As time marches on, and careers stretch into their third and fourth decade, there are few bands that will be able to endure with the same members who were there in the beginning. Things happen, people change, and keeping an entire band on the same page for a lifetime is far more difficult than fans would want to admit. Just like we get bored with hearing too much music that sounds the same, or, ironically, bands that change too much, the musicians themselves often get to the point where their bands become jobs. They don’t have the same fire and passion for making music, but they continue on because it’s all they know.
Rarely do the challenges a band face involve death. Most of these scenarios involve money and power, a degree of infighting that leads to a dysfunction that can’t be recovered from. But every so often, there is something bigger than the band as a business. In the case of Slayer, Jeff Hanneman’s death was more than a setback, it was a blow that put the band on life support.
The question is whether to pull the plug.
The answer is already out there that Slayer has no intention of calling it quits. They are currently in the studio working on a new record, and another round of touring will soon follow. Slayer is carrying on just as they always have, enduring and surviving, because that’s what they do. Fans and outsiders may believe Slayer hasn’t made worthwhile music in twenty years, but Slayer persists. Many might have thought Slayer should have hung it up even before Hanneman’s passing, but Slayer persists. Slayer always persists.
Having an artistic sensibility myself, I try to defer to artists when it comes to their decisions. I can rarely fault someone who wants to move in a new direction, or who wants to embark in something that they know will be unpopular. It is their life, their art, and I am in no position to question their motives. That doesn’t mean I will agree with them, or will even support them, but I seldom try to second-guess the legitimacy of their choices.
Slayer is in a situation where I may be doing just that. With an uncertain future, there are three paths that the band can take. They can 1) Continue on as though nothing has changed, 2) Become a legacy act that tours their hits while not making new music, or 3) Retire. It should be obvious they they are not yet ready for the third option, but which of the first two is more reasonable?
I would like to split the difference. From everything that has been said in the media, Slayer still has a number of songs Hanneman wrote but never finished. Because of this, I have no problem with Slayer going into the studio to make the new record they are currently working on. If it serves as a way to honor Hanneman’s legacy, and put out a few last songs of his, I see nothing wrong with it.
The problem arises when and if Slayer wants to make more records after this. Looking through the band’s history, and which songs that continue to play night after night, Jeff Hanneman was responsible for the majority of them. He was not just half of Slayer, in many ways he was Slayer. His songs are the ones that built the band’s legacy, his songs are the ones the fans and the band continue to hold up as their best, and his songs are the ones that courted the controversy that made Slayer’s name. Simply put; Slayer isn’t Slayer without Jeff Hanneman.
The idea of a Slayer album without songs written by Hanneman is impossible to fathom. Kerry King may be capable of writing enough songs to fill records, but he never gave the band a direction and identity the way Hanneman did. Without the both of them bringing their own personalities to the songwriting, Slayer will go from a three-dimensional band into a flat reproduction of who they used to be. The gears may all still be in place, but the pendulum that drives them is missing.
Slayer should finish this record and go back out on the road. They can play forever, as far as I’m concerned. Filling arenas with their music and making people remember the legacy of Slayer is in some ways a noble thing to do. They have lives to lead, so I would never say that playing their own music and making fans happy is a bad idea. They can do that for as long as they want, so long as they can still do it well.
But once the new record is done, I have a hard time believing Slayer can survive as a creative entity. This new record should be their last, not just because they will be half the band they have always been, but because there’s no need to sully their legacy with those future records. Bands don’t make money selling albums, and Slayer doesn’t need new material to justify their touring. Make this new record, celebrate Hanneman’s legacy, and the time will be right for Slayer to retire from the studio.
Frankly, if they don’t take that advice, I’m not sure it would be Slayer anymore who makes that next record.