Slayer's musical traits involve fast tremolo picking, atonal guitar solos, double bass drumming, and shouting vocals. The band's lyrics and album art, which cover topics such as serial killers, Satanism, religion and warfare have generated album bans, delays, lawsuits and strong criticism from religious groups and the public.
Since their debut record in 1983, the band has released two live albums, one box set, four videos, two extended plays, and nine studio albums, four of which have received gold certification in the United States. The band has received three Grammy nominations, winning one in 2007 for the song "Eyes of the Insane", and one in 2008 for the song "Final Six". They have headlined music festivals worldwide, including Unholy Alliance, Download and Ozzfest.
Slayer was formed in 1981, when guitarist Kerry King met Jeff Hanneman while auditioning for a band. The two recruited bassist and vocalist Tom Araya, who had played with King before in the band Quits (previously called Tradewinds). Drummer Dave Lombardo was recruited when he met King while delivering a pizza. The band played cover versions of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest songs at clubs and parties in Southern California. Early shows relied on a Satanic image, which featured pentagrams, make-up, spikes, and inverted crosses. Rumors that the band was originally known as Dragonslayer, after the 1981 movie of the same name, were denied by King: "We never were; it's a myth to this day."
The band was offered to open for Bitch at the Woodstock Club in Los Angeles, performing eight songs — six being covers. While performing Iron Maiden's "Phantom of the Opera" the band was spotted by Brian Slagel, a former music journalist who had recently founded Metal Blade Records. Impressed with Slayer's performance, Slagel met with the band backstage and asked them to record an original song, "Aggressive Perfector" (Aggressive Perfector clip.ogg sample (help·info)) for his upcoming Metal Massacre III compilation. The band agreed and the song created underground buzz, which led to Slagel offering the band a recording contract with Metal Blade.
Without a recording budget, the band was forced to self-finance its debut album. Combining the savings of Araya, who was employed as a respiratory therapist, and money borrowed from King's father, the band entered the studio in November 1983. The album was rushed into release, hitting shelves three weeks after tracks were completed. Show No Mercy, released in December 1983 by Metal Blade Records, generated underground popularity for the band, and they began their first national club tour in 1984 to promote the album traveling in Araya's Camaro towing a U-Haul trailer. The tour gave the band additional popularity; sales of Show No Mercy reached more than 20,000 in the US and another 20,000 worldwide.
In August 1984, Slayer released a three song EP titled Haunting the Chapel. The EP featured a darker, more thrash-oriented style than its predecessor, and laid the groundwork for the future direction of the band. The opening track, "Chemical Warfare," has become a live staple, played at nearly every show since 1984. After the release of Haunting the Chapel, Slayer made its live European debut at the Heavy Sounds Festival in Belgium opening for UFO, returning to the US to begin the Haunting The West Coast tour.
Following the tour, King temporarily left Slayer to join Dave Mustaine's new band Megadeth. Hanneman was worried about King's decision, stating in an interview "I guess we’re gonna get a new guitar player." While Mustaine wanted King to stay on a permanent basis, King rejoined Slayer after five shows, stating Megadeth was "taking too much of my time." The split caused a rift between King and Mustaine, which evolved into a long running feud between the two bands. Following King's return, the band embarked on the 1984 Combat Tour, with Venom and Exodus, and released a live album titled Live Undead in November.
Slayer released its first live home video in 1985, dubbed Combat Tour: The Ultimate Revenge. The video featured live footage filmed at New York's Studio 54 club, on the band's 1984 tour with Venom and Exodus. By early 1985, Show No Mercy had sold over 40,000 copies, which led to the band returning to the studio to record a second full length album. Metal Blade financed a recording budget, which allowed the band to hire producer Ron Fair.
Released in September 1985, Slayer's second full length release Hell Awaits expanded on the darkness of Haunting the Chapel, with Hell and Satan as common song subjects. The album was the band's most progressive offering, featuring longer and more complex song structures. The intro is a backwards recording of a demonic-sounding voice repeating "Join us," ending with "Welcome Back" before the title track begins.
Following the success of Hell Awaits, Slayer was offered a recording contract with Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin's newly founded Def Jam Records, a largely rap-based label. The band accepted and with an experienced producer and major label recording budget, the band underwent a sonic makeover resulting in shorter, faster songs with clearer production. Gone were the complex arrangements and long songs featured on Hell Awaits, ditched in favor of stripped down, thrash metal influenced song structures.
