"On the count to three, I want you to yell, 'War Machine!'" Slayer vocalist-bassist Tom Araya instructed the crowd, a quarter of the way through the band's show on Saturday night. "That's what we are, right? A fucking WAR MACHINE!!!"
No arguments there. Slayer have functioned as an unstoppable, unbeatable force since Show No Mercy was released nearly 36 years ago, rolling fearsomely onward despite everything that's been thrown at them. Controversy, lawsuits, drummer drama, the death of guitarist and co-founder Jeff Hanneman — none of those things have been able to stop Slayer's brutal onslaught, or knock it even briefly off-course.
But as with all machines, the time has come for Slayer to be shut down and dismantled. "The Final Campaign," the last, month-long stretch of a marathon victory march that began in May 2018, got underway Saturday night at the U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville, North Carolina, with a 20-song, career-spanning set that was neither a somber wake nor a giddy celebration, but rather a straightforward reiteration of Slayer's enduring thrash-metal brilliance.
Opening the shows on The Final Campaign are Primus, Ministry and Phillip H. Anselmo & the Illegals — a lineup which, despite its diversity, was largely well-received in Asheville. While Slayer fans have been notorious for chanting "Slay-er! Slay-er!" throughout the sets of opening bands, the only such chants heard before the headliners on Saturday night were shouted with the encouragement of Anselmo, who got the going-away party started with "A Vulgar Display of Pantera," a half-hour set of Pantera songs performed with his four-piece backing band. The arena was only about half-full when Anselmo went on at the crack of 6 p.m., but those who'd made it to the gig early were treated to seven roaring Pantera classics: "Mouth for War," "Becoming," "Yesterday Don't Mean Shit," "Strength Beyond Strength," "I'm Broken," "Fucking Hostile" and "Walk."
"I'm sending this out to all you old motherfuckers like me," Anselmo announced while introducing "I'm Broken." "And the new blood, all of you who grew up listening to fucking Pantera!" Anselmo, who was in fine voice, seemed both seriously energized by performing these songs again, and visibly moved by the crowd's enthusiastic response. Though the muddy sound mix did the band no favors, lead guitarist Max DeLeon and drummer Joey Gonzalez handled the parts of the late brothers Dimebag Darrell Abbott and Vinnie Paul like they themselves had grown up playing them, and DeLeon's wah-crazed solo on "Fucking Hostile" surely would have made Dime smile. Other than the mix, the only real downside to the set was its brevity; hopefully, Anselmo will take the "Vulgar Display of Pantera" thing out for some headlining shows once this Slayer tour is finished.
Still, as thrilling as it was to hear Anselmo belt these songs out in a live setting, there was an undeniable trace of sadness to the proceedings — one couldn't help thinking of what might have been, if only Pantera's various dysfunctions hadn't caused the Cowboys from Hell to implode so messily following 2000's Reinventing the Steel, if Dime hadn't been murdered while performing onstage with Damageplan in 2004, and if heart disease hadn't felled Vinnie last year. Of course, there's no going back, and Anselmo's musical tribute to his fallen former bandmates felt as sincere as it was powerful.
"We're gonna do some old ones tonight," announced Ministry mainman Al Jourgensen as his band took the stage. And indeed, the eight songs that followed were drawn entirely from the band's late-Eighties/early-Nineties heyday, highlighted by such industrial-metal favorites as "Stigmata," "Jesus Built My Hotrod" and "Just One Fix." Though band's sound was clean and forceful, and the lit-up crucifix that served as Uncle Al's mic stand/podium felt appropriately irreverent for the occasion, Ministry didn't seem to really fire up the crowd — which had completely packed the arena by now — until "N.W.O.," the sixth song of the band's set.
Primus, on the other hand, received a rapturous reception from the get-go. "Slayer's coming! Slayer's coming! Slayer's coming!" muttered singer-bassist Les Claypool into the mic during the opening "Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers"; "Les! Les! Les!" chanted a sizeable portion of the audience in response. Abetted by four video screens behind them showing animated clips, Claypool, guitarist Larry LaLonde and drummer Tim Alexander masterfully served up such warped classics as "Frizzle Fry," "Here Come the Bastards" and "My Name is Mud," their limber grooves and eccentric humor serving as a delightful palate-cleanser before the full-on intensity of the evening's main course. "Do you realize how amazing this thing is?" Claypool asked the crowd, noting that while Primus rarely accept invitations these days to go out as tour support, they simply couldn't say no to Slayer, who they'd originally bonded with on Ozzfest 1999. "Hey," he laughed, "I'm just happy to get into this fucker for free!"
And then, at long last, there was Slayer. Opening the set with "Repentless" — a song so quintessentially Slayer, it's hard to believe that it's only four years old — Tom Araya, guitarists Kerry King and Gary Holt, and drummer Paul Bostaph delivered their music with trademark aggression and precision. "Mandatory Suicide" and "World Painted Blood" followed in neck-breaking succession, and Reign in Blood's "Postmortem" turned the floor into a surging, seething mass of humanity that only seemed to get more crazed as the night went on.
Though Slayer's stage production was typically on-point — plenty of searing lights, swirling projections and appropriately-deployed smoke and fire — the vision of the four men working together onstage was completely transfixing in and of itself. Never exactly a "band of brothers," Slayer are really more of a crew of disparate individuals brought together in service of the music they channel. Araya calmly prowled the stage during instrumental breaks, grinning like a foreman pleased with how well the factory is running, while King moved from station to station between the amps, drum riser and front of the stage like an engineer making sure that every mechanism is in perfect working order. (Even when a thrown shoe hit King's sweaty tattooed dome in the midst of his solo on "South of Heaven," he didn't flinch or miss a note.)
While there will always be fans who prefer original drummer Dave Lombardo to his long-serving replacement Bostaph, the latter's performance Saturday night was utterly flawless; and Exodus axeman Holt, originally brought into the band in 2011 as a temporary substitute for the ailing Hanneman, now trades guitar solos so fluidly with King that it feels like he's been part of the band forever. If this wasn't the original Slayer lineup, it still completely delivered the goods.
Songs like "Seasons in the Abyss," "Hell Awaits" and "South of Heaven" proved that Araya's voice still retains its wickedly serrated edge; King's solos remain as ornery and unhinged as ever; and when the band pulled out 1983's "Show No Mercy" late in the set (played live in concert for the first time since 2007, and for the first time ever with Holt), it didn't sound like a throwback — it simply sounded like motherfucking Slayer. This is thrash metal, in all its skin-flaying glory; time and familiarity may have dissipated "evil" vibes that Slayer's music once exuded, but it sounds truly no less badass.
The show closed with a scarifying blast through "Raining Blood," "Dead Skin Mask" and "Angel of Death," after which the arena lights went up, and the band returned to the stage to bid farewell to their fans. Bostaph tossed his sticks into the crowd, King and Holt did likewise with their picks; Araya, who had said little during the show about this being the band's last go-round, slowly moved from one end of the stage to the other, gazing soulfully out at the cheering throngs as if mentally saying a final goodbye. It was a moment as heavy as any of the five hours of music that had come before it; the show was over, but no one, band or fans, seemed to want the night to end.
Is this truly the end of the line for Slayer? Only time will tell ... but only a fool would miss a chance to see them on The Final Campaign.