War, murder, fire, human sacrifice, torture, twisted experimentation, conspiracy theories, satanic ritual and thirty years of aggression all come to a head in a single moment of musical history as the guitar play of Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King tears the night sky open bringing forth a deluge of “bloody rain” upon the stage from the rafters above. The “blood” splashes all over the band and any concert goer lucky enough to have scored themselves a ticket in the pit up front. As the rain pours, the band feverishly slices through the last fourth of their classic hit “Raining Blood.” The crowd, foaming at the mouth by this point, lets go the last bits of energy and rage left in their battered bodies as the final notes ring out over their heads like death bells tolling. This scene of metal mayhem and metaphoric mass death can mean only one thing. You’ve just witnessed the aural assault known as Slayer.
Slayer have been making heads bang since the early 1980’s and haven’t lost one shred of their devilishly aggressive signature style that combines the speed of early punk rock with the dark, occult imagery of metal pioneers like Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep, Pentagram, and others. These four men, along with legendary American acts Anthrax, Megadeth, and Metallica, helped to create an entirely new scene of American heavy metal music that came to be known as Thrash; a genre which was given the name as a reference to the violent motion it elicited in the listeners. The band have taken the carnival freak show found within their lyrics and burning solos from the San Francisco Bay Area of California to the rest of the globe in search of open minds to impregnate and closed minds to penetrate with their irresistible onslaught of anti-establishment rhetoric and graphic horror imagery. Song titles like “Hell Awaits”, “Angel of Death”, “A Little South of Heaven”, “Dead Skin Mask”, “War Ensemble” and album titles such as “Reign in Blood”, “Christ Illusion”, and “God Hates Us All” hit straight to the heart of their central themes of the grotesque, inverted hierarchies (and crosses for that matter), and strange lyrical wordplay.
Slayer is far more than a heavy metal band blindly shouting about the devil and the values of loud, aggressive music. Slayer is a very specific rhetorical statement that is meant to challenge the social order and the world that has been accepted as mainstream culture in government, religion, business, and even the western school of thought. Understanding more about what the band actually holds as its message can not only enlighten one about the foundations of heavy metal music, but also about the potential of the extreme art form to create new realities and perspectives for its audience. Rhetorical study of such art forms can yield valuable dividends in our understanding of counterculture movements and the foundations of certain shifts in popular thought over a generation. Slayer’s lyrical carnival of horrors is an excellent place to start.
The essential part of any true carnival is the knowledge that one is attending a “show”. The knowledge and awareness of willing participation in the creation of a false and absurd representation of generally accepted reality is key to the power of that carnival’s intellectually suasory ability. Music presents inherently in its purchasable products (albums, posters, shirts, concert experiences) and movements (folk, hip-hop, punk, black metal) the potential for a traveling carnival show that creates the opportunity for audience members to be swayed by their participation in the artistic satire and degradation of society and its power structures. Therefore, studying the greater themes and messages within Slayer’s lyrics and those of other musicians in the genre can be a vital component in understanding the appeal and importance of such an art for the development of minds and the growth of oppositional sentiment toward authority in the viewing/listening public. So, ultimately the question is posed: does the music of Slayer hold deeper meaning than raw spectacle for its audience and what is the effectiveness of their carnivalesque rhetoric?
Description of the Artifact
For over thirty years, Slayer has been creating, recording, and playing music that is loud, fast, shrill, atonal, and rife with horrific imagery. Founded in 1981 by Kerry King, Jeff Hanneman, Dave Lombardo, and front-man Tom Araya, Slayer began taking the local scene by storm in the southern California region known as the “Bay Area” almost immediately. Intent to stand out from and overthrow the popular scene in heavy music, Slayer did whatever they could to differentiate themselves from the crowd. Tom Araya described their approach to music making and imagery saying “[we] did everything completely opposite of that (the image of the 1980’s hair metal bands), which included the dark image, you know, that whole Satan vibe…people were really freaking out over that” (Feniak 2006).Their style of play and graphic lyrical content was so different from anything else in the metal world at the time that despite the derision and distaste in the mouths of the mainstream rock press their 1983 album Show No Mercy “sold in droves” ( Sharpe-Young 2007). The media thought that Slayer’s music was no more than a mess of overplayed guitars and screams. What they didn’t know was just how influential and successful they would become.