Def Jam's distributor, Columbia Records, refused to release the album Reign in Blood due to its graphic cover art and lyrical themes. For example, "Angel of Death" detailed Holocaust concentration camps and the human experiments conducted by Nazi physician Josef Mengele. The album was distributed by Geffen Records on October 7, 1986. However, due to the controversy, Reign in Blood did not appear on Geffen Records’ release schedule. Although the album received virtually no radio airplay, it became the band's first to enter the Billboard 200, debuting at #94, and the band's first album certified gold in the United States.
In October 1986, Slayer embarked on the Reign in Pain world tour, with Overkill in the US, and Malice in Europe. The band was added as the opening act on W.A.S.P.'s US tour, but just one month in, drummer Lombardo left the band: "I wasn't making any money. I figured if we were gonna be doing this professionally, on a major label, I wanted my rent and utilities paid." To continue with the tour, Slayer enlisted Tony Scaglione of Whiplash. However, Lombardo's wife convinced Dave to return in 1987. At the insistence of Rubin, Slayer recorded a cover version of Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" for the film Less Than Zero. Although the band was not happy with the final product, Hanneman deeming it "a poor representation of Slayer" and King labeling it "a hunk of shit", it was one of their first songs to garner radio airplay.
Slayer returned to the studio to record their fourth studio album. To contrast the speed of Reign in Blood, the band consciously decided to slow down the tempos, and incorporate more melodic singing. Hanneman asserted; "We knew we couldn’t top Reign in Blood, so we had to slow down. We knew whatever we did was gonna be compared to that album, and I remember we actually discussed slowing down. It was weird—we’ve never done that on an album, before or since."
1988's South of Heaven received mixed responses from both fans and critics, although it was Slayer's most commercially successful release at the time, debuting at #57 on the Billboard 200, and the second album to receive gold certification in the United States. Press response to the album was mixed, with Allmusic citing the album as "disturbing and powerful," and Kim Nelly of Rolling Stone calling it "genuinely offensive satanic drivel". King says "that album was my most lackluster performance," although Araya called it a "late bloomer" which eventually grew on people.
Slayer returned to the studio with co-producer Andy Wallace in 1989, to record their fifth studio album. Following the backlash created by South of Heaven, Slayer returned to the "pounding speed of Reign in Blood", while retaining their newfound melodic sense. Seasons in the Abyss, released on October 25, 1990, was the first Slayer album to be released under Rubin's new Def American label, as he parted ways with Def Jam owner Russell Simmons over creative differences. The album debuted at #44 on the Billboard 200, and was certified gold in 1992. The title track spawned Slayer's second music video, which was filmed in front of the Giza pyramids in Egypt prior to the Gulf War.
Slayer returned as a live act in September 1990 to co-headline the European Clash of the Titans tour with Megadeth, Suicidal Tendencies, and Testament. During the sold out European leg of this tour tickets fetched up to 1,000 Deutschmark ($680 USD) on the black market. With the popularity of American thrash at its peak, the tour was extended to the US beginning in May 1991, with Megadeth, Anthrax and opening act Alice in Chains. The band released a double live album, Decade of Aggression in 1991, to celebrate ten years. The compilation debuted at #55 on the Billboard 200.
In May 1992, Lombardo quit the band due to conflicts with other members, as well as arguments over his wish to bring his wife on tour. Lombardo formed his own band Grip Inc, with Voodoocult guitarist Waldemar Sorychta, and Slayer recruited former Forbidden drummer Paul Bostaph to fill his place. Slayer made its debut appearance with Bostaph at the 1992 Monsters of Rock festival at Castle Donington. Bostaph's first studio effort was a medley of three Exploited songs, "War", "UK '82", and "Disorder", with rapper Ice T, for the Judgment Night movie soundtrack in 1993.
In 1994, Slayer released Divine Intervention, the band's first record with drummer Bostaph. The record became the band's highest charting at that time, debuting at #8 on the Billboard 200. The album featured songs about Reinhard Heydrich, an architect of the Holocaust, and Jeffrey Dahmer, of apartment number "213," where he murdered, raped, and tortured seventeen victims. Other themes included murder, the evils of church, and the lengths to which governments will go to wield power, Araya's interest in serial killers inspired much of the lyrical content.
Slayer geared up for a world tour in 1995, with openers Biohazard and Machine Head. A video of concert footage, Live Intrusion was released, featuring a joint cover of Venom's "Witching Hour" with Machine Head. Relations between Slayer and Machine Head have since badly deteriorated. Following the tour, Slayer were billed fourth at the 1995 Monsters of Rock festival, headlined by Metallica.
