Slayer, Anthrax and Death Angel

Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater, Austin, Tx.

10/08/16

The 2,750 capacity Moody Theater feels like a miniature version of an arena, with a general admission floor and two mezzanines. The sold-out venue provided Slayer fans with a contradictory experience: seeing an arena-sized production with an arena vibe… in a small room. Like an 80s scale model, Slayer, Anthrax and Death Angel took concertgoers back to thrash metal’s heyday not by simply cranking up the nostalgia time machine, but by reminding listeners of what it was like when classic metal bands were releasing their classic albums and were eager to present their newest tunes to fans. Both Slayer and Anthrax accomplished this by putting new songs in key spots in their sets, something almost unheard of for bands that are 30+ years old.

After a brief-but-spirited workmanlike set by overlooked veterans Death Angel, the intro to “You Gotta Believe” poured over the PA, signaling the beginning of Anthrax’s set. The opening track from their most recent album, For All Kings, is a strong one, but the intro is no guarantee the song will be played. After all, Anthrax opened their Clash Of Titans set years ago with the ticking clock that opens “Time,” one of their most epic songs, only to take a disappointing right turn into “Efilnekuesin (N.F.L.)”  as the intro climaxed (not that anyone is still bitter). Given that they were back on the road with Slayer, their Titans tour mates, would they pull a similar stunt? The answer was a resounding no, as they indeed followed through with “You Gotta Believe,” which slammed right into “Monster At The End,” also from For All Kings. It was, indeed, a throwback to the days when bands often hit the stage with a barnburner from the new album. The song choice was a ballsy move on Anthrax’s part, given the age of the crowd, which suggested that many of the attendees came on board when the band released classics like 1987’s Among The Living and 1989’s State Of Euphoria, the albums that earned them a wider audience. They acknowledged the audience with the third song, Among‘s “Caught In A Mosh,” which produced the strongest crowd reaction thus far in the show. The band maintained the enthusiasm they showed for the newer material as the classic provoked, well, moshing.

Singer Joey Belladonna worked the stage for the whole set, enthusiastically engaging members of the crowd with his “everyone’s invited to the party” vibe and not forgetting the mezzanine seats with his enthusiastic, good-natured pointing and gesturing. Guitarist Scott Ian was similarly engaging, and, as the most consistent face of the group, in some ways has served as the de facto frontman. He embraced this role, asking “do you like thrash metal?” followed by the standard “I couldn’t hear you” audience interaction. Charlie Benante was missing from his seat behind the drums, sidelined with continued wrist problems. The chair was filled by Jon Dette, who did a great job, but can’t replace Benante’s personal presence, given Benante’s status (along with Ian) as the driving force of the group. The band kept the new tunes rolling, performing “Evil Twin” and “Breathing Lightning” from Kings as well as the zombie apocalypse-themed “Fight ‘Em ‘Til You Can’t” from Worship Music. Why The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus guested on “Indians” rather than “Fight” when he joined the band onstage in Atlanta a few days ago will remain as mysterious as why Metallica didn’t bust out “Trapped Under Ice” when they played Antarctica. The Reedus sit-in earned both Slayer and Anthrax some TMZ-style coverage (some on the site itself) as he hung out backstage with band members.

Anthrax’s set closed with one of the band’s absolute best and most iconic songs, “Indians.” The band milked the middle section for every last drop of tension, before Ian let loose with his best “war dance!” and provided one of the best moments of the set.

A white curtain fell in front of the stage after Anthrax, allowing the crew to get the stage ready for Slayer without spoilers. As their intro, “Delusions of Savior,” played, they projected upside down crosses, pentagrams, and finally the Slayer logo itself onto the curtain. This drama heightened the stage reveal. The setup was looming and used throughout the gig for various lighting effects and a foreboding blacklight backdrop. Like Anthrax, Slayer opened with the opening track from last year’s Repentless, without a doubt the album’s standout track. Slayer, too, is to be commended for presenting new material, especially considering it was written after the passing of original guitarist Jeff Hanneman, whose ghost looms large over Slayer. As the author of virtually every classic Slayer tune, his presence was palpable. However long the two remaining original members, bassist Tom Araya and guitarist Kerry King, can keep the show on the road, there is no doubt that they will be forced to rely on Hanneman’s contributions, unlikely to be equaled. So opening with a post-Hanneman number was a risk, and judging from the crowd’s reaction, everyone was on board.

Though Hanneman’s songwriting skills may be gone forever, his spot in the live show is admirably filled by Gary Holt, who brings energy and enthusiasm, especially now that Araya cannot headbang due to neck problems. Holt and King traded solos with the same fiery, devil-does-care attitude that has defined Slayer leads for years. If Araya’s physical presence is diminished, his vocal presence is not, as he shouted the vocal parts for the songs with the same quality menace that he has brought to his performances for over 30 years. Indeed, if there was not the visual reminder that years have passed, the actual sound of the music would be indistinguishable from the band’s heyday. In fact, Reign In Blood had turned 30 just the day before the show. Though the band did not acknowledge this, the roar from the crowd for “Postmortem” left no doubt of the fan affection for the classic LP. Indeed, Slayer pulled from virtually every album in their catalog, including “Fight Til Death” from Show No Mercy and the ferocious oldie “Chemical Warfare” from Haunting The Chapel, which provided the chaser for the “Repentless” opener.

The set kept its pummeling initial pace, eventually including four more songs from Repentless: “When The Stillness Comes,” “You Against You,” “Vices” and “Pride In Prejudice.” The latter half of the set generally stuck to the classics, including “Dead Skin Mask,” “Seasons In The Abyss” and “Hell Awaits.” No one in the room was surprised that the set wound up with “South Of Heaven,” “Raining Blood” and the band’s signature tune, “Angel Of Death.” Slightly surprising was that “Black Magic” popped up between “Raining Blood” and “Angel,” but it was a welcome surprise. Slayer unfurled a banner paying tribute to Hanneman for “Angel,” providing a rare moment of sentimentality from the band who made up the word “repentless” and for whom the concept has served as a guiding principle. Their scorched Earth set pulled no punches, providing an ample dose of signature songs as well as a generous helping of newer material. As the Hanneman banner showed, the band knows how much of their success is due to Hanneman’s songsmith talents, but is determined to march on, at least in the near future. And judging from the enthusiastic crowd, at the Moody Theater, fans are still on board, too.

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