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Thursday, January 03, 2013

Notes From the Old School: Slayer's Haunting the Chapel

If you've ever seen Slayer live (and you damn well oughtta if you haven't), you can all but guarantee "Chemical Warfare" is going to pop onto the set list.  Whereas many legacy bands might get the ruts of playing their best-known material from three decades ago to satiate their fan bases, you can't imagine Slayer having the shits of "Chemical Warfare."  You just can't.

One of the thrash giant's most perfect storms of annihilation, "Chemical Warfare" from Slayer's 1984 EP Haunting the Chapel might as well be considered the prelude to their halcyon album Reign in Blood.  It's been said ad infinitum that Haunting the Chapel is a stepping stone piece for the band and it's fitting that Slayer continues to whip "Chemical Warfare" out in their sets these days.  They still play the cut as a tribute to themselves with the same fiery angst as they originally conceived it and there's not a true headbanger alive who doesn't draw from the antagonistic energy of "Chemical Warfare."  If you don't dig "Chemical Warfare," hang up your denim and leather right now.

Of course, this is easy for me to say today as a journalist having confronted thousands of heavy metal records as both a fan and a writer.  Frankly, Slayer scared the snot out of me in my early teens and Haunting the Chapel was then for me no better than saying The Dunwich Horror got my rocks off.  I avoided Slayer's Show No Mercy, Haunting the Chapel and Hell Awaits as I did the entire Venom, Mercyful Fate and Celtic Frost catalogs.  Call it living under the cross, if you will, since I had just completed my Catholic confirmation and I'd weathered a gauntlet of kids in school who thought I was in league with Lucifer for wearing a Motley Crue Shout at the Devil shirt around.  Considering they later wore Crue tees during the Girls Girls Girls period, you have to laugh.

All of it is pretty freaking silly in the grand scheme of things, since Slayer has emerged over the years as titans of this genre, a band who lures listeners from academia and medicine as they do from the darkened corners where disaffected loners hate everything and everyone.  Since I interviewed Tom Araya and he admitted to being a Christian on my tape, I've looked at my terrorized initial reaction to the band as utterly stupid.  Of course, at age 13 I'd bolted for the confessional the first time I saw The Exorcist because I thought I'd spit on God just by watching it--and it was a censored version, no less.

The thing with Slayer and Venom, for that matter, is they've ridden the rails of their careers in the name of Satan, but it's always been done to a smarmy roasting effect.  Celtic Frost and Mercyful Fate are just too great to dismiss.  When I saw Frost play live, it felt very much like a holy experience, and not of an arcane nature, though that certainly came through in their stage presence.  Venom for sure were larks and I've long since come to see them as a great big put-on who still kicked ass, especially on stage.  Ditto for Slayer.  They're nowhere near as tongue-in-cheek with their lyrical nihilism, much of it having been broiled over a hypothetical spit of burning brimstone.  Yet whatever their collective or individual attitudes on spirituality may be, Haunting the Chapel,  frequently blasphemous for certain, is an important cornerstone of heavy metal music.

No point describing "Chemical Warfare" beyond calling it thrash perfection.  I personally enjoy the back story of a younger Dave Lombardo and Gene Hoglan in-arms together at this time, to the point Hoglan was asked to grab hold of Lombardo's kit on the floor while Slayer laid down "Chemical Warfare." Hoglan, who helped Lombardo refine his trademark double kick, went on to smack skin for Dark Angel and he's enjoyed long-term success in his own right.  You've got to love that.

What I've always founded interesting about "Captor of Sin" is its merge of NWOBHM march rhythms with darker, uptempo crunk.  This one gives fans a peek into the band's future songwriting ethos, straight down to the punchy breakdowns and bat-screeching solos from Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman.  While nowhere no as fast as Reign in Blood, the moshing verses plus the blitzing bridges and solo section of "Haunting the Chapel" are by all means the blueprints for the inevitable juggernaut of crush, "Angel of Death."

Depending on which version you have, you'll get the grimy basement track "Aggressive Perfector" which belongs more on Show No Mercy or a Metal Massacre compilation trailing anything of the same period by Exciter.   All told, however, Haunting the Chapel represents a fierce excavation of speed metal's potential in its infancy years.  Even then, Slayer was dusting Metallica, the acknowledged champs of the Bay Area thrash zone and today, listening to such daring competition at play is something you can't necessarily convey in words. 

--Ray Van Horn, Jr.

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