Slayer has become a steady member of top 100 charts in terms of sales and popularity with every release even with little to no radio, television, or other media play (Sharpe-Young 2007) and have won two Grammy awards for Best Metal Performance while being nominated for several others (Burkhart 2009). Countless numbers of heavy metal bands owe their entire existence to the groundbreaking work of Slayer’s early recordings. Even artists such as Tori Amos, a critically acclaimed songwriter who recorded a very unique version of Raining Blood, have covered Slayer tunes or used their ideas to flesh out their own work as artists. Their reach as a band extends far beyond what can be considered “general success”. Slayer are considered part of the “Big 4” of American metal music along with Megadeth, Metallica, and Anthrax who each have brilliant careers in their own right having sold millions of records worldwide while creating their respective musical empires. This elite group is considered to be gods of the metal genre and of heavy music as we know it today. With throngs of fanatic devotees, some of which who support and celebrate a international day of Slayer on June 6th each year since its inception on 6/6/06 ( internationaldayofslayer.org ), the band has pushed the boundaries of acceptable rhetoric and subject matter in a way that has forever changed the shape of the art form. The rhetoric of Slayer is, therefore, not just a particular rhetoric isolated within their body of work, but an underlying current of all heavy music and the members of its subculture.
Slayer’s music is characterized by harsh chord formations, light speed fret work, thunderous and driving percussion, and rapid, unpredictable time signature changes that leave the listener with little solid ground to stand on. The music is in a constant state of motion that stirs the audience to movement as well causing a state of frenzy, confusion, and in some first time listeners, fear. Drawing upon horror films, the occult, dark historical narratives, and sheer gore, the lyrical play serves to create a grotesque picture intended to shock, tear down, and refocus the audience on the pieces of “truth” that the band deems vital for the enlightened human experience. Specifically, a particular handful of songs serve as excellent examples of Slayer’s use of the Carnivalesque to eradicate, educate, and entertain. In the course of this analysis, we will take closer looks into the rhetoric of the following songs: Flesh Storm (2006); Raining Blood (1986); Dead Skin Mask (1990); Skeletons of Society (1990); Disciple (2001); New Faith (2001); Cult (2006); Jihad (2006); Divine Intervention (1994); Stain of Mind (1998); Skeleton Christ (2006); Consfearacy (2006); Americon (2009); Human Strain (2009); In The Name of God (1998).
These songs each help to illuminate the use of carnival to remind the audience of its human condition, the falsehoods of the established order of control, and the potentiality for unrestrained use of language. Each of the artifacts will be examined through the carnivalesque method as we look deeper into the message of Slayer.
Unit of Analysis
Relying on Paul “Pablo” Martin’s and Valerie Renegar’s version from their work “The Man for His Time” The Big Lebowski as Carnivalesque Social Critique (2007), we will analyze the lyrical content of the proposed Slayer catalog using the Carnivalesque Social Critique method. Drawing from the perspective found and espoused in Bahtkin’s Problem’s of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1963/1984) and Rabelais and His World (1965/1984) for the development of their method, Martin and Renegar cite his take on carnival as being “the place for working out, in a concretely sensuous, half real half play acted form, a new mode of interrelating between individuals, counter posed to the all powerful socio-hierarchical relationships of non-carnival life.” Carnival can then be used as a method to free audiences from the norms, conventions, accepted truths, and imposed order of society (Martin & Renegar 2007). Rather than relying on mere negation of the commonly accepted ways of being, the carnivalesque artifact provides a “route to knowledge” (Emerson 2002) as power based ideologies are pushed against and rebutted as the laughter or frenzy produced by the spectacle helps to assuage fear and promote open inquiry in the audience (Martin & Renegar 2007). Is is important to note that this process does not always take place for the audience if they believe the established order or truth in question to be the proper or correct order for the world. In that case, the viewer/participant will find the carnival to be nothing more than a disgusting or distorted display of that which is vile, juvenile, taboo, or intellectually vapid. The onus is then, in such a case, on the performer to “lure” the viewer, in effect, into the grotesque celebration in order to change their perspective.