In 1996, Undisputed Attitude, an album of punk covers, was released. The band covered songs by Minor Threat, T.S.O.L., D.R.I., D.I., Verbal Abuse, Dr. Know and The Stooges. The album featured three original tracks, "Gemini," "Can't Stand You," "Ddamm"; the latter two were written by Hanneman in 1984–1985 for a side project entitled Pap Smear. Bostaph left Slayer shortly after the album's release to work on his own project, The Truth About Seafood. With Bostaph's departure, Slayer recruited Testament drummer Jon Dette, and headlined the 1996 Ozzfest alongside Ozzy Osbourne, Danzig, Biohazard, Sepultura, and Fear Factory. Dette was fired after a year, due to a fallout with band members; Bostaph returned to continue the tour.
A lawsuit was brought against the band in 1996, by the parents of Elyse Pahler, who accused the band of encouraging their daughter's murderers through their lyrics. Elyse was drugged, strangled, stabbed, trampled on, and raped as a sacrifice to the devil by three fans of the band. The case was unsealed by the court on May 19, 2000, stating Slayer and related business markets distribute harmful products to teens, encouraging violent acts through their lyrics, and "none of the vicious crimes committed against Elyse Marie Pahler would have occurred without the intentional marketing strategy of the death-metal band Slayer." The lawsuit was dismissed in 2001, for multiple reasons including "principles of free speech, lack of a duty and lack of foreseeability." A second lawsuit was filed by the parents, an amended complaint for damages against Slayer, their label, and other industry and label entities. The lawsuit was dismissed; Judge E. Jeffrey Burke stated "I do not consider Slayer's music obscene, indecent or harmful to minors."
Diabolus in Musica (Latin for "The Devil in Music") was released in 1998, and debuted at #31 on the Billboard 200, selling over 46,000 copies. The album received a mixed critical reception and was criticized for adopting characteristics of nu metal music such as tuned down guitars, murky chord structures, and churning beats. Blabbermouth.net reviewer Borijov Krgin described the album as "a feeble attempt at incorporating updated elements into the group's sound, the presence of which elevated the band's efforts somewhat and offered hope that Slayer could refrain from endlessly rehashing their previous material for their future output," while New York Times' Ben Ratliff had similar sentiments by saying: "Eight of the 11 songs on Diabolus in Musica, a few of which were played at the show, are in the same gray key, and the band's rhythmic ideas have a wearying sameness too."
The album was the band's first to primarily feature dropped tuning, as featured on the lead track, "Bitter Peace,"(Slayer_Bitter_Peace.ogg sample (help·info)) making use of the musical interval referred to in the Middle Ages as the tritone or Devil's scale. Slayer teamed up with digital hardcore group Atari Teenage Riot to record a song for the Spawn soundtrack titled "No Remorse (I Wanna Die)." The band later paid tribute to Black Sabbath by recording a cover of "Hand of Doom" for the second of two tribute albums, entitled Nativity in Black II. A world tour followed to support the new album, with Slayer making an appearance at the United Kingdom Ozzfest 1998 alongside Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne, Foo Fighters, Pantera, Soulfly, Fear Factory, and Therapy?.
After delays regarding remixing and artwork, including slip covers created to cover the original artwork as it was deemed "too graphic," God Hates Us All was released on September 11, 2001. The band received its first Grammy nomination for the lead track "Disciple," although the Grammy was awarded to Tool, for "Schism." The September 11th attack on America jeopardized the 2001 European tour Tattoo the Planet originally set to feature Pantera, Static X, Biohazard and Vision of Disorder. Dates were canceled or postponed due to flight restrictions, with a majority of bands deciding to withdraw, leaving Slayer and Static X remaining for the European leg of the tour. Pantera, Vision of Disorder and Biohazard were replaced by Cradle of Filth and other bands dependent on location; Amorphis, In Flames, Moonspell, Children of Bodom, and Necrodeath. The Birmingham, England date on the tour though only featured Slayer, Biohazard, Cradle of Filth and Raging Speedhorn due to Static X pulling out over previous commitments, instead playing their scheduled dates in Germany. Drummer Bostaph left Slayer before Christmas in 2001, due to a chronic elbow injury which would hinder his ability to play. Slayer's "God Hates Us All" tour was unfinished so King contacted original drummer Lombardo, and asked if he would like to finish the remainder of the tour. Lombardo accepted the offer, and stayed as a permanent member.
Slayer toured playing Reign in Blood in its entirety throughout the fall of 2003, under the tour banner "Still Reigning". Their playing of the final song "Raining Blood" culminated with the band drenched in a rain of stage blood. Live footage of this was recorded at the Augusta Civic Center in Augusta, Maine, on July 11, 2004 and released on the 2004 DVD Still Reigning. The band also released War at the Warfield and a box set, Soundtrack to the Apocalypse featuring rarities, live CD and DVD performances and various Slayer paraphernalia.
