It’s already been a good summer for metal fans in the midwest. After the Northern Invasion hit Somerset, Wisconsin, earlier this month, one might think the fanbase would have been satisfied. Not so. And with good reason. Slayer, one of the reigning kings of the genre, and also one of its defining forces, has decided to retire; but they are going out in grand fashion.
The bill for the show read like a whos-who of metal. Even the ‘openers,’ old school rockers Testament and Polish extreme metal pioneers Behemoth, have been melting faces for a combined total of over 60 years.
By the time Anthrax took the stage in the 6 o’clock hour, The Armory was full to capacity. These were real metal fans. Not a Slipknot shirt in the house. These folks dug out the worn, patch-covered, studded vests, Slayer shirts from the 80s, and, if they were headed to the pit, sometimes no shirt at all.
It truly felt like an era was ending. It could be argued that the high water mark of harder, darker rock music hit its crest in the mid-80s, and the culture has never seen a movement that equaled its power. The metal genre grew out of hard rock like Led Zeppelin, and found its origins in Black Sabbath, but thrash metal did not emerge until the early 80s when bands like the Big 4 (Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer), two of which played on this night, found a wide audience of fans who had been looking for an outlet for aggression and dark feelings that could only be assuaged in mosh pits or isolated moments of Walkman quality headphones.
Now we live in the time of selfie sticks, living-your-best-life, everybody’s-opinion-is-valad, and balls-to-the-wall, blood-and-guts, make-your-mom-pee-her-pants metal has gone back under the mainstream radar. Few new acts have taken the mantel for the thrash gods of the previous generation, and none with the original fervor and sincerity for the message. Anthrax closed their set with “Indians,” a lament for the treatment and dismissal of Native Americans, but one has to wonder if, in these PC times, the terminology and delivery are appropriate. Do we get hung up on semantics, or do we just get in the mix and do our ‘wardance’ as instructed? The fact that this question even comes to mind is a flag waved to the shift in cultural priorities.
The youngest band on the roster is Lamb of God, who has also been around for over 20 years. Again, the pace hasn’t slowed. During their high-intensity set, one of the largest swirling mosh pits in recent history erupted in the middle of The Armory’s packed auditorium. The stomping and thrashing and flying bodies shook the floor as singer Randy Blythe engaged the crowd, chanting, “I can’t recognize myself, I think I’m someone else, my hands are painted red!” It was an indication that any shift toward a more compassionate worldview is always in need of an outlet of counterbalance.
All of the bands had a message that reflected something along the lines of, “We came here for one reason: to f**k s**t up! You guys ready to have some fun!” And it has been a point of contention as to where the line would be drawn in this philosophy. Some extreme fans have been accused of taking the message too literally, to violent ends, while the bands have always maintained that they do not promote literal violence. This is hardly the forum for a discourse on the nature of good and evil, it is simply a fascinating spectacle to witness a warehouse full of people thrashing to ‘evil’ music, but very few are injured and everyone leaves the building with a smile on their face.
And this, dear readers, is the strange and wonderful dichotomy that Slayer (and very nearly Slayer alone) has been able to maintain for over 30 years. Slayer has not softened or backed away from their uninhibited roots. The band has always been about extreme aggression as a form of entertainment. They were, and now literally are, the uncompromising grandfather of softer metal children.
There’s not much more to be said about the artistic and societal impact of this genre, and the technical prowess of metal musicians has never been up for debate. The songs are still the same, and the stage show reflected the band’s commitment to its direction. Upside down crosses, a bloody, blacklit portrait of Christ, and flamethrowers that seem like they should violate some sort of fire code accompanied the driving, haltless speed of the music. When one is standing amongst 5,000 black-clad metal fans, facing the prospect of finding some other avenue to harbor our dark feelings and aggression, or finally letting them go for good, it is a glorious catharsis to witness, even one last time.