Grounded in social criticism, the Carnivalesque allows statements, often larger than the content itself, to be made regarding the world in which it was created. In this method, unlike more straightforward social criticisms, the rhetoric is rooted in the parodic and utilizes stereotypes by pushing them to their “extreme in spectacle” (Martin & Renegar 2007). Carnival enables “subjects to enter a liminal realm of freedom” that serves to “create a space for critique that would otherwise not be possible in normal society” (Bruner). This realm of freedom exists in the experience of the artifact and the interplay between performer, performance, and audience which brings a previously non-existent world into being in which all truths can be seen as falsehoods and vice versa. In heavy metal music and performances grotesque realism “constitutes a proto-utopian liminal alternative to the impersonal, conformist, superficial, unequal, and numbing realities of commercialism and, more abstractly, a resistance to a society of spectacle and nothingness” (Bettez Hanlon 2006). “The rhetoric of carnival does this by creating what Boje calls “a theatrics of rant and madness seeking to repair felt separation and alienation” (2003). Carnival also “operates through ambiguity” (Harold 2004) or open ended symbolism to disrupt the solidity of established boundaries of thought and experience. Furthermore “in its parodic inversions…[carnival] reveals that the established social hierarchy, indeed all of social reality, is a human construct” (Harold 2004) which can therefore be challenged, attacked, dissected, and when proper, done away with completely.
Carnivalesque criticisms work through the use of a three pronged investigative perspective which we will utilize to suit our purposes when examining the Slayer rhetoric. Utilizing grotesque realism, the inversion of hierarchies, and structural and grammatical experimentation, rhetorical works of carnival seek to challenge the status quo. Each of the key perspectives blend with the next to form a detailed breakdown of the content and the effectiveness of such rhetorical artifacts and their methodologies.
The first key element is grotesque realism. Generally speaking “the grotesque is degradation” as it is “a lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract…to the material level, to the sphere of earth and body” (Bahtkin 1965/1984) in an attempt to make the mortality and materiality of the human experience immediately present. This is done through the use of gore, violence, sex and sexually explicit commentary or material, defecation, pregnancy, death, war, disease and illness, dismemberment, and other biological processes that serve to further ground and position the audience as “earthbound animals” (Martin & Renegar 2007). Language is used in the grotesque to “invit[e] them (the audience) to revel in the body and its processes in the hope of inspiring an interrogation into the conservative and hierarchical constraints society imposes upon and between them” (Martin & Renegar 2007). Grotesque realism, then, requires the “soiling” of good names, references to the filthy and inescapable elements that expose our animal nature, and the essential “slaying” of kingship and purity in an attempt to reveal the reality of the material world and refocus the audience on the “truth” that the performer believes to be sharing.
Naturally, the use of grotesque realism leads to the inversion of hierarchies as established orders and monarchies fall and are made to be equals with the subjugated class in their sharing of grotesque animal-ism and material finality allowing for the subjugated class to usurp the roles of dominance previously made unattainable. Hierarchical structures and systems are therefore suspended “highlight[ing] the existence of often accepted if not invisible social hierarchies, thus encouraging a rethinking of such a system of values” (Martin & Renegar 2007) making it possible for new systems and structures to come into existence and/or power. Themes such as revolution, mutiny, protest, radical political action, terrorism, and war themes in general can all point to the proposed inversion of current hierarchical structures or references to prior inversions that have come to pass as the basis for new challenges to the system. In these inversions, kings become paupers and lose their heads while gods become men and die all in an attempt to show that the accepted order is in fact mutable and subject to decay. In heavy metal, much of this inversion involves the inversion of the concept or character within itself/themselves such as in the case of an instrument of peace becoming a weapon for war.
