Repentless, the twelfth studio album by thrash metal legends Slayer, presents the group with their backs against the wall. In 2013, following the release of the solid but unspectacular World Painted Blood in 2009, co-lead guitarist and Slayer’s primary songwriter Jeff Hanneman died of alcohol-related cirrhosis. (Let’s not forget that in 2011, Hanneman contracted the most metal disease of all, necrotising fasciitis, which relegated him to the sidelines of Slayer performances as he rehabilitated.) Prior to his death, the group’s drummer, Dave Lombardo, was fired, purportedly because of a financial dispute. This left Slayer cut in half, so to speak, leaving them scrambling to put themselves together piece by piece. They brought back the sturdy Paul Bostaph on drums, who had already performed on four prior Slayer albums during an earlier absence by Lombardo. Replacing Hanneman, however, would not be so simple. Slayer recruited Exodus axeman Gary Holt. With a constant set of touring dates, Slayer was finally ready to record a new album for the first time in more than five years.
Considering all the setbacks suffered by the Slayer camp in the six years since the release of World Painted Blood, Repentless ends up being relatively triumphant. Terry Date’s production is fantastic, yielding the best sounding Slayer album since the underrated 2001 nu metal-inflected banger God Hates Us All. (God Hates Us All was released on September 11, 2001. Repentless was also released on September 11th.) Tom Araya’s vocals are as fierce as ever. Boilerplate Slayer tunes make up most of the album’s track list. Following the downtempo intro, Slayer dives right in with the title track, which proves that even this group of men in their early-50s can still thrash as hard as any nutsoid teenager. The momentum continues on the next two tracks, “Take Control” and “Vices,” one of the two numbers on the album that obliquely hint at Hanneman’s problems with alcohol (the other being “You Against You”). The middle of the album greets us with two “Seasons in the Abyss”-type numbers in “Cast the First Stone” and “When the Stillness Comes,” which is the lesser of the two, and easily the closest thing to a power ballad in Slayer’s back catalog. The aggression returns with “Chasing Death” and pushes through till album’s close. One treat that appears later on the album is “Piano Wire,” the lone number on the album composed by the late Jeff Hanneman.
And while Repentless generally provides its listeners with satisfying Slayer songs, it is far from perfect. Paul Bostaph, whose drumming on earlier Slayer albums, especially the underrated Divine Intervention (1994), was often unfairly maligned, has definitely lost a step—to use sports terminology—since Lombardo re-replaced him back in 2001. Gary Holt, Hanneman’s replacement, is scarcely used, only getting a solo credit on the title track. He is nearly as invisible as Jason Newsted on Metallica’s ...And Justice for All (1988). This leaves the rest of the soloing duties to Kerry King. And while he’s up for the task, this listener does miss the contrasting styles of Hanneman and King that made some of the best Slayer tracks of yore so memorable. Even though there are only a few Slayer albums that are weaker than this one—Undisputed Attitude (1996) and Diabolus in Musica (1998), both Bostaph-era records—Repentless is nevertheless quite enjoyable through and through. It is a testament to Slayer’s unwavering vision and their unwillingness to capitulate to broader trends in metal music.
Brian Flota is a Librarian who lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He co-edited The Politics of Post-9/11 Music with Joseph P. Fisher in 2011 (Ashgate). He also contributes reviews to Library Journal and The Hairsplitter. When he was a three-year-old, his favorite song was “Copacabana (At the Copa)” by Barry Manilow.