Review: Slayer opens farewell tour in San Diego with heavy-metal thunder and a rare hint of sentimentality

Slayer bassist and singer Tom Araya plays during the band’s opening night of its farewell tour in San Diego on May 10, 2018.
(Photo by K.C. Alfred/ San Diego Union-Tribune)

To bang your head, or not to bang your head, that is the question.

With apologies to both William Shakespeare and Slayer singer-bassist Tom Araya, the question posed above is also the answer to another question.

Namely, why has this pioneering thrash-metal band decided to retire after 37 years and now embarked on its farewell tour,which kicked off with a suitable roar Thursday at San Diego’s Valley View Casino Center?

No official reason has been given. And Araya, drummer Paul Bostaph and guitarists Kerry King and Gary Holt aren’t talking to the press to explain their decision.

But in a 2016 interview with Loudwire, Araya, now 56, joked that it was “time to collect my pension.” Growing more serious, he said: “I had neck surgery, so I can’t headbang anymore. And that was a big part of what I enjoyed (about) doing what I do, singing and headbanging. I liked knowing I was one of the (expletive) badass headbangers. That played a big part.”

In his pre-surgery days, the Chilean-born Araya would constantly whip his head of chest-length hair in a clockwise direction whenever he wasn’t singing. On Thursday, he remained almost entirely stationary. Not so, guitarist King, whose neck appears no worse for wear after four decades on the road with this Orange County-bred band of metal marauders.

Playing with characteristic precision and an equally characteristic absence of frills and fuss — apart from the 10 songs that employed fiery pyrotechnics — Slayer ripped through 19 selections in just under 90 minutes.

The band opened with 2015’s “Repentless,” the title track of what is apparently its final album, and concluded — as usual — with 1986’s “Angel of Death,” an almost insanely fast-paced song about the horrific surgical experiments conducted by the Nazis at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II.

In between came such Slayer staples as “Disciple,” “Mandatory Suicide,” “Dead Skin Mask,” “Seasons in the Abyss” and “When the Stillness Comes,” which opened with a brooding guitar motif suggesting the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s 1972 gem “Birds of Fire,” played at half speed, before rapidly accelrating. (The full set list appears at the conclusion of tgis review.)

Of course, operating in high gear has long been Slayer’s prime mode. The band favors brutal riffs, piledriving beats played at breakneck tempos, piercing guitar solos — performed fast, faster and really, really fast — and grim lyrics that almost make the promise of an apocalypse seem like a breath of fresh air.

The audience members, who formed a large mosh pit or two on the arena floor, loudly expressed their enthusiasm throughout. Shoes and various articles of clothing flew through the air at times, a form of approbation that included a black sneaker that landed at my feet on the arena floor.

Far more colorful — and unexpected — was a crowd-surfing fan near the front of the stage (who bore some facial resemblance to Texas GOP Senator Ted Cruz). His concert attire paid tribute to the rhythmically challenged “Left Shark” dancer who accompanied Katy Perry at her 2015 Super Bowl halftime show appearance. (An image of the crowd-surfing “shark” appears in the photo gallery below.)

Araya and his three band mates took to the stage 22 minutes after their scheduled 9:20 p.m. starting time Thursday. By then, it was nearly five hours after the start time of the concert, which also featured Lamb of God, Anthrax, Behemoth and Testament (a group Bustaph drummed with for a period in his pre-Slayer days).

The all-general admission concert, which had a legal capacity of 7,500, was sold out. Due to several hundred no-shows, the attendance was 6,719, which was fortuitous. Here’s why.

The concert’s late start was prompted by the fire marshal’s concern that the aisles on both sides of the standing-room-only arena floor were not being kept clear, along with the aisles in the seated areas above. This prompted safety concerns, according to Ernie W. Hahn, the senior vice president and general manager of Arena Group 2000, which co-owns and co-operates Valley View Casino Center with Goldenvoice/AEG Entertainment, which booked and produced the Slayer concert.

“We do probably 20 nights a year, most of them EDM shows, with an all-general-admission capacity of 7,500,” Hahn told the Union-Tribune Friday. “The difference Thursday was a very eager and aggressive crowd. People were jumping over some seated sections onto the floor. It was a fairly energetic crowd and an older one, with a sense of entitlement. There were some fights and ejections.

“Overall, the show went well and everybody had a good time. We’re on city land and have to work with city agencies. Ultimately, those agencies thought the five-foot (aisle) perimeter on the floor was not exactly at five feet.”

Coincidentally, it was after Slayer’s fifth song of the night, “Hate Worldwide,” that the concert was stopped because of crowd-control issues.

“Listen,” Araya told the crowd. “We live in a society of rules. These rules are for your safety. … Clear the aisles, clear the aisles. Otherwise, they might tell us to do something else.”

To accommodate the overflow crowd, Section 2 on the arena’s otherwise closed and curtained-off top level was then opened. With order restored, Araya asked the crowd to scream the word “war” as loud and long as he did before Slayer ripped into “War Ensemble.” The nearly 7,000 fans happily complied.

Like the band’s other selections, “War Ensemble” was delivered with bone-rattling intensity and gruffly shouted vocals by Araya, who noted in a 1991 Union-Tribune interview: “Slayer is about reality, about what you see going on around you, about things nobody wants to see and that people ignore...Slayer is not about having women in scanty clothes walk around in our videos. Slayer is about reality.”

What Slayer has never been about is sentimentality, cheap or otherwise. So the big question Thursday wasn’t about what songs the band would play, but what (if anything) would be said about the fact that this is Slayer’s final concert trek.

Then again, Araya has rarely said much of anything to audiences from the stage during past tours, even after the 2013 death of Slayer guitarist and co-founder Jeff Hanneman. So it would have not been surprising if the band’s just-launched swan song went unspoken Thursday.

But after the show reached its powrful conclusion with “South of Heaven,” “Raining Blood,” “Chemical Warfare” and “Angel of Death,” Araya struck an unexpectedly sentimental tone, something not found in any songs by his band.

“You’ve gotta make memories, right?” he said to the cheering crowd.

“It if wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t (have been) here all these years. I want to thank you very much...”

Then, striking a more Slayer-like tone, he added: “Thanks for every (expletive) thing you’ve done for us.”

Twitter @georgevarga