It's possible to argue that Slayer is the only of the so-called "Big Four" American thrash-metal bands that has never done anything truly embarrassing. The band's music has remained as aggressive and noisy as it's ever been, and since Dave Lombardo returned in 2001, Slayer has regained the rhythmic complexity it lost during the nine that Paul Bostaph, a hard-hitting but unsubtle player, played drums. In September, it'll be releasing World Painted Blood, its ninth studio album and the follow-up to 2006's Christ Illusion. Says Lombardo: "I really like it a lot more than any since [1988's] South of Heaven, [1990's] Seasons [in the Abyss] and [1986's] Reign in Blood. The ones we did from '86 to '90, there was magic there, and I think this record has that quality."
When it was promoting Christ Illusion, Slayer toured with Marilyn Manson. Despite being an odd pairing on its face, it must have sold tickets: The band's doing it again this summer. (Lombardo admits to being a sometime fan, saying, "I like Manson's heavier stuff.") He's hoping some of Slayer's intensity will rub off on Manson, though. "The last tour was full of the very slow, trudging stuff," he recalls. "I wanted to hear some energy, some pounding drums, some fire."
Onstage, Slayer keeps the theatrics to a minimum; the drummer describes the band as "this locomotive," one he's driving from the rear. He listens to his own drums in his monitors — and so do guitarists Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King and bassist/vocalist Tom Araya. "I don't even know if they have guitars in their monitors," he says. "Usually kick and snare is all I hear them saying they want... It's true, I do drive them. We're onstage playing, going mach ten downhill, and we're about to fall off the tracks, but somehow I always seem to guide the band right back in, whether it's crazy drum rolls, or I'm just locked into the zone where me and my drumsticks are one."
Lombardo plays a similar role in the studio, though he doesn't write any of the riffs or lyrics. "Although they'll have the basics of the structure of a song, when I start playing, it opens up more ideas for the guys to embellish more," he says. "So what I do is enhance what they have and contribute my own structure and connectivity." According to Lombardo, this was particularly important during the recording of World Painted Blood, which was in large part written in the studio — a first for Slayer. He sounds genuinely enthused about the disc, describing a genuine rejuvenation, which for a band with 25 years in the game is astonishing.
This burst of creative energy was in part due to the efforts of producer Greg Fidelman, who also worked on Metallica's Death Magnetic. "Personalities can clash with other personalities, obviously, but his clicked very well with us," Lombardo says. "He brought out the best in all of us, and I believe he's taught us a few things, which I feel like a producer should do. He makes you sound good, but he'll make you a better musician when you leave the studio. During the Reign in Blood days, I remember [Rick] Rubin bringing out the best in my drumming, and Greg did the same thing."
It may be a little hard for long-time fans to imagine Slayer's Kerry King being willing — or able — to accept opinions from outside the group, but Lombardo says it's vital to do so. "I think once you stop absorbing outside influence, you can kiss your career goodbye. You're stuck in a rut, and you'll never grow. Part of being a musician is growing and continuously learning and re-creating yourself, and once you stop that, I think you stop all creative facets of your musical ability." Without fundamentally changing what it does, Slayer still seems to be moving forward rather than coasting on past glories, and its streak of not letting itself — or its fans — down is likely to continue.