Reign in blood and BBQ at Slayer in San Jose

Last week's Unholy Alliance Tour had summer inked into its pores like a thick, black pentagram tattoo. The air around San Jose's HP Pavilion smelled like grilled meat; the arena's outdoor smoking section offered a view of the sort of lingering sunset that only seasonally plasters the sky; and even the teenage couple groping one another between monster trucks and minivans had the romanticized look of kids with their cares on hold through September. Summer is concert-going nirvana, earmarked by so many amphitheater/arena rock tours — at which you can pepper the typical indie club mellower expressions of enthusiasm with a spirited, all-ages legion of fans. These aren't just any loyalists, but highly adrenalized humans who threw down a serious chunk of paycheck for the stadium ticket, service charge, parking fee, and concession-stand goodies, so they're going to make an event out of everything from their arrival to the opening acts to the slap-yer-horn drive toward the onramp home. It's a crowd I embrace with much enthusiasm.

When I got to HP Pavilion, the top tier of the Alliance — Mastodon, Lamb of God, and Slayer — had yet to take the stage, but the tailgate party was still looking crippled. I have great memories of hanging out in the parking lot between the punks and the metal kids at Motörhead years back, and the neighborly breaking of beer tabs before the show. What better way to wile away the hours than perched in a lawn chair while the headliners' hits test the car stereo and you suck down tall cans? Cruising the auto moat around the pavilion, I found only scattered clusters hunkered down. But they were there nonetheless, complaining about overzealous security guards while one twentysomething from Stockton showed off freshly minted bicep ink of the Slayer eagle logo. Then there were the Slayer regulars from Petaluma, tough-looking but polite dudes who offered to pull me from harm should I stand too close to surly offenders inside. Such camaraderie.

There was no chance of my jumping into the fighting fray at a venue of the Pavilion's capacity, although it was nearly impossible to divert attention from the pits once they ignited. After unfortunately missing most of my favorite Alliance member, Mastodon (who promised a September return before closing with the victorious maelstrom "Blood and Thunder,"), Lamb of God incited numerous death metal centrifuges. The ground floor looked like a squirming maggot bouquet surrounding smaller circles of aggression that spun exhausted kids out to shrink against the wall. The rest of the crowd raised its fists to the call of "Now You've Got Something to Die For," frontman Randy Blythe's guttural gale reinforcing the power behind the staccato chorus.

But it was no secret that Slayer was the king of this chaperoned castle. From the girl mending a friend's jeans (freshly slit from ass to ankle) while retorting, "Who cares? It's a Slayer show!" to the gigantic amps stacked to look like inverted crosses on stage, metal's untouchables towered above everything. As classic images of worship, war, bones, and bloodshed flashed on the jumbo screen, Slayer hammered the usual targets between mammoth bookends "South of Heaven" and "Angel of Death." Even new material like "Cult," from the upcoming Christ Illusionfull-length, linked religion with rape, fear, war, and whores. This is ground Slayer's been desecrating with great success since before Osama was a household name. But in a week of escalating violence between Israel and Hezbollah topping the already gruesome sectarian slaughters in Iraq, there was something especially prescient about Slayer's performance. Not in a deep-thought sorta way — hearing the group dedicate "Mandatory Suicide" to "our brothers and sisters in Iraq" won't pad the ranks of the Peace Corps. Still, an inexplicable catharsis comes from the brutal speed with which Slayer pummels abstractions of news-media content into a gigantic metal mash. And so it was that headbanger's neck — and maybe the dried remnants of your neighbor's sweat — became a high honor in this Unholy rampage in San Jose.

 
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