by Ken Jobe (@booksofjobe)
When thrash metal titans Slayer announced they were embarking on a farewell tour before embracing retired life, they announced a supporting bill that could be a killer tour of its own: Lamb of God, Anthrax, Testament, and Behemoth, who were swapped out on the second leg of the tour for Napalm Death. Nearly 7,000 fans braved the 90-plus degree heat and humidity at Oklahoma City’s Zoo Amphitheater for the six hour metal marathon—would they all survive?
It may come as a surprise to some to find out that the UK’s Napalm Death have been around as long as Slayer, forming in 1981 in Meriden, West Midlands, England. And while no original members remain, the four on stage in OKC have essentially been Napalm Death since 1992—one brief change in vocalists and a guitarist’s departure aside. Vocalist Mark “Barney” Greenway led one of the most influential grindcore acts on the planet through a 30 minute assault on an (unfortunately) only half-interested crowd with the energy of a punk band half their age.
They touched on the majority of their catalog, from their latest, 2015’s Apex Predator—Easy Meat, all the way back to the title track of the band’s debut, 1987’s Scum, with Greenway spastically running, bouncing, and hopping about the stage for the entire set. It seemed a bit of a waste to relegate such a legendary, influential band to opening status, but on a bill this stacked with talent, someone has to play first.
Bay Area thrashers Testament were up next for a condensed set, more than half of which consisted of tracks from what many consider their two best albums, 1988’s The New Order and ’89’s Practice What You Preach. It’s understandable that the band wanted to pack the set with as many crowd-pleasers as they could during the short time they were given (barely more than Napalm Death), but ultimately Testament came off as a bit of a nostalgia act, both musically and visually. It can’t be said that frontman Chuck Billy is not entertaining to watch, but of all the bands on the bill his seemed the least relevant and most out of touch.
The same cannot be said for the other of thrash’s Big Four (along with Slayer, naturally) playing on the bill, Anthrax. Although their demographics do also skew older, there’s still a connection (as well as consistently stronger albums) that makes the band more relevant than many other bands from thrash’s peak (e.g., Testament).
Still, as was the apparent theme of the day, they could do nothing more with the short time they were given than deliver a brief “greatest hits”-style set, featuring their best-known (though not necessarily best) songs. It was a disservice to the band and fans alike, and as with Napalm Death, it seemed almost criminal to give a band so well known such a short amount of time to dig into their extensive catalog.
With the heat beginning to take its toll, the crowd needed a shot of adrenaline—and that’s what they got with Virginia groove metal icons, Lamb of God. Opening with Omerta, off 2004’s Ashes of the Wake, it was immediately apparent that a new breed of metal band had taken the stage.
From the energy of frontman Randy Blythe (surpassing even Napalm Death’s Barney), to the unique songwriting, even to their mix (which was brighter and clearer than the somewhat muddy sound of some of the previous bands), Lamb of God stood head and shoulders above the bands that had played before them.
Touching on about half the albums in their discography, the band never had a drop in the energy level as Blythe stormed and leapt across the stage, snarling as he barked out lyrics yet showing wit and relatability when he spoke to the crowd between songs. The crowd were vocal in their approval of the band’s stellar performance, though things never got physical—even when, thanks to the venue’s bizarre ‘no cursing between songs’ rule, Blythe awkwardly encouraged fans to “Go bananas!”
It seemed the hours of oppressive heat had worn the crowd down past the point of forming any sort of proper circle pit with music that would’ve been the perfect soundtrack for it. Regardless, as they closed with what is arguably their best known song, Redneck, from 2006’s Sacrament, Lamb of God proved they are the heir apparent to the metal throne that is soon to be vacated by the night’s headliners.
Seeing Slayer for the first time in 1991 felt…in a word, unsafe. Crowds were worked into a frenzy by the breakneck tempos and frenetic guitar work of Kerry King and the late Jeff Hanneman. Add to that the bombastic drumming of Dave Lombardo and Tom Araya’s riotous vocals, and you have a powder keg just waiting to go off. Could the current version, over a quarter century older and with only half its original members, live up to my memories from the heyday? Of course not.
That’s not to say present day Slayer is not good, by any stretch. On the contrary, Paul Bostaph is a monster on the drums in his own right, and former Exodus guitarist Gary Holt is a perfect fit for the band in the absence of the late, great Hanneman. The band was tight, and the set was clearly well-rehearsed. In actuality, that was part of the problem: it was too rehearsed.
As a longtime Slayer fan, what I would’ve loved (especially after six hours in the sweltering Oklahoma heat and watching four abbreviated sets from three bands who deserved better) was something special. A few songs they hadn’t played in a long time—deep cuts from Reign in Blood, South of Heaven, or Seasons in the Abyss, or even something from their album of punk covers, Undisputed Attitude. Instead, what fans got was just another concert.
Granted, it was a good concert; it was a nonstop, 19 song, 90 minute barrage of the band’s best known songs. Fans old and new should still take the opportunity to catch the guys before they’re gone for good. But there’s no need to touch on the songs in the set list, because there virtually were no surprises. Nothing about their performance seemed like the Special Event it was made out to be—it was just another show that also just so happened to be on their final tour.
After closing the show with Angel of Death, Tom Araya stayed on stage for a few minutes, seeming to soak up the applause and take in the moment before saying simply, “I’m gonna miss you guys.”
I only wish the day—and the band’s set—had reflected that.