you see the light, you must die

Araya sings in a spoken word style that is incredibly dry and matter of fact. Listeners will take note of particular phrases and events that contribute to the tone of the music: “unforeseen future,” “Unsuspecting victims,” “Judgement Day, and “The Second Coming.” It is made very clear that listeners are in the midst of the apocalypse. The most important part of the verse is the last line, which Araya places vocal emphasis on: “Before you see the light, you must die.” It is a line that is only sung once, but it becomes the theme for the entire song: destruction has to occur before transformation can take place. Once this line is heard, listeners are signaled on a subconscious level to regard the apocalypse as a cleansing act. The song shifts into a trance-like rhythm as Araya sings the second verse and pre-chorus (where the song picks up speed):

Forgotten children conform a new faith
Avidity and lust controlled by hate
The never ending search for your shattered sanity
Souls of Damnation in their own reality

Chaos rampant
An age of distrust
Confrontations
Impulsive habitat

Lyrically, this verse and pre-chorus paint a deeper picture of the apocalypse which consists of cast-offs inhabiting an existence of their own invention; the conditions of this environment, as the pre-chorus states, are characterized by destructive anarchy. What is even more interesting about this pre-chorus is the fact that it creates a false climax, which coincides with the troubled reality of the damned individuals. A chorus should follow the pre-chorus, but it doesn’t, so in a sense, the listener is tricked. Instead, the song slows back down to the primary melody and rhythm and then builds up again to the trance-like rhythm as a third verse is sung, followed by the same pre-chorus (slightly altered) and increased tempo:

Bastard sons begat your cunting daughters
Promiscuous mothers with your incestuous fathers
Ingrate souls condemned for all eternity
Obtained by immoral observance a domineering deity

Chaos rampant
An age of distrust
Confrontations
Impulsive Sabbath

Here, listeners are given a description of the family in its perverse state: “Bastard sons / cunting daughters,” “Promiscuous mothers / incestuous fathers.” This is what the family dynamic looks like under the apocalypse, in all of its corruption and cruelty. What is even more interesting is that this familial construct is being watched over by a “domineering deity.” This is where the lines become blurred between the societal conception of the family and the apocalyptic version. “Domineering deity,” is very general, and this is intentional. In fact, Araya sings deity as “die-ety,” which is an incredibly masterful move. In this context, the god figure is viewed as a destructive force and the family is the means through which destruction happens. Additionally, in the pre-chorus, “Impulsive habitat” is replaced by “Impulsive Sabbath,” which emphasizes religion as being the cause of the apocalypse.

Finally, the chorus is heard: Araya sings “On and on south of heaven” four times and it takes on an intensified trance-like vibe. The first part of the chorus, “On and on,” is metaphorical, describing a space that embodies endlessness. A guitar solo follows the chorus as a musical representation of the chaos that an apocalyptic environment fosters; a fourth verse is sung, elaborating on what has already been stated, but with an interesting moral twist. In the first line, Araya declares that “The root of all evil is the heart of a black soul.” This is another defining moment of the song because it widens the apocalyptic landscape. “The heart of a black soul” is not limited to damned individuals. It can exist inside any person. This is the primary point of the song: what looks like religious morality may in fact be religious toxicity. The song ends with the chorus and another guitar solo, but this time listeners are hearing it through a new perspective: where does corruption actually reside? This is the part of the song where transformation happens on a subconscious level. Listeners may not realize that they have experienced spiritual awareness, but it is happening on an aesthetic level. The music is at increased tempo and the solo is wild, but subdued, and as the solo winds down and concludes, so does the song, and the listener is brought down from heightened consciousness.

It is important to note that the words “hell” and “Satan” are never used in the song. “South of Heaven” could be seen as a clever metaphor for hell; “domineering deity” could also be seen as a metaphor for Satan—but the song has a more complex goal in mind: to blur the lines between what is considered pure and what is considered corrupt. “Before you see the light, you must die” is the central idea behind the song. “South of heaven” is a state of mind; the listener undergoes a mental process wherein they are confronted with authentic reality. This confrontation cleanses them so that they can experience heaven, which is a state of pure enlightenment. The first part of the chorus, “On and on,” also suggests that this is an ongoing process; the listener is likely to experience “south of heaven” multiple times before transcendence can happen. It is also a place that is characterized by the infinite—it is cosmic and it has no end. It is also important to note that there is no “I” in the song. This brings up deeper implications about collective soul energy and how it is utilized by seemingly pure forces as a way to assert religious dominance. “South of Heaven,” on a lyrical level, puts forth an interesting spiritual argument in regards to oppression. There is no “I” in chaotic anarchy and there is no “I” in organized religion. It is an implied message imbedded within the song, supported by the aggressive tone of the music, which suggests that the listener should think for themselves; in order to transform, one must liberate oneself from collective oppression.

