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"I'm pretty sure that God still hates us all." - 23%

DawnoftheShred, September 14th, 2015

It was with heavy heart that I learned that Slayer, the de facto thrash gods and my favorite band of all time eeeever, would attempt to persevere after the untimely death of Jeff Hanneman. Usually, when the guy who pioneered your sound and wrote all of your best riffs departs for another plane of existence, that’s a pretty fucking sure sign that it’s time to throw in the towel. But instead of retiring with dignity on the heels of two very good resurrection pieces (I like ‘em, anyway), Kerry King and Tom Araya soldiered on, recruiting Exodus main-man Gary Holt for extra guitar duties and swapping formidable original drummer Dave Lombardo back out for jack-of-all-bands Paul Bostaph. A new Slayer album used to be a cause for celebration; now, it’s the most disappointing new release I’ve yet experienced and a final stain on the band’s great legacy.

The previous Slayer album that Repentless most immediately resembles is God Hates Us All, with a cleaner production than that album’s shitty “wall-of-noise” approach that obscured a lot of riffs but without any of the catchy “so-bad-they’re-kinda-good” numbers like “Payback” or “Scarstruck”. Otherwise the two are very comparable: the emphasis on low range chugging, slow grooves (like 2/3 of the album), simplified arrangements, cut-and-paste angry numbskull lyrics, and forgettable, interchangeable riffs are calling cards of both records. Remember the classic “Slayer riff” and its variations? Those weird diminished melodies you’d find in tracks like “South of Heaven”, “Beauty Through Order”, “Jihad”, “At Dawn They Sleep” or whatever? Well apparently Hanneman wrote all of those, because there are virtually no distinctive picked riffs here. Instead, there is an absurd reliance on simple chugging and chord changes, with the occasional recycled Phrygian melodies you’ve heard a million times on Iced Earth albums.

Hell, the album even opens with one! “Delusions of Saviour” is among the more pointless intro tracks I’ve ever come across, a brief back and forth between two generic slow riffs with some King wah nonsense before the album proper. The bulk of the album expands little on this concept and tracks like “Piano Wire”, “Cast the First Stone” “Pride in Prejudice”, and “Vices” all bleed together with nary a memorable riff between them; you may lump them in with “Overt Enemy”, “Americon”, “Human Disease”, or any of the other indistinctive chuggers from the band’s not-too-distant past. Araya does put in a surprisingly good vocal performance given the quality of the material he’s forced to work with and the occasional awkward diction. And you’ve also got to admire Holt’s attempts to provide a bit of lead magic in Jeff’s absence (and apparently Kerry’s too), but most of these songs are unsalvageable even as a metal primer.

Repentless also mostly eschews the experimental numbers that have dotted Slayer albums for the last two decades (“Serenity in Murder”, “Playing with Dolls”, “Addict”). The closest they come to anything even remotely different than the album’s repentlessly bland formula is “When the Stillness Comes,” which merely features a “spooky” arpeggiated clean riff intro and a more spoken-word style delivery from Araya. Traditionally, these sorts of songs/parts of songs were useful as melodic relief between the thrash nightmares. Here it’s just a slight variation on the plodding flavor that’s near omnipresent throughout the album. And the clean riff wouldn’t even be that memorable if it wasn’t the only one on the album. I suppose all the unforgettable, haunting clean bits from “213”, “Divine Intervention”, “Addict”, and “Spill the Blood” were Jeff’s ideas too.

On the rare occasions when the songs do pick up the tempo, things don’t fare too much better. Paul Bostaph’s skills have atrophied quite considerably since his early 90’s peak on albums like Twisted Into Form and Divine Intervention. His performance is very straightforward and by-the-numbers, without any of Lombardo’s devil-may-care playfulness, and every supposedly fast bit on the album always feels a few bpm’s shy of what it should be. In disbelief, I went back to some of the stuff from their last two albums, and tracks like “Flesh Storm” and “Psychopathy Red” still sound pretty reckless and energetic to these ears. Supposed thrashers like “Repentless” and “Implode” sound like they’re being restrained by comparison and even though they’re faster than the others, they’re still mostly analogous to the generic arrangements of their slower brethren: simple tremolo riff here, held chords there, recycle and repeat with maybe a solo or mid-paced bit to mix it up. Guess clever riff-cycles, evil harmonies, and devastating speed riffs were Jeff’s trademark.

As a final insult added to injury, I was initially somewhat excited to see “Atrocity Vendor” on the track list. This was Hanneman’s last composition for the band, previously only available as a B-side, and while it wasn’t the greatest, it was still a lot of fun. Disappointingly, it has been rerecorded from the original version, robbing it of much of its intensity and Jeff’s final solo work. The fact that it’s still a highlight is a symptom of the sad reality of Repentless’ quality.

On the plus side, the packaging is quite well done. The deluxe digipak folds out into a huge upside down cross with a lot of dark medieval-style artwork that’s interesting to ponder. I’d like to find a way to mount it up on my basement wall somehow; at the very least, this would physically separate it from my CD collection and help discourage future listens.

I expected this to be bad, but even I wasn’t prepared for what is truly perhaps their worst album. And this is coming from a raging fanboy that unironically believes that almost everything they’ve done is impossibly fucking awesome (including the recent Christ Illusion and World Painted Blood) and can even find a few things to like about the deservedly-maligned Diabolus and GHUA albums. Without Hanneman, Slayer is a walking corpse in desperate need of a final resting place.

If it seems like I can’t shut the fuck up about a guy that doesn’t even play on the album, understand that his absence is palpable. Dude was my hero, and there’s nothing heroic about this inexcusable travesty.

Highlights: “Relentless”, “Take Control”, “Atrocity Vendor”