When it comes to the genre commonly referred to as heavy metal, it’s hard to do better than Slayer and Megadeth. Both bands have created, set and broken the standards for the genre for nearly thirty years. Constantly defining and redefining what metal could mean, how fast (or slow) it could be played and just how important it was to be technically astute, these Los Angeles bands pretty much are the genre. Megadeth formed in the wake of Dave Mustaine’s departure from Metallica, and has since carved out the boundaries of where technical meets accessible with stupefying precision. Slayer grew slowly over time, amassing a reputation for methodical, memorable and menacing music, working almost exclusively with producer extraordinaire Rick Rubin. Pick just about any album from these two heavyweights’ respective catalogs and you can chart what makes metal great. Tonight at the Long Beach Arena in Long Beach California though, the crowd is treated to one of the best from each band: Megadeth’s slash-and-burn tour-de-force Rust in Peace and Slayer’s darkly intricate, brooding juggernaut, Seasons in the Abyss.
Photos by Raymond Flotat
Testament, a west coast metal favorite in their own right, pulled opening duties and riled up the crowd. Lead singer (noticeably large in stature) Chuck Billy introduced the title track from their most recent album “The Formation of Damnation,” and proceeded to ask separate sides of the crowd to bash into each other, “I want you to kill those motherfuckers over there.” With former Slayer drummer Paul Bostaph and founding guitarist Alex Skolnick rounding out the lineup, Testament were focused and appropriately aggressive.
For the first real treat of the night, Megadeth took the stage next to perform Rust in Peace. Entering the stage under dark shadows and a faint red light, the band slowly crept out. Lead singer/guitarist Dave Mustaine’s silhouette became clearly visible through the darkness. The lights came up, and the opening, descending chords of “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” chopped out and the crowd roared into frenzy. The reputation Megadeth has earned throughout decades of touring is on display in stunning precision. The opener alone features a rollicking segment moving at blinding speed, a classical acoustic interlude and a patient dirge complete with accompanying solos before ending with an even faster revisiting of the track’s main riff.
Lead guitarist Chris Broderick trades lead duties with Mustaine on “Hanger 18,” each man stepping back and holding down the melody while the other shreds out an even more impressive lick. The track’s alien conspiracy lyrics fold out, but it’s the fancy fretwork and impressive compositions that really inspire excitement. Watching the group segue into the track’s latter half—which is really about ten tight solos bracketed end-to-end—is an overwhelming and enjoyable sight. In between each solo, drummer Shawn Drover thuds his kit so hard to signal the coming changeover, it’s an eye-opening boom.
“Take No Prisoners” and “Five Magics” continue the sequence, the former seemingly constructed to connect numerous lightning fast scales into an astonishing array of finger movement, the latter a serious lesson on how to take a simple melodic device and evolve it until the song becomes an explosion of manic fury. Further from there, “Poison Was the Cure” is a speed metal mindfuck, a progression that sounds amazingly like it’s heading in two directions at once followed by a relentless section of palm-muted tremolo picking ended off with a solo that ends note-perfect on the song’s final chord. It’s over just about the moment you have time to realize what happened. “Lucretia” quite simply comes off as the test test-pattern for the radio friendly (but nonetheless still solid) songs the band would drop just a few years after on Countdown to Extinction.
The final three up the ante even more. “Tornado of Souls” is a veritable cyclone of pentatonic madness, one excellent, nimble riff tumbling into another as each adds color to the theme and slowly works to expand the intensity. The protagonist in the track sings of a need to exit from a dissolving relationship, and the maelstrom is apparent by the pitch-perfect execution of the band. Recently rejoined founding bassist Dave Ellefson takes center stage on the guitar-free “Dawn Patrol” while a costumed Vic Rattlehead (the band’s mascot and focal point of nearly all their album artwork) appears ominously to pantomime the song’s pessimistic vision of a future rendered by lack of environmental concern. “Rust in Peace… Polaris” ends off the classic album portion of their performance. The song’s riffs march and stomp through with militaristic force, echoing the tune’s cautionary satire of nuclear proliferation and bloodlust. Like the rest of Rust in Peace, it is a perversely and joyously satisfying performance. To appreciate the mechanics of rock guitar is to be somewhat mystified something this complicated and enjoyable can actually be rendered successfully.