From 2002 to 2004 the band performed over 250 tour dates, headlining major music festivals including H82k2, Summer tour, Ozzfest 2004, the Download Festival and a European tour with Slipknot. While preparing for the Download Festival in England, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich was rushed to hospital with a mysterious illness, and was unable to perform. Metallica vocalist James Hetfield searched for volunteers at the last minute to replace Ulrich; Lombardo and Slipknot drummer Joey Jordison volunteered, with Lombardo performing the songs "Battery" and "The Four Horsemen".
The album Christ Illusion was originally scheduled for release on June 6, 2006, and would be the first album with original drummer Lombardo since 1990's Seasons in the Abyss. However, the band decided to delay the release of the record as they did not want to be among the many, according to King, "half-ass, stupid fucking loser bands" releasing records on June 6, although USA Today reported the idea was thwarted because the band failed to secure sufficient studio recording time. Instead, Slayer released Eternal Pyre on June 6 as a limited-edition EP. Eternal Pyre featured the song "Cult," a live performance of "War Ensemble" in Germany, video footage of the band recording "Cult," and a five minute video of a Slayer fan carving the band's name onto his forearm. Five thousand copies were released and sold exclusively through Hot Topic chain stores, and sold out within hours of release. On June 30, Nuclear Blast Records released a 7" vinyl picture disc version limited to a thousand copies.
Christ Illusion was released on August 8, 2006, and debuted at #5 on the Billboard 200, selling over 62,000 copies in its first week. The album became Slayer's highest charting, improving on its previous highest charting album, Divine Intervention, which had debuted at #8. However, despite its high positioning, the album dropped to #44 in the following week. Three weeks after the album's release Slayer were inducted into the Kerrang! Hall of Fame for their influence to the heavy metal scene.
A worldwide tour dubbed The Unholy Alliance Tour, was undertaken to support the new record. The tour was originally set to launch on June 6, but was postponed to June 10, as Araya had to undergo gall bladder surgery. In Flames, Mastodon, Children of Bodom, Lamb of God, and Thine Eyes Bleed (featuring Araya's brother, Johnny) were supporting Slayer. The tour made its way through America and Europe and the bands who participated, apart from Thine Eyes Bleed, reunited to perform at Japan's Loudpark Festival on October 15, 2006.
The video for the album's first single, "Eyes of the Insane," was released on October 30, 2006. The track was featured on the Saw III soundtrack, and won a Grammy-award for "Best Metal Performance" at the 49th Grammy Awards, although the band were unable to attend due to touring obligations. A week later, the band visited the 52nd Services Squadron located on the Spangdahlem U.S. Air Force Base in Germany to meet and play a show. This was the first visit ever to a military base for the band. The band made its first network TV appearance on the show Jimmy Kimmel Live! on January 19, playing the song "Eyes of the Insane," and four additional songs for fans after the show (although footage from "Jihad" was cut due to its controversial lyrical themes). Slayer toured Australia and New Zealand in April with Mastodon, and appeared at the Download Festival, Rock Am Ring, and a Summer tour with Marilyn Manson and Bleeding Through.
The band released a special edition of Christ Illusion, which featured new cover art and bonus track, "Final Six," which was given a Grammy Award for "Best Metal Performance." This is the band's second consecutive award in that category.
In interviews with Thrash Hits and Worcester magazine, Araya states uncertainty with the future of the band, and that he could not see himself continuing the career at a later age. Once the band finished World Painted Blood, which was the final record in their contract, the band would sit down and discuss its future. King was optimistic that the band would produce at least another two records before considering a split: "We're talking of going in the studio next February  and getting the next record out so if we do things in a timely manner I don't see there's any reason why we can't have more than one album out... I think the time's gonna come when somebody just says: 'I'm done. I don't wanna do this any more.' But I'm having a blast."
Slayer, along with Trivium, Mastodon, and Amon Amarth, teamed up for a European tour titled 'The Unholy Alliance: Chapter III', throughout October and November 2008. On January 27, it was confirmed that Slayer will be headlining the second Mayhem Festival in the summer of 2009 Slayer along with Megadeth will also co-headline Canadian Carnage, this will be first time they will perform together in more than 15 years when they co-headline four shows in Canada in late June with openers Machine Head and Suicide Silence.
The band's tenth studio album World Painted Blood will be released on American Recordings November 3 in North America and November 2 worldwide.