“Seasons in the Abyss,” from the band’s fifth album Seasons in the Abyss (1990), utilizes a similar musical structure as “South of Heaven” wherein the song builds up to a climax. However, in this song, the lyrical structure is entirely different, the pace of the song is much slower, and the tone, although still dark, carries a calmer vibe. There are three verses and a two-part chorus—and the bulk of the song relies on both choruses. Another interesting feature of this song is the long musical introduction. Araya doesn’t begin singing until past the two-minute mark. This is a great effect because it fully establishes the mood and the landscape—which is the abyss. This musical introduction makes great use of musical space through multiple shifts and guitar pitches; the drums are also deep and full, emphasizing the bigness of the abyss.

The song begins with slow crashing drumbeats and low guitar sounds that quickly transform into a simple repeating riff. Then, a second guitar begins playing that same riff in a higher pitch, brightening the overall sound just enough to bring a sense of richness to the song. Then, the song shifts into a sour repeating melody as the drums wane. Again, this is meant to establish the overall landscape which is vast and empty. The drums enter again as the melody repeats so that the song can achieve a sense of fullness. Once this melody is established, the beginning riff is reintroduced, slightly altered, as it plays over the sour melody and rolling drums. Here, the introduction shifts a third time as the guitar begins playing a brand new riff that is quicker in tempo, energizing the song and signaling to the listener that something is about to happen within this void space. The drums become more rhythmic as the song settles into a slower groove that places the listener in a relaxed state. Then, the song increases tempo again as a thrash guitar riff is introduced. Here, both guitar and drums become stabilized so that Araya can enter with vocal tones that are both strong and mellow. Here is the first verse followed by the two-part chorus:  

Razor’s edge
Outlines the dead
Incisions in my head
Anticipation, the stimulation
To kill the exhilaration

Close your eyes
Look deep in your soul
Step outside yourself
And let your mind go
Frozen eyes stare deep in your mind as you die

Close your eyes
And forget your name
Step outside yourself
And let your thoughts drain
As you go insane, go insane

Here, so much of the song—and the listener—relies on Araya’s vocal rhythms. In this part of the song, his vocals set the tone. The first verse is sung in a rough and captivating tone; his words have a slight bounce to them which enlivens the song in interesting ways. When he sings the chorus, he lowers his tone and this is for a specific reason. The first verse sets the scene and the chorus issues commands: “Close your eyes / Look deep in your soul,” “Step outside yourself / And let your mind go,” “Close your eyes / And forget your name,” “Step outside yourself / And let your thoughts drain.” The chorus tells the listener exactly how to exist within the abyss, which is to essentially become a nonbeing. In the last line of the first part of the chorus, Araya drags out the word “die” as a way to emphasize the fact that in order to inhabit the abyss, the listener has to experience an ego death and become one with the void. Insanity becomes the preferred state of being, which is more metaphorical than literal: insanity suggests a letting go of control, to enter a state of mind that isn’t constrained by self-imposed inhibitions. The second verse builds upon the first verse and becomes more explicit:

Innate seed
To watch you bleed
A demanding physical need
Desecrated eviscerated
Time perpetuated

The verses operate as a counterpoint to the chorus in compelling ways. While the chorus encourages the listener to melt away, the verses are quite visceral and physical. The first verse talks about razor cuts and head incisions and uses sensual descriptors such as “anticipation,” “stimulation,” and the desire to “kill the exhilaration.” This same logic is applied to the second verse that describes voyeurism: “…watch you bleed,” which brings on arousal: “A demanding physical need,” and an inclination for debauchery: “Desecrated / eviscerated.” A lot is being communicated with very little here, but the point comes across brilliantly. In the abyss, the listener realizes that a decrease in inhibitions brings on an increase in sexual desire. The last phrase “Time perpetuated” suggests that this is an eternal condition of the abyss: there is a constant push and pull between letting go and experiencing sensual pleasure.

