Kerry King, guitarist for iconic thrash metal band Slayer, has had a gloried career, from angry speed-metal outsider to controversy-provoking media target to grizzled guitar hero. Slayer formed in 1982, when King met Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman at an audition for another metal band, and through almost 30 years and 11 studio albums, including at least two classics, the band has never slowed down, refusing to tone down the brutal speed and intensity that are the trademarks of their sound.
King has a demonic face tattooed to the back of his skull and more ink stretching from his arms to his fingertips. His guitar looks like the fiery, extended claw of a demon. He’s been called a Nazi, a Satanist and scads of other equally complimentary names.
But King and his bandmates have spent the subsequent years fending off those accusations. Being thought of as Nazis angers them. And despite the ancient knee-jerk reactions to the band’s image, musically, Slayer has never compromised.
Their latest album, November’s World Painted Blood, is an example of the band’s unwavering commitment to the nightmare-metal sound that generated so much controversy in the days of Tipper Gore’s relevancy. It sounds like Reign In Blood, the group’s 1986 landmark album, minus the Nazi-related controversy.
When King speaks, he gives you no reason to think he’s anything other than a regular, courteous, no-nonsense guy. But there’s something in his voice that makes you think he wouldn’t hesitate to bite your head off if you make him mad.
“I think society over the years has gotten more desensitized,” he says when asked why controversy doesn’t dog the band as much anymore. “In the early days, it was far easier to scare people, to where today, it’s more about making people think for themselves, so to speak. I don’t try to shock as much as I try to wake people up.”
So were the band’s early forays into darkness, like the Joseph Mengle-inspired “Angel Of Death,” from Reign In Blood, designed to shock? King, on message, answers somewhat cryptically.
“I’m a horror fan, so I guess there’s a little bit of that,” King says. “I still get off seeing a kick-ass horror movie.”
Slayer’s current tour finds them splitting the bill with fellow thrash-metal legends Megadeth for the first time since the early ’90s. King and Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine publicly feuded throughout the ’90s and the ’00s, but that all seems to be behind them now. King told Fox News that “I don’t even know what I’m mad about,” and though it may not be cool, “It’s cool enough.”
So, having been on the road with Megadeth for a few shows, what’s it like?
“It’s cooler this time,” King says, then laughs.
“We’re all older, and more friends — it’s not about who’s dick’s bigger or anything like that — we’re just out having a good time, putting out a good show for the metal fans. … We were all young, you know, testosterone flying everywhere. But it wasn’t a big fight every day; we just didn’t hang out like we do now.”
The current tour, the American Carnage tour, also presents a special treat for fans: Slayer will perform their 1990 classic Seasons in the Abyss from start to finish, and Megadeth will perform their equally classic Rust In Peace. It’s a perfect bookend for fans who saw Slayer five or six years ago, when they were performing Reign In Blood as the encore.
King says his promoters got nervous after the band had to cancel tour dates twice due to singer Tom Araya’s health issues and asked the band to perform Seasons.
“And I’m like, I always wanted to do Seasons anyway, I just hate being told to do it,” King says.
King pauses to gather his thoughts and speaks slowly when asked what he likes about Seasons.
“I think Reign In Blood was what it is,” King begins. “South of Heaven was … kind of … I think we … we departed too much from what Slayer is about. I think Tom didn’t have the aggression in his voice that he did. When we did Seasons, I wanted to revisit that and make sure we didn’t leave that behind for good, and that’s pretty much been the formula for Slayer ever since.”
And while King says he hasn’t begun thinking about writing the next Slayer album, he doesn’t see himself stopping making music anytime soon.
“Although I feel healthy now and I can still put on a good show, I look ahead at bands like Sabbath, or Tony Iommi, or people like that, he’s still a great guitar player, but he was never known for the ferocity of what we do, the physicality of it,” King says. “I kind of shot myself in the foot by creating that style. It’s going to keep me from doing it forever.”
On the Bill
Slayer and Megadeth play the Magness Arena on Wednesday, Aug. 25.
Testament open. Tickets start at $39.50. 2240 Buchtel Blvd., Denver, 303-871-3845.