When Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman passed away in May 2013, it left many fans wondering how it would affect the veteran metal band's future music – assuming the band even survived the loss of the guitarist. Hanneman, after all, had been one of three songwriters in Slayer and his compositions provided the band with an important facet of its sound. While guitarist Kerry King was known for writing Slayer's faster material, and vocalist/bassist Tom Araya contributed to the songwriting as well, Hanneman was known for writing many of the band's slower, darker and moodier songs.
Fairly early in the course of making Slayer's current album, Repentless, though, the band got an indication that Hanneman's absence wouldn't leave a void in the Slayer musical package. That's because King came up with "When the Stillness Comes," a track that opens with an eerie quiet before the guitars kick in and the song takes on a menacing tone as it rumbles forward behind the measured drumming of Paul Bostaph. "I did my first attempt at the moody, spooky kind of song, which I always never worked on because I thought [Hanneman] had it covered," King says in a phone interview. "But I did that on this record and it came out surprisingly well. When we got done with the first one, I was like 'This is awesome. I got this.'"
Slayer is following up a winter/spring tour with a fall run of headlining shows, giving fans a chance to see how a few of the new songs fit in alongside material from Slayer's lengthy career. King notes that he always struggles to come up with a set list for Slayer's shows – even when the band has 90 minutes or so for a headlining gig. "I bitch about it every time I've got to do it. It's hard," he says. "You just do your best." But if picking a set list were the biggest challenge King has faced in Slayer lately, he'd undoubtedly be a happy headbanger.
Things started to get tricky for the venerable metal band in 2011. That's when guitarist Jeff Hanneman stepped away from touring because of the aftereffects of a spider bite. The bite got infected, the infection spread through the guitarist's system, and it developed into a painful, flesh-eating malady. Hanneman soon after passed away from liver failure exacerbated by years of drinking.
King and Araya called on Exodus guitarist Gary Holt – who had been filling in for Hanneman ever since the spider bite – to be a permanent member of the band. After a falling-out with founding drummer Lombardo, the band found a long-term replacement in another drummer who had history with Slayer – Paul Bostaph.
King sees Holt and Bostaph staying with Slayer long-term, even though Holt continues in his role as the main songwriter and guitarist in Exodus. "I have no desire to change things up," King says of the current Slayer lineup. "So if I had my choices in how things play out, yeah, this is definitely the last version of Slayer anyone will see." So Slayer pushes forward with Holt and Bostaph, finding that the current lineup can cover all of the stylistic bases fans came to expect over the band's previous 11 albums.
King says the making of Repentless was definitely different without Hanneman, but he's confident fans are getting what they've come to expect musically from Slayer on the new album. "The weirdest thing for me was just the presence not there, because I've been writing [on my own] since the '90s," King said, referring to Hanneman. "I've been doing that since a long time ago, so that wasn't different. And that's not going to affect how people hear this record. They're going to hear it just how they heard the last four or five records."