Once the second verse and chorus are sung, there is a guitar solo that embodies sexual liberation. It is a high-pitched wailing type of solo, adding tension to the song. Parts of it are very melodic and wild; it walks that fine line between control and complete bliss. The third verse is the most explicit of all:

Inert flesh
A bloody tomb
A decorated splatter brightens the room
An execution, a sadist ritual
Mad intervals of mind residuals

This verse points to sensual pleasure taken too far: the result is “A bloody tomb” and “An execution, a sadist ritual.” However, the song lands on the chorus, placing emphasis on nonbeing rather than sex taken too far. This song does a brilliant job enacting the difficulties one faces when grappling with the abyss. Here, ego death can quickly turn into savagery. Much like “South of Heaven,” there is no “I” in this song. However, there is no redemption in the abyss—it is an open space where anything goes, where the most challenging forms of anarchy play out on an endless loop. It takes a full minute for the song to wind down. The sour melody returns, the drums slow down again, one of the guitarists runs his pick down the strings of his guitar, and the song dissolves into amplified guitar noise and waning feedback. What is being communicated here is a slow comedown from ecstasy. The abyss is a place where one can experience nonbeing and sexual bliss simultaneously—and the song emphasizes that both experiences can’t be felt without heavy risk. That is the beauty of “Seasons in the Abyss.” It creates a space where the listener can explore erotic states of being without fear of annihilation. The song maintains its dominant force as it ends peacefully, slowly bringing the listener back to conscious reality.

“Stain of Mind,” from the group’s eighth album Diabolus in Musica (1998), signals a shift in songwriting techniques. There is a stronger emphasis on riffs, steady rhythms, and concentrated energy. Whereas the earlier songs utilized a buildup to a climax, this song—and the ones about to be discussed—focuses more on getting to the point much quicker from a musical standpoint. Lyrically, the song is more direct and personal; Araya’s presence is strongly felt. The song includes three versus, three pre-choruses, and a repeating chorus. The main focus of the song is a hypnotic groove rhythm that draws the listener in immediately, creating more space in the song, allowing Araya’s vocals to open up. Here, he sings rather than speaks. The song begins with the main riff that transitions to another riff that is played briefly, setting the stage for Araya to begin singing. The song goes straight into the first verse:

Imagine humanity’s decline
Step inside my stain of mind
Infesting superiority
Infectious immorality, oh yeah
Come worship the place no truths are told
Praise the land where sins are sold
No passion, no love, your faith evades
Never see yourself again that way

Araya invites the listener to enter his mind: “Imagine humanity’s decline / Step inside my stain of mind.” The entire song describes an imagined version of reality, which is full of corruption and deception: “Infectious immorality,” “Come worship the place no truths are told.” As the listener begins to experience this world for themselves, they come into awareness: “No passion, no love, your faith evades / Never see yourself again that way.” As a result, the listener becomes engulfed in this altered version of reality. What is interesting about this song is how the heaviness of the lyrics is lightened by the groove of the song, which is rhythmic, highly energetic, and riff-driven. Araya also punctuates the verses with the phrase “oh yeah,” which brings out a sense of playfulness. The song shifts right into the first pre-chorus and chorus:

Death becomes your bride
Lifelessness invades your eyes

In fire baptized
All pain sifts through my soul
You’ll never feel greater misery
Master of my enemy
Let the purest stain of mind
Wash the virtue from your eyes

Here, the song slows down in tempo and focuses on a slowed-down riff to prepare the listener for the pre-chorus. Araya sings the first line in a whisper and draws out the word “bride.” The song gets louder and Araya responds by raising his voice on the second line, loudly drawing out the word “eyes.” His voice becomes almost a wail as he sings the first line of the chorus in an aggressive, but very poignant tone. The second line: “All pain sifts through my soul” is sung in a deeply felt way and the word “soul” is drawn out. In the earlier songs, Araya’s vocal style is mellow and distanced—in this song, his emotions fuse with the lyrics. Midway through the chorus there is a clever change in rhythm as the lyrics focus their attention to the “you”: the drums quicken and then accent a bouncing groove that Araya employs in the last few lines, encouraging the listener to clear their vision of all naïveté. Here is the second verse followed by the second pre-chorus.