Finally, structural and grammatical experimentation is a fairly straightforward tool. Carnival in the literary form uses language to “destabilize normative forms” (Martin & Renegar 2007) while cinematic devices “strive to reveal the constructedness of social norms by disrupting established cinematic styles” (Martin & Renegar 2007). Musical rhetoric utilizes similar tactics as it pushes structural boundaries of style and play while crafting the lyrical content in manners that subvert the everyday and mundane patterns of speech in the performer’s respective language. Used to resist the domination of hegemonies it “deploys the force of dominant discourse against itself” (Stam) and plays with phraseology in ways that expose and denigrate rhetoric that the performer may deem inappropriate, dangerous, and/or empty. Therefore, experimentation in the structure and word choice is used as a means of establishing “antigrammaticality in form[s] that encourage a critical distance from the content of the [artifact] and an awareness and curiosity regarding the nature of its construction” (Martin & Renegar 2007). Words and their construction are purposefully distorted, stretched, and toyed with in the same way that the grotesque is thrown in one’s face and the hierarchical structures are flipped upside-down. By subverting all order in a surreal representation of anti-reality, it is proposed that true reality will be the only message left once the walls of the established illusory order crumble from the assault upon and subsequent destruction of their foundations. The carnival in heavy metal music “breaks through the noise of commercial culture by raising the transgression ante to the extreme” offering a counter assault against “nearly every conceivable social rule governing taste, authority, morality, propriety, [and] the sacred” (Bettez Hanlon 2006). In the Slayer rhetoric, the assault is violent, blatant, extreme and hell bent on answering the question: What, if anything, is sacred?
Summary of Evidence
Starting our analysis with the examination of the grotesque elements of the lyrical content, we turn first to the tune Flesh Storm (2006) from the album Christ Illusion (2006). The song, dealing with the atrocities of the perpetual state of foreign wars waged by the U.S. government, opens with a scene describing the horror of a grenade attack stating: “Cause it all starts now; When you pull the f*****g pin; The shrapnel burns; As it tears into the skin.” The immediacy of the scene places the listener directly into the action from the perspective of the soldier. In a certain way, the band drops the listener into the field of battle amid the very real “flesh storm” insinuating that they are the ones having their skin torn by the blast. Later in the tune, we are presented with a reference to suicide which we are told is the only way to escape the atrocity and its memory:
There’s no future
The world is dead
So save that last
Bullet for your head
Only fallen have won
Because the fallen can’t run
My vision’s not obscure
For war there is no cure
So here the only law
Is men killing men
The description, relying on a viewpoint of suicide as solution or falling back upon the “kill or be killed” cliché as the only viable option, uses a taboo message to load the commentary with the grotesque realization that war is not just something that happens on television but is in fact an immediate and death bringing experience shared by all of humanity.
Moving the subject matter onto the theme of murder, Slayer’s popular work Dead Skin Mask, from 1990’s Seasons in the Abyss, works through the mind of a serial killer describing the pure joy of his ritualistic interaction with his victims bodies. One pivotal point in the song provides us with the haunting lyric, “Graze the skin with my finger tips; The brush of dead warm flesh pacifies the means; Incised members ornaments on my being; Adulating the skin before me.” The words quite clearly provide the audience with the image of a murderer caressing a dead body, or at least its remaining parts, which he then crafts into jewelry that he praises in a quasi religious manner. Using this bold, grotesque imagery, the song forces the listener to “look” at the horror and madness of the act through the eyes of the killer. This, once again, just as in the tune Flesh Storm (2006), places the audience in the role which they least want to incarnate. Forced to witness the abomination through his eyes, the listener has no choice but to see themselves as equally human. Whether or not they believe that they are capable of the same distorted barbarisms as war or serial killing, they are still allowed only the possibility of seeing the potential for such action embedded in all humanity equally.
Moving to the theme of vengeance, Slayer presents, in arguably its most popular song, Raining Blood, from 1986’s Reign In Blood, a description of the bloody return to power that the narrator intends to carry out as he seeks revenge for past transgressions. It is unclear whether or not the song is about personal vengeance or the actual reign of a monarch seeking to reinstate his power once lost. What is most certain, however, is the returning of the listener to a position of witness to the grotesque act of violent death. Again relying on violent death imagery to force an awareness of mortality in the audience, Raining Blood (1986) draws a mental image of a bloody path to power for its protagonist. The song references a “return to power” as the “souls of my (the narrator) treacherous past” who have betrayed are “pierced from below” by what one can only assume is the torturous act of impalement by stake once employed by Vlad Tepes (a.k.a. Dracula). As the narrative moves along, these betrayers, “now ornaments dripping above”, become part of the protagonists “hour of reprisal” as “return to power draws near.” The song closes with the horrific lines:
From a lacerated sky
Bleeding its horror
Creating my structure
Now I shall reign in blood!
