If you’re reading this site, then I’m sure you’re aware that Slayer has been through a couple of changes in recent years. At the moment, only vocalist/bassist Tom Araya and guitarist Kerry King remain from the band’s original lineup, augmented by returning drummer Paul Bostaph and touring guitarist Gary Holt (Exodus). With Jeff Hanneman gone and Araya being a non-songwriter by his own admission, the burden of writing Slayer‘s first album in six years falls solely on King’s shoulders.
After a short suspense-building intro, the album kicks off properly with the title track, “Repentless.” This one contains most pieces of the Slayer puzzle, lyrics aside (more on that later). It’s fast and to the point. The riffs and solos feel adequately Slayer-esque, and Tom Araya’s trademark shout sounds better than it has since the early ’90s. Perhaps this might not be so bad after all?
Sadly, somewhere during the third track, “Take Control,” Repentless slips back into the same mid-tempo mediocrity they’ve been churning out since Diabolus in Musica, and stays there for the next 35 minutes. I don’t know who influenced the band’s descent into down-tuned chug territory — Machine Head? Black Label Society? — but it’s not good and it needs to stop. Some of the songwriting feels oddly random and directionless, as though the band forgot how to structure a track effectively. This is most apparent on “When The Stillness Comes,” when a clean guitar intro leads into yet another clean guitar intro, killing the momentum completely.
“Cast The First Stone” is basically a rewrite of “Gemini” and/or “Eyes Of The insane,” yet lacking the flow and gravitas of either. “Implode” has some energy to it, but is undone by juvenile lyrics and entry-level riffs. Closing track “Pride In Prejudice” is yet another chunk of down-tuned, half-assed modern Slayer, ending the album in the most anticlimactic fashion possible. It’d be convenient to blame the record’s shortcomings entirely on King, but even Hanneman’s posthumous contribution “Piano Wire” feels like disparate musical ideas being forced together, and doesn’t really work.
There are, however, some bright spots. “You Against You” is actually fun once it kicks in, bringing in some of that Undisputed Attitude punk aggression and topping it off with plenty of guitar divebombs. “Atrocity Vendor” begins with an old-school riff straight out of Show No Mercy, leading into some speedy riffage and a classic guitar solo tradeoff. Speaking of which, new-ish guitarist Gary Holt (Exodus) makes his recorded debut with the band here. His role is limited to a handful of guitar solos, and while it’s weird to hear Slayer with solos that are in tune, he generally fits in well.
Many have argued that Dave Lombardo is the ultimate Slayer drummer, but no one makes a stronger case than his replacement, Paul Bostaph. Where Lombardo was able to add flair and musicality to even the most boneheaded musical ideas (of which Slayer has many), Bostaph merely plays along with the riffs. There are sections in several songs where all four of his limbs merely mimic what King’s right hand is doing on guitar. Add in a couple double-kick sections that sound like his timing is simply off, and you can consider me unimpressed (impressless?).
While Jeff Hanneman’s death left a gaping hole in Slayer‘s songwriting, his absence is felt most in the band’s lyrics. King tries to uphold the tradition of edgy, “controversial” subject matter, but while Hanneman’s contributions were typically well-researched and delivered with subversive glee, King’s efforts come across as merely thuggish and ignorant. “Vices” boasts a chorus — “A little violence is the ultimate drug/let’s get high!” — that is so stupid that I’m cringing just typing it out. Even the title track, which King supposedly wrote as a tribute to his fallen bandmate, feels like a gross oversimplification of a human being’s life, reducing Hanneman’s supposed worldview to bumper-sticker slogans and cussing. Some “tribute.”
The fact that Repentless even exists raises serious questions about Slayer‘s legitimacy. It comes off as complete arrogance on the part of King and Araya, for one thing. It also serves as a reminder that Slayer is a business now, and their touring and merch sales are dependent upon fresh material, no matter how rancid. The result is an album of mostly forgettable (rememberless!) songs and unforgivably (forgiveless!) stupid lyrics, topped off by an ill-conceived album title that has already earned the mockery of the metal public. Slayer will continue to do fine as a live band no matter what, but if they want people to care about their new music, they’re going to have to do better than this.