As one the collective unifies
Emanate a faithless shine
Forever creation has conceived
Birth of destruction spreads its wings, oh yeah
Chaotic rebirth a new domain
Relive the sight, the sound, the pain
Erotic, the taste of agony
Adorn the scars of inhumanity

This is what you see
Deep inside of me
Agony is life
Lechery is life
Godlessness is life
Purgatory magnified

In this verse the collective experience of this reality is described; “Birth of destruction spreads its wings, oh yeah” is a metaphor filled with playfulness. Here, there is a sense of endlessness that brings on feelings of pleasure mixed with pain: “Relive the sight, the sound, the pain,” “Erotic, the taste of agony.” Orgiastic debauchery is being described from a distanced perspective; however, the second pre-chorus clarifies the scene: “This is what you see / Deep inside of me.” Again, Araya begins the pre-chorus with a whisper and increases the volume of his voice as the song slowly builds back up. “Agony is life / Lechery is life / Godlessness is life” are sung in perfect rhythm with the riff—which brings on a sense of harmonic bliss. Here, the song becomes completely organic and whole until it hits the climax as Araya loudly sings: “Purgatory magnified” with vocal emphasis on “magnified.” Here, the lyrics suggest that limbo is the preferred state of mind because it allows for total liberation: there is pain, there is lust, and there is no looming god-figure. Purgatory represents uninhibited anarchy within the mind.

Once the chorus is sung, there is a wailing guitar solo that shifts right back into the main riff and the last verse is sung:

Enticing malevolence allures
Bastardize the clean and pure
Salvation forever crucified
I choose the other side, oh yea
Entire, complete serenity
Injected intravenously
Transgression euphoric bliss divine
Initiate a timeless stain of mind

In this verse, the main focus is the line “I choose the other side, oh yeah,” not just because it is the continuation of the playfulness that weaves throughout the song, but because of the phrases that surround it. “Malevolence,” “Bastardize,” “crucified,” and “Transgression” are keywords that reference darker sides of the psyche. However, they are paired with words that represent the ecstatic side of the psyche: “Enticing,” “allures,” “clean and pure,” “Salvation,” “complete serenity,” “euphoric bliss divine.” These are also terms that are associated with religion, but here, they are appropriated and placed within the realm of anarchic spirituality which characterizes “the other side.” Additionally, “Transgression euphoric bliss divine” is a line that holds lots of playful tension as “Transgression” pushes against the last three words; Araya sings it as a run-on, causing a blurring of meaning—sinfulness and pleasure are fused. The last line of the verse, “Initiate a timeless stain of mind,” is the central force behind the song. To achieve eternity, one must choose “the other side” so that both parts of the psyche can be embraced: the dark and the light. In this sense, “stain of mind” is a mind that is vibrant and aware, that recognizes there can’t be bliss without misery. The song ends with a quick third pre-chorus line, “Blood will sterilize,” followed by the chorus and the repeating main riff, serving as a sturdy knot that ties the song up nicely.

“New Faith,” from the group’s ninth album God Hates Us All (2001), is stripped-down musically, consisting primarily of fast guitar riffs and drumbeats. Structurally, the song construction is genius; it is split into two parts and is organized around the lyrics. The first part includes two verses in quatrain form, a repeating pre-chorus in couplet form, and a repeating chorus. The second part is introduced by a brilliant shift in the form of a couplet and includes a whole new structure: two verses along with a new repeating chorus. The song starts out with a heavy dominating riff and a rolling drumbeat; Araya’s vocals enter very quickly afterward. Here is the first verse, pre-chorus, and chorus:

Holy man, open up your eyes
To the ways of the world you’ve been so blind
As the walls of religion come crashing down
How’s the ignorance taste the second time around

Tell me how it feels knowing chaos will never end
Tell me what it’s like when the celebration begins

Welcome to the horror of the revelation
Tell me what you think of your savior now
I reject all the biblical views of the truth
Dismiss it as the folklore of the times
I won’t be force-fed prophecies
From a book of untruths for the weakest mind
Join the new faith for the celebration
Cult of new faith fuels the devastation