Embedded in this scene is the image of the many persons who have wronged this vengeful protagonist becoming part of an actual physical structure or construction of dead and dying bodies that are bleeding out from where they have been impaled and having been placed on display to be viewed by all. A new kingship is created as the construct signifies a new and current “reign in blood” for the narrator.
Like each of the previously suggested songs, the simple act/feeling/belief common to human experience in each narrative is taken to its extreme in the grotesque realism of the words. In this case, the very normal desire for justice and revenge for the wrongs committed against oneself has been distorted and taken to its extreme end in the utter destruction of other for the sake of recompense. The previous songs dealt with the desire to stand for a set of beliefs such as nationalism and the cultural phenomena of praising and lusting for the body of others respectively. In those cases, as with Raining Blood (1986), the band forces the listener to view the grotesque extreme in an attempt to tear down the accepted reality of each position, enabling the listener to view the particular element or idea without preconception or at least with new perspective. This device abounds in the Slayer rhetoric and serves to bring the sacred down to the mud to be deconstructed along with providing the audience with no alternative but to become fully aware of their human animality and finite materiality. By using this device, the songs are able to tear down structure and modes of thinking and believing. This allows their use of hierarchical inversion to become all the more powerful in its ability to challenge, deconstruct, and dissuade listeners from their current belief structures.
Slayer rely quite heavily on two very specific inversions of hierarchical structure to convey their message of free thought and rebellion. Those inversions involve the tearing down of both government/nationalistic regimes and Christianity in an effort to expose their power structures as dictatorial, manipulative, and corrupt. Starting with the inversion of governmental power structures, we will look at the lyrical wording of Consfearacy (2006)from the albumChrist Illusion (2006). The opening starts with a no holds barred assault on the current U.S. administration which, at the time, was under the control of George W. Bush. The beginning lyrics set the stage for a bitter resentment that continually puts the powers that be in the role of inept fear mongers unable to perform their duties to the American people. The lyrics:
I need to redefine
All the things I hate today
Politics that fail
From a president derailed
I hate the s**t economy
It might as well be sodomy
I know that in the end
I’m expected to pretend
But I can’t relate
To your verbal idiocy
No one’s in control
When the government’s the enemy
So light the fuse
Impose your views
Some very key inversions are taking place in these lines. First, the politics of the current system are shown to be in a state of failure as the figurehead has “derailed.” Furthermore, the economy has been brought down to the realm of sexual vulgarity as it is equated with sodomy and called “s**t” in fifth and sixth lines. This positions the narrator and the listener as being in the place of authority in judging what essentially “works” in governance and economic endeavor. In a sense, the listener and narrator are now the ones who judge those who enforce judgments. The president is then referred to as a linguistic idiot with the inability to communicate or comprehend language. This directly inverts the accepted role of leaders as being the most wise, intelligent, and capable representative and places the narrator in the role of the enlightened. Finally, the government is placed in the role of “enemy” and is purported to manipulate, dominate, and control through the use of fear (becoming “anarchy”) inverting the role of protector with that of the tyrant. In doing so, the song forces the established government to its metaphoric knees to be “subject” rather than “ruler”. Again, exposing the tactics of the now labeled idiot governors, we are delivered the lyric “I’m expected to pretend; That I can’t think for myself; Blame it all on someone else.” In this line, the narrator sheds the popular mentality and perspective of average the citizen and dons a new intellectual strength and individuality that not only raises him above those who would place him as unable to rationalize for himself, but also assumes responsibility for blame in an assertion of his position of authority to do so on our country’s behalf.