Mustaine barks a trademark snarl and says, “That was… Rust in Peace.” Wasting no time, the group closes out their set with a litany of their career-best non-RIP tracks. A (relatively speaking) poppy “Trust” starts things off and serves to slow things down just enough to calm the mood a bit. Endgame single “Head Crusher” follows and opens the door for one of their 90’s gems, “A Toute Le Monde,” a sorrowful look at an almost successful suicide attempt. The band ends with their biggest hits, “Symphony of Destruction” and “Peace Sells” to the rousing cheers of the crowd. “Peace Sells” in particular, is a fitting conclusion with the crowd chanting in unison “Peace sells / but who’s buying.”
By this point, Megadeth’s technical precision had the crowd thoroughly enthused. A curtain was raised and the stage was prepared for Slayer’s headlining set. Depending on which metal fan you speak to, Slayer has achieved a reputation of being the best and most credible heavy metal band there is. Even though Metallica may have achieved more in terms of universal popular acclaim, purists herald Slayer more for not having embarrassing missteps the likes of which perpetrated on Metallica’s Load. To their credit, Slayer has worn that crown well. After a decade absent original drummer Dave Lombardo, the group wisely rejoined with him on their 2006 album Christ Illusion after he spent a stint as the drummer for Mike Patton’s experimental Fantomas project. Having spent a few years rebuilding their chemistry with Lombardo could the metal titans keep the momentum going after Megadeth’s near flawless set?
The curtain drops and there stands the band’s three axemen: guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman and bassist/singer Tom Araya. King and Hanneman stomp back and forth furiously shredding out chords while Araya stands steady shouting like a harpy the words to opening tracks “World Painted Blood” and “Hate Worldwide.” Both emanate the qualities Slayer has become famous for: unparalleled technical competency and unrivaled believable aggression. Araya then introduces the main event, “Are you ready for it?” hinting to their performance of their class album Seasons in the Abyss. He surveys the crowd and then let’s loose a blood curdling scream, “WAR ENSEMBLE!” The song kicks into gear and the energy in the room goes through a palpable shift. A manic feeling of intensity permeates the arena as the dual guitar players pick away at high speed and Araya shouts the song’s battle cry, “The final swing is not a drill. / It’s how many people I can kill.” The song is without denial, a brutal piece of work. “Blood Red,” “Spirit in Black” and “Expendable Youth” continue the assault, “Blood Red” showing some of the genius in Dave Lombardo’s drumming (daunting changes of rhythm, tempo and style), “Spirit in Black” allowing King and Hanneman to flex some of their lead guitar muscles and “Expendable Youth” cementing the knack for memorable riffs that has always pushed Slayer higher than other metal bands.
Fan favorite “Dead Skin Mask” follows and sets the brooding tone that Seasons in the Abyss echoes so well. The song never hits a high tempo, but comes off like a menacing, snarling demon. It’s imposing in a way that makes it eye-opening and foreboding. And after that, the energy is dialed back up to maximum for “Hallowed Point,” relentless in its drive featuring insane, pummeling drums from Lombardo. The pace slows again for another live staple, “Skeletons of Society.” Like “Dead Skin Mask” the song rocks without a high tempo and plods forward with thick bottom end as Araya bellows, “Shades of death are all I see / skeletons of society.”
“Temptation” and “Born of Fire” shift the pace back into higher speed. By this point a massive mosh pit is visible on the floor of the arena, dozens slamming into each other with glee. This all sets the stage for one of Slayer’s finest pieces of songwriting, the title track “Seasons in the Abyss.” The name alone evokes the sinister and alluring vibe of the song. King and Hanneman craft expert counterpoint in clean arpeggios and ringing distortion as Lombardo’s nuanced fills tell the story. By the time the song’s haunting refrain, “Close your eyes / look deep in your soul / step outside yourself / and let your mind go” comes in the crowd is already going positively bonkers.
From there, the band wraps things up with a litany of their most revered songs: “South of Heaven,” “Raining Blood,” “Aggressive Perfector” and “Angel of Death.” Watching from an elevated distance it’s nothing short of stunning to see Lombardo at work. Flowing from varied style-to-style and hitting with unprecedented strength, it’s no wonder he’s considered of the best drummers currently active in music. “Raining Blood” takes everything to the logical extreme, the massive open mosh pit from earlier has now become two tremendous ovals with people thrashing in every direction. Ending with “Angel of Death,” Slayer gives the set the closing it deserves, saving one of its most memorable songs for the very end.
This show accurately depicted heavy metal at its finest. Slayer and Megadeth possess the technical acumen and respectability that help raise the genre as a whole. Any self-respecting metal fan should see this show. In fact, both bands are going to hit the road again, this time with Anthrax opening. mxdwn will be there. Will you?