There are three shifts that happen within each part: the first verse is sung in a steady rhythm backed up by the song’s main riff and drumbeat; the pre-chorus is sung in a faster tempo along with a new repeating riff and sped-up drums; the chorus is sung in a rhythmic style, backed up by aggressive guitars and drums that create a heavy churning energy. These shifts are incredibly important because they enact the overall theme of the song, which is to facilitate spiritual awakening. In this song, a specific person is being addressed: “Holy Man.” This person is the antagonistic other representing the religious establishment who appears to have entered the consciousness of an anarchic entity. Araya embodies this consciousness with an interesting blend of fast-talking, monotone, razor-sharp vocals. His vocals slightly adjust to each shift in the song, but essentially remain the same, creating a hypnotic effect. In the pre-chorus, he emphasizes “end” and “begins”—calling attention to the infinite nature of this chaotic environment the Holy Man now inhabits. The chorus is a manifesto that rejects organized religion and embraces a “new faith” that is dedicated to destroying oppressive religious systems. Each ending word in the chorus is emphasized for poignant effect, along with the word “faith.” The last word, “devastation” receives the most emphasis. Here is the second verse:

Holy man, come and worship me
I am all that you ever wanted to be
I’m the life of indulgence you never knew
The epitome of evil shining through

Here, the script is flipped for ironic effect: “Holy man, come and worship me / I am all that you ever wanted to be / I’m the life of the indulgence you never knew.” This is an interesting rhetorical move within the song because it places religious authority in the position of the worshipper. It is also a psychological move, suggesting that this is what religion unconsciously wants—to succumb to the reality it has unintentionally created: “The epitome of evil shining through.”

The second part of the song occurs right after the repeated pre-chorus and chorus. The last two lines of the chorus are removed and replaced by abrupt silence, giving space for Araya to sing the following couplet:

I keep the bible in a pool of blood
So that none of its lies can affect me

This couplet represents heresy with a specific aim: to cleanse oneself of religious corruption. The music returns with chaotic guitar noise and drumbeats—mirroring the cleansing process—when Araya screams the final word: “me.” This masterful shift represents the beginning of the “new faith” part of the song. Once the music stabilizes, a new verse and chorus structure are introduced:

This is new faith
A different way of life
Witness the shame
See for yourself the lies
I’ll take the fight
Bring it every time, any time
Refuse to let them win
My heresy begins

Pray for life, wish for death
Pray for life, know in time you’ll pray for death

Tear it away
It lives inside your mind
Silence the fear
That keeps you pure inside
Now you can see
Life’s atrocities endlessly
Witness the miracle
Witness the miracle

Pray for life, wish for death
Pray for life, with every breath
You’ll pray for death, you’ll pray for death
Embrace new faith, embrace new faith

The verses are short and sung in Araya’s quick monotone vocal style. Here, it is explicitly understood that the old way of thinking is no longer feasible: I’ll take the fight / Bring it every time, any time,” “Refuse to let them win / My heresy begins.” The chorus is sung slower as the music itself slows down so that subconscious transformation can occur; the guitar mimics Araya’s vocal rhythms as he sings “Pray for life, wish for death / Pray for life, know in time you’ll pray for death.” Although vocal emphasis is placed on the word “death,” it is important to note that lyrically, “life” and “death” are used in conjunction with the words “pray,” “wish,” and “know.” “Pray” and “wish” are associated with the imaginative realm of the consciousness; “know” belongs to the physical realm of the world, so in a sense, the entity is encouraging the Holy Man to bring his transformation out of the imaginative realm and into the physical realm. The next verse further encourages the Holy Man to tear down the constructs of religious oppression. Araya screams “Tear it away” with heavy emphasis on “away” so that the Holy Man can “Witness the miracle” (sung in repetition for extra emphasis) which is spiritual liberation. The repeated chorus is altered, adding “breath” and “embrace” to the lexicon of spiritual transformative experience.