Themes like the one found in Consfearacy (2006) are scattered throughout the body of rhetoric. Other key inversions of this particular hierarchy can be found in songs like Americon from the 2009 recording World Painted Blood. In the lyrics, Slayer attacks the popular ideology of war and culture conversion that they see as part of the American agenda. Opening the song with the lines “With our callous minds we infect; Other ways of life no regrets; Like a masochist we instigate; While the rest of the world must tolerate”, the position is immediately taken that America starts the aggression and forces its culture and ideologies upon a world that is made to submit to our displays of power. Calling America masochistic serves the purpose of positioning those in power as corrupted and in a sense perverted by their physical and perhaps psycho-sexual enjoyment of pain or in this case violence toward others. The government becomes lowered to the level of tyrant from their pedestal upon which they pose as defenders of freedom. In the lines that follow, the narrator again attacks the intentions of the nation which now gets positioned as aggressor. The lyrics: “It’s all about the motherf****n’ oil; Regardless of the flag upon its soil; In a blood bath we pad our f****n’ greed; The price is high to maintain liberty.” Again, the defenders of liberty switch places with the victims who are shown to be interchangeable based on monetary need. Liberty is shown to be capitalist venture while the ownership of resources like oil becomes the evidence of one’s guilt of crimes against humanity and freedom. Finally, the closing lines deliver an new inversion for the “enemy”. The lines state: “With our poisoned minds we infest; Other ways of life we ingest; In a blood bath we steal you dignity; The price is high to maintain liberty.” The ideology of the American enforcer is shown to be “poison” and one which, like an insect, will “infest” other cultures. The American enforcer also becomes a beast which will “ingest” whole societies as it feeds upon other nations “in a blood bath.” Also of importance, the narrator mentions that what is truly stolen from the enemies of America is not oil or land but dignity. This ascribes the role with an elevated position inverting the roles between America and enemy similar to their controversial work Jihad (2006) which takes the perspective of a radical Islamist in battle fighting the American devil for his god and people. In this way, Slayer challenge the ideology by inverting the viewpoint of the listener along with the definition of the roles within.
Now, addressing the inversions of Christianity found within the rhetoric, we first examine the piece Cult (2006) from the Christ Illusion (2006)album. In the opening, several key inversions are placed before the audience. The lines assert boldly:
Oppression is the holy law
In God I distrust
In time His monuments will fall
Like ashes to dust
Is war and greed the masters plan?
The bible’s where it all began
Its propaganda sells despair
And spreads the virus everywhere
First, the holy law of Christianity is professed to be oppression which places the role of the law as confinement and domination rather than freedom and salvation which leads the narrator to challenge the popular phrase by saying “in God I distrust.” Once again inverting the hierarchy based on biblical allusion, the narrator claims that the monuments will become “ashes” and “dust”. This is a clear allusion to the metaphors found in biblical narratives that portray the human body as ash or dust and often as a temple/monument erected for the glory of God. The wordplay here inverts the Church/religion/Doctrine which is espoused to be eternal with the mortality and decay of the human body. God, in this way, is shown to be subject to death. The envelope is pushed further by the assertion that biblical works are propaganda “selling despair” carrying with it the negative connotation associated with dictatorships such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. This propaganda is then equated with disease or “virus” insinuating that the word actually infects those it touches creating a state of human morbidity. Later on in the song, inversions abound as priests become pedophiles, God preys on the weak, Christ is held to be illusory, the cross of Christ is said to be vacant while the narrator assumes the role of willing executioner of the metaphoric Jesus, and religion becomes an engine of war rather than peace.
Three times in the song, religion is made one with six particular attributes/concepts conveniently creating a grouping of six three times in the body of the work cleverly establishing a hidden structure of 6,6, and 6. Religion is equated with simultaneously being hate, fear, war, rape, obscure, and whore. In drawing these comparisons and making these equations, the song professes an inversion of religion with various forms of human suffering and degradation. Religion, in this model, whores itself but rapes you, hates those who are “other” while fearing that “otherness” in themselves and the world, wages war in the name of God, and is deliberately obscure in its presentation in order to make its control widespread through mass appeal and confusion.
