How Slayer's Kerry King and Tom Araya Focused Their Fury Into a Crushing New Album, 'Repentless'

This in an excerpt from the new November 2015 issue of Guitar World. For the complete interview, pick up the new issue at newsstands or the Guitar World Online Store.

It’s hard to imagine a world without Slayer. But just two years ago that looked like a real possibility when the band was suddenly ripped in half.

In February 2013, drummer Dave Lombardo left the four-piece in a bitter, public way after a contract dispute, and three months later, on May 2, guitarist Jeff Hanneman died of complications from cirrhosis of the liver.

Despite those potentially catastrophic losses, remaining members Kerry King and Tom Araya soldiered on. But even today, on the eve of the band’s new album, Repentless, you can scan any online comment thread or survey a group of metalheads about the state of the thrash-metal legends, and a few doubts remain.

How will they recover from Jeff’s death and Dave’s exit? Can Kerry King write a record by himself? After 30-plus years is Slayer finished? As far as King’s concerned, haters can hate, and doubters be damned—he has no time for it.

“I wanna put that demon to bed,” the guitarist tells us moments before we ignite a warehouse studio in downtown L.A. for our fiery photo shoot. “The diehard fans are rabidly waiting for the new record. But there are the dickhead 10 percent that expect you to fail because things are so different. But I’m not even concerned. I’m stoked. Repentless is gonna shut them right up.”

Heralded by inspired screams, merciless guitar work and maniacal drumming, Repentless marks a triumphant return for the band after the six difficult years since 2009’s World Painted Blood. That Slayer have managed to deliver such a powerful statement 11 records into their career is made even more surprising when you consider that not long ago, the jury was out—even within the Slayer camp—on whether it was possible for the band to continue. While the steadfast King has always been clear about his desire to move forward, it took Araya a while to come around.

“After 30 years, it would literally be like starting over,” the bassist told us back in 2013 just weeks after Hanneman’s death. “To move forward without Jeff just wouldn’t be the same. You can have someone sit in for him, but there’s no one on this planet that can do what Jeff did. There’s no replacing him.”

With Slayer’s long-term future uncertain in the months after Hanneman’s passing, the band focused on the task at hand and set out to fulfill previously booked touring commitments. Araya and King leaned forward and hit the road with drummer Paul Bostaph (who was previously in the band during Lombardo’s 10-year break in the Nineties), and Exodus’ Gary Holt on second guitar (a role he’d occupied since Hanneman was first sidelined in 2011 from a flesh-eating condition known as necrotizing fasciitis stemming from a spider bite). It was in the crucible of performing their blazing set night after night onstage that Araya and King found a common ground, and hesitation slowly gave way to inspiration.

“We were finishing up a tour and had to decide whether we wanted to complete this record,” says Araya. “Kerry and I had communicated our thoughts and feelings about what was going on. That was not an easy thing! [laughs] It’s ongoing, but we managed to say, ‘Listen, let’s do this record and see what happens.’ ”

With Araya fully committed, King and Bostaph started refining the material the guitarist had been compiling since 2011. “When Jeff got hurt I took it upon myself to dive-bomb into making up stuff,” says King. “I didn’t know if Jeff had anything, or was gonna have any more. Either way I’d be prepared, and Slayer would be covered. As it turns out, we recorded 12 songs for this record and there’s still like six others we recorded without leads and vocals. So we’re halfway to the next record. People see it like we’ve had six years off. But in six years I wrote a record and a half!”

Despite the absence of co-writer Hanneman, the dozen tracks that make up Repentless are quintessential Slayer: fast, furious and wicked thrash metal. From start to finish Repentless is packed with circle-pit inducers (“Implode,” “Repentless,” “Take Control”), fist-pumping headbangers (“You Against You,” “Chasing Death”) and grim death marches (“Cast the First Stone,” “When the Stillness Comes”), and it even includes one final song penned by Hanneman, “Piano Wire.”

“We did ‘Piano Wire’ for a three-song demo with [producer] Greg Fidelman before we started World Painted Blood,” Araya explains. “It didn’t make that record, but we listened to it when we were working on the new one, and it sounded really, really good. So I went in and finished the vocal parts.”

“Paul replayed the drums, but guitar-wise it’s the same as it was six years ago,” adds King. “But if there’s ever a thing as ‘Unfortunately, it’s my solo,’ it’s for this one, because Jeff isn’t on it.”

While King wrote all the remaining music for Repentless—believing that fans weren’t ready for an outsider to contribute songwriting ideas—he did enlist his touring co-guitarist Holt to lay down some solos, a task the capable musician knocked out in just one day.

“Gary’s a superstar, and I didn’t worry about what he’d play,” King says. “I was praising him for years before I ever hit him up for this gig. I know he’s good, professional and he wouldn’t think for a second to put anything inadequate on our record.”

After three decades of creating some of the purest and most iconic expressions of the thrash style, Slayer have been forced to evolve. And thanks to the dedication and focus of King and Araya the band hasn’t lost the plot.

“We’ve been together this long, we have a passion for the band, and we take what we do seriously,” says Araya. “We’re one less person, but we’re moving forward with what we’ve always done. People ask us, ‘Will it be Slayer?’ Well, yeah, it’ll be Slayer. When we went in to record, I was thinking, This stuff is good. And when we were done I went home and listened to the master. I was like, Woah, this is some heavy shit. This is fucking great.”

Photo: Jimmy Hubbard

This in an excerpt from the new November 2015 issue of Guitar World. For the complete interview, pick up the new issue at newsstands or the Guitar World Online Store.

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Brad Angle

Brad is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and video producer. He is the former content director of Revolver magazine and executive editor of Guitar World. His work has appeared in Vice, Guitar Aficionado, Inked and more. He’s also a die-hard Les Paul player who wishes he never sold his 1987 Marshall Silver Jubilee half stack.