The song slows down at the end, mirrored by a drawn-out guitar riff punctuated by thumping drumbeats. As the song comes to a close, Araya sings “Yeah, new faith” twice as a simple conclusion to a masterfully written two-part song. It is also important to note that there are no guitar solos in “New Faith”—and this appears to be intentional. This song is not only about religious authority having to contend with an anarchic consciousness that wants to break down old, corrupt ways of thinking so that new forms of belief can take root; it is also about aesthetics—what a metal song is capable of achieving beyond its prescribed structural parameters. “New Faith” is an unconventional metal song written by one of the main forerunners of the metal genre; focus is placed on the lyrics which are highlighted by the music. Araya’s vocals are at the forefront, serving as the true engine of the song. “New Faith” is all about creative possibility, demonstrating how the metal sound can be reimagined and reinvented.

“Cast Down,” from the album God Hates Us All, is similar in style to “New Faith”—there is no guitar solo; the musical structure consists of riffs and shifting drumbeats; the primary focus of the song is the lyrics. Listeners will note how this song utilizes a push-pull type of rhythm that goes back and forth between heavy slowness and adrenaline quickness. This is meant to enact the struggle between the internal self and societal rejection described in the song. The structure consists of three verses, a two-part repeating chorus, and a spoken word interlude. The song begins with a slow riff played by one guitar that immediately stimulates the listener, followed by a second guitar playing the same riff in order to reinforce that ecstatic feeling. Not long after that, there are cymbal crashes along with a steady drumbeat. Once that pattern is established, the riffs change along with the tempo of the song; it becomes slower and heavier as ecstasy turns into burdensome sorrow. The riff shifts again and becomes choppy, mirroring a breakdown of the psyche. The song immediately picks up in tempo as soon as Araya begins to sing. Here are the first two verses:

Despair, emptiness
See the hatred wasted on yourself
Facedown, taste the dust
It’s getting harder everyday
Just to find a reason not to end it all yourself
Suicide on the street
Everywhere around you watch it breed
It begins to bury you in self-induced rejection

So now you’re wasted, broken down
I see through your ignorance
Penetrate the surface of your insecure inside
Next fix, shoot it up
Looking for the place where god speaks
Every time you find him he just stabs you in the back again

Araya makes excellent use of syllabic emphasis which creates tension within the rhythm of the song. This is meant to enhance the chaotic feelings of the “you” being addressed. For example, he exaggerates the syllables in the first two lines: “Despair, emptiness,” along with “See the hatred wasted on yourself,” giving even more emphasis to “yourself,” whereas “Facedown, taste the dust / It’s getting harder everyday” are sung quickly. This slowness and quickness heightens the listening experience—slowness creates a depressive state and quickness creates anxiety, placing the listener in psychic limbo. In the last phrase of the first verse, “self-induced rejection,” the first word is sung very quickly and the last word is drawn out to emphasize emotional instability. The song slows down to pure heaviness between the verses, but picks up again as soon as Araya sings the second verse, continuing to make great use of unique syllabic rhythms. “Next fix, shoot it up / Looking for the place where god speaks” is sung quickly, suggesting that for the “you” in the song, drugs are a way to connect with a higher power in order to escape psychological turmoil. However, the results are undesirable: “Every time you find him he just stabs you in the back again.” Here is the two-part chorus—the first part utilizes that already familiar slow, heavy rhythm and the second part takes the song into an even lower rhythmic tone, enacting a slow sinking sensation:

No one hears you
You’re society’s infection
I won’t judge you
When the blood steals life from you

Cast down and thrown away
You are the living dead
The needle numbs the pain
Of all your suffering
This is where the world of money changes nothing

This chorus explains the true reason why the “you” suffers; it has everything to do with society viewing this individual as an “infection,” a wound that is allowed to fester rather than heal. “No one hears you” speaks to this fact. However, Araya sings “I won’t judge you,” inviting this person in in order to help them heal. “Cast down and thrown away” describes oppression as the individual being rejected and left to rot. As a result, drug addiction takes hold as a way to deal with the pain. The last line of the chorus is the most poignant not only in its meaning which explicitly places capitalism at the center of societal cruelty but because of the way Araya sings it. He uses syllabic enhancement to get his point across so that the line sounds like this: 

This is / where the / world of / money / changes / nothing

Araya’s voice becomes very sharp as he barks out this last line in aesthetically interesting chunks; most of the emphasis falls on the last three words: “money changes nothing.”