One one occasion, the song applies six assertions to Jesus Christ specifically. The lines state:
Jesus is pain
Jesus is gore
Jesus is the blood
That’s spilled in war
He’s all things dead
He’s pulling on the trigger
Pointed at your head
Here, the godhead of Christianity itself is inverted with the grotesque of human pain and violence and the shedding of blood for war. This inversion purposefully mirrors the mythology of Christ that involves his willing self sacrifice and shedding of blood for others as well as the resurrection in its assertion that he is dead. Not only is the godhead inverted but the mythology and theology of the death and resurrection act as well. Christ, in the body of this song, becomes the bringer of perpetual death on earth rather than eternal life in heaven.
Another fine example of the inversion of hierarchies is found in the lyrics to Disciple (2001) that appears on the God Hates Us All (2001) album. The song itself holds the line which gave the album its name and insists that God, typically known and referred to as love itself, in actuality, hates all of mankind and the earth which is why he and his followers deliver unto them such an onslaught of death and destruction. References to hate being a healer and peace created through acts of war temper the message as an inversion of the sacred and distinct nature of God with the base acts of the human animal.
This new role reversal of God as the Satan is found in several other works within the body of rhetoric. Divine Intervention (1994), from the recording of the same name, holds God as torturer and violent judge of the narrator who “cannot look at God’s face.” The lyric, “I’ve seen the ways of God; I’ll take the Devil any day; Hail Satan” are found in the work Skeleton Christ (2006). This lyric flips the roles of God and Devil creating a God who inflicts the horrors typically attributed to Satan making the Devil, in effect, a better option for the believer. Finally, a blatant inversion devoid of frills is found in a simple statement from Diabolus in Musica‘s (1998) tune In The Name Of God (1998) when Araya screams repeatedly “Anti-Christ is the name of God.”
These inversions are all part of the Slayer rhetoric’s attempt to subvert and challenge the status quo of a society they see as dominated and warped by a two pronged power structure that favors corrupt government officials and a theocracy that threatens the individual freedoms of followers and non-believers alike. Vital to the construction and effectiveness of these inversions is the use of linguistic experimentation and creative wordplay.
A brief glance at the titles found in Slayer’s body of work yields a wealth of examples of creative language usage. Titles like Consfearacy (2006), Americon (2009), Raining Blood (1986), Flesh Storm (2006), and Season in the Abyss (1990) not only evoke strong imagery, they also play with language in a way that unsettles the usual coding and forces greater attention when approaching the material. Strange correlations, unusual metaphors, use of “foul” language, and disjointed delivery in the phrasing cause the listener to take heed to the message in a unique and undeniable way.
For instance, the song Human Strain (2009) plays on the struggle of mankind and the concept of humanity as its own disease. In this case, strain holds two meanings that play important roles in understanding the message. The song calls upon dark imagery using clever personification as the narrator refers to death “stalking” mankind and nature acting consciously to deal with humans by “thinning out the…herd.” The same type of device is utilized in Skeletons of Society (1990) when examining the lyrics:
Burning winds release their fury
Simulating judge and jury
Drifting flurries of pain
Deafening silence reigns
As twilight fills the sky
Daylight waits to die
Darkness always calls my name
The use of concepts such as winds releasing fury like judges, silence reigning, daylight being able to die, and darkness actually speaking brings a new perspective to the despair of the speaker causing the listener to see the situation as a literal assault of outside forces upon him. This use of personification is again seen in Dead Skin Mask (1990) in the line: “Empty eyes enslave the creations; Of placid faces and lifeless pageants.” The eyes are given the human quality of being able to enslave another being in a wordplay intended to place the madness of the murderer in control of the events as he becomes hollow and secondary to the compulsion to kill. Even something as simple as “death becomes your bride”, found in Stain of Mind (1998), holds a strong meaning and operates as a specific tool when layered against the surrounding rhetoric.
Strong symbolism can also be seen as employed to alter perception. Listening to the tune In The Name of God (1998) you can hear Araya refer to the eyes as a window or gateway through which several things can pass. The lyric states that, “Through these eyes no love is alive;
Through these eyes unrest never dies.” Another lyric, this time from the song New Faith (2001), uses reference to the strong Christian symbolism found in blood saying “I keep the bible in a pool of blood; So that none of its lies can affect me.” And also found in Stain of Mind (1998), the phrase “blood will sterilize” plays upon the symbolic sacrifice of baptism in Christianity that references the pouring out of Jesus’ blood with the pouring of blessed water over the recipient as a “cleansing”. These lines are not just clever word choices. They are serving as direct tools of subversion to accepted language and linguistic styles for the sake of challenging the concepts under attack in the rhetoric. Even the choice of the band name “Slayer” is a rhetorical wordplay that points to the dual function of the band as an entity whose performance is brutal, violent, and almost murderous while its body of rhetoric looks to kill any belief, ideology, system, thought process, or image that they find guilty.
The rhetoric of Slayer stands as an example of the foundational elements of heavy metal music as we know it today. Whether a band in the genre is emulating or resisting Slayer’s contribution consciously or unconsciously, that band is still being influenced by their rhetorical contribution. The use of carnival in heavy metal is a natural marriage that plays into the heart of what the genre is all about; spectacle and rebellion. Slayer’s rhetoric, being one of the foundational elements of all heavy metal rhetoric in existence today, is an essential starting point in understanding the message of this art form and of the use of spectacle for rebellion in counterculture.
Slayer’s use of the grotesque has always been a hallmark of their work and has opened doors to material from artists such as Cradle of Filth, Cannibal Corpse, Marilyn Manson, and others who have pushed the boundaries of acceptable language and content and achieved success both critically and musically. What Slayer has provided through grotesque realism is a new set of parameters for what can be said in popular music. Very little subject matter is now left as taboo for Slayer or any band for that matter. By reminding us of how we are connected to one another through degradation and death, the rhetoric forces a new understanding and definition of atrocity and abomination while exposing the arbitrary nature of words.
The inversion of hierarchies also is found definitively in their work allowing an in depth study of its use in the genre. In the use of government and corporate power structures and Christianity for its key subjects of inversion, the band does more than behead kings and invert crosses. It covers the most common objects of derision in the genre and counterculture in general. Examining the Slayer rhetoric, therefore reveals much about the corruption and fallacy inherently part of our power structures and provides the paradigm for further study of materials employing the same carnival approach.
Finally, the inventive, odd, and abusive use of language is characteristic of most counterculture rhetoric, especially that of the heavy metal genre. Slayer’s particular style is the root of much of that rhetoric and serves as a study in the basics of subversive and profane wordplay. The wordplay supports the delivery of the inversions which are carried forth by the grotesque. These three elements show Slayer to be more than just a loud, repulsive spectacle. They function as a mouthpiece for a larger sentiment and movement away from the established order through parodic devices and bizarre role play. Placing themselves as, what I refer to affectionately, self appointed “Angels of Abomination”, Slayer have in their hands the power to answer the question: What, if anything is sacred? Their response has bee a systematic assault on the things that most individuals in the western world hold dear to them. They have attacked the government, patriotism, consumerism, religion, sexual taboos, rules concerning the discussion of violence and crime, and the sheep like mentality of a capitalist society throughout their thirty year career. But, much like McLuhan would remind us, “the medium is the message” (Gill 1994, pg. 141). With Slayer, it’s not a case of whether or not God hates us all or his name is anti-Christ. What matters is the way that Slayer’s medium affects the worldview and perception of its audience. What does the medium create and enable that is vital to what is truly being said in the rhetoric? In Slayer’s case, they are asking you to look past the particulars, question everything, and enjoy the bloody spectacle of the medium. This notion is perhaps best summed up by Tom Araya, who is, coincidentally, a practicing Catholic, in response to the question “Does God really hate us all?” in the documentary film Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (2005). In his explanation of how his spirituality fits in with the Slayer rhetoric, Tom said something that falls back on the use of carnival and points out just how the medium is message stating: “God doesn’t hate…uh…it’s a great f*****g title.” Slayer is more than spectacle, more than demonic imagery and gore, and their audience participates in the show in a way that few observers a given the opportunity. Their message is effective and unwavering and goes far beyond the words of the rhetoric. Quite simply, Slayer does not use the medium of carnival. Slayer IS the medium.
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