This is where the song briefly devolves musically: there is chaotic guitar noise, rumbling cymbals, and slight drum thumps. This is meant to stimulate realization so that it is understood that society is corrupt and chaotic, not the individual. Here is the spoken word interlude:

Just a statistic in the shadows of the real world
The system’s failing you just the way it failed me
Hell is home on the concrete where the city bleeds
America, home of the free 
Land of fucking disenchantment

The first two lines of the interlude explain the fact that mental illness is not an individualized problem; society is the culprit—and not just a generalized notion of society, but “America, home of the free.” This is an important part of the song because it establishes personal connection: “The system’s failing you just the way it failed me” and it balances the scales; it removes blame from the individual and places it on the rightful source. Araya speaks the last line with the same tone and syllabic emphasis characterized by the last line of the chorus:

 Land of / fucking / disenchantment

The song picks back up to the same speed and rhythm used for the first two verses as the final verse is sung:

Despair, emptiness
Isolation rapes you everyday
Facedown, taste the dust
Digging deeper in your grave
Haven’t found a reason
Haven’t found a thing to fucking live for
Godless he doesn’t care
How you choose to destroy yourself
In a world that feeds on hate
You’re left here just to waste away
In your cardboard prison asphalt wasteland

Again, the same kind of syllabic enhancement is performed here with the slowing down of “Despair, emptiness / Isolation rapes you everyday” and picks up with “Facedown, taste the dust / Digging deeper in your grave,” along with repetition: “Haven’t found a reason / Haven’t found a fucking thing to live for.” The last part of the verse is interesting because of the line “Godless, he doesn’t care / How you choose to destroy yourself.” “He” is representative of many things: society, religion, patriarchy; “he” is institutional authority. What is even more interesting is the implied contradiction: these are institutions that are traditionally considered to be held up by the modern conception of God—and yet they are described here as being “Godless” which means they are actually devoid of God. Society is the farthest thing from a spiritual utopia and Araya makes this clear as he sings the last line of the verse as one long run-on phrase:

In-your-cardboard-prison-asphalt-wasteland

Society is literally a disaster area that the individual is forced to hunker down inside of. The chorus is repeated at the end of the song to send the message that it is time for the individual to recognize that they are not the infection; they are actually living in a dystopia and they are in survival mode. The song ends sharply on the last line of the chorus: “This is where the world of money changes nothing”—capitalism is the actual infection; it has spread from society and into the individual’s psyche.

Songwriting is truly collaborative when it comes to Slayer: Tom Araya, Jeff Hanneman, and Kerry King all express themselves lyrically. This is why the lyrical elements of the songs are crucial: they tell the listener how to hear the music. Slayer’s primary strength is consistency; the group’s entire career is a testament to the fact that it has always remained true to its thrash roots. However, what makes Slayer one of the true forerunners of metal is the way in which it transcends the genre through creativity and reinvention. Araya, Hanneman, and King are brilliant thrash metal songwriters. As a collective, they found ways to evolve the genre through aesthetic moves within organic song constructs and paired them with conceptual understandings about religious and societal oppression and its effects on collective and individual psyches. Slayer is a strong proponent for anarchic thinking and how it can be applied to notions of what it means to live authentically within a religious-societal order that intentionally hides the corruption it breeds. The group exposes the brutal nature of modern society and appropriates its harshest characteristics in order to encourage enlightenment and personal empowerment. Slayer is an audience-oriented band in the sense that it gives its listeners what they want: honest thrash metal combined with honest lyricism. Araya is an incredibly consistent vocalist who knows how to utilize slight variations within his singing style to create interest and tension. Hanneman and King are excellent metal guitarists because they implement what is called for musically—knowing when to apply thrash elements, speed, and solos, when to apply riffs, and when to pull back muscially. Dave Lombardo and Paul Bostaph are exceptional drummers because they know how to internalize the spirit of the music in ways that allow them to make great use of beats and rhythms that help drive the energy of the songs. Musically, aesthetically, and conceptually speaking, Slayer is the full package, embodying metal on a transcendent level; it will endure as a landmark band, continuing to inspire innovation, creativity, and collective empowerment for musicians, lyricists, and listeners within the metal community.

March 22, 2021