Career-spanning Final Campaign stop at Nationwide Arena doesn't disappoint

The scene at Nationwide Arena Tuesday night, host to Slayer’s Final Campaign, was quite the dichotomy compared to my intimate Monday in the thrall of Big Thief at the Athenaeum Theatre. 

For one, there was exponentially more fire. Literally. This being the last tour of Slayer’s illustrious, nearly four-decade career, the budget for pyro must have been a top priority. Nearly every beat and pause were accentuated by a flank of machines spitting Vegas-sized flames into the crowd. “Go big or go home” was the mantra.

Perched atop a heavy-hitting lineup that included Phil Anselmo of Pantera, Ministry, and Primus, Slayer can be nothing but a headliner, and the grand finale at that. The festivities started early, at 6 p.m., which gave the arena a Heavy Metal Parking Lot vibe, and with such a lineup, one that could easily dominate a Friday night at Rock on the Range. The fervent audience — mostly male, mostly inebriated, aged anywhere between 12 and old enough to remember Slayer from the ‘80s — settled in for the five-hour onslaught.

Fortunately my companion for the night had to work late, so we missed Phil Anselmo and the Illegals gumming up Pantera’s classic Vulgar Display of Power. "Classic" because in returning to my small-town Ohio high school a few weekends ago, the aggro jocks were still blasting the album in the weight room on a rainy Saturday afternoon. The catharsis of that album continues to resonate. But known as a bloated racist in recent years, and without guitarist Dimebag Darrell, who brought the real magic, Anselmo’s act is tired and canceled, and it's a bad look for Slayer to even be in the same room as this guy.

Having Ministry in tow, though, was a good look for Slayer, as the band seemed to be more relevant than ever. Aging boomer Al Jourgensen has lived many lives in alternative rock, and he showed most of them off in his band’s compact set of industrial metal. It’s easy to see how Jourgensen’s persona and sonic maximalism beget more successful agitators like Trent Reznor, Rob Zombie and Marilyn Manson. What was once an attack on the Reagan/Bush New World Order in 1992 — through the use of programmed beats, plunderphonic sample collage and epileptic, psychedelic thrash — is just as potent in countering a corrupt Trump presidency now. To wit, Jourgensen’s perpetual anti-authoritarian streak fueled songs like “Thieves” and “Just One Fix” with an extra dose of energy. Hard to believe how ahead of its time Ministry was at its Lollapalooza peak, and how that prescience made for the most vital set of the evening. 

Primus, on the other hand, did not lend any significant syzygy between the blitzkrieg of Ministry and the brutal nightcap provided by Slayer. If we hark back to the ‘90s and alternative nation, the throngs who treated Primus as a cult were rarely in the same circles as Slayer fans, but in the current climate, where genre has essentially dissolved, those crowds overlap. To settle in for Primus, one must rearrange the brain like a Rubik's Cube to fully click with the trio’s goofy hokum and oddball complexities. I’ve often relegated Primus to an in-joke that never quite had a punchline; to the layman, its music comes off like a series of blurts and squiggles, similar to the Shreds series of videos played out in real time. To me, it just never made sense.

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And though that sentiment took greater weight in an opening slot for Slayer, Primus slogged through all of its highlights. At best, “Fizzle Fry” and “Here Come the Bastards” displayed the trio’s strengths, namely drummer Tim Alexander’s polyrhythms and guitarist Larry LaLonde’s nuanced layering. “The Seven,” the centerpiece of Primus’ last album, also cruised along as a studied prog epic, with leader Les Claypool gleefully stomping about like a brown-acid Willy Wonka. I’m more inclined to appreciate when the band takes itself as serious astral travelers instead of pining about “Professor Nutbutter’s House of Treats” or trudging through a deflated version of “My Name is Mud.” While in the right setting Primus is regarded as a legend, playing with an enhanced musicality that appeals to the most zonked weirdos, on this night it just felt like a bad trip. Especially considering who was to follow.

I’ve often theorized that most bands shouldn’t play past 30 minutes. Leave the crowd wanting more. 1986’s Reign in Blood, arguably Slayer’s finest moment, is a flawless 34 minutes. The perfect set from Slayer would ideally last about as long. You need a certain amount of stamina to endure it. A certain adrenaline to enjoy it.

Given this was (apparently) Slayer’s last stand, it was evident the band would be opting for the marathon, giving the crowd a career-spanning set list, including touchstones like “Hell Awaits,” an inspired “War Ensemble,” “South of Heaven” and the requisite slash and burn of the Reign in Blood hits. What dragged Slayer down, though, was a need to bring forth the band's lesser work from the ‘00s and ‘10s. Those songs weren’t any less aggressive on this night; with a lineup that now includes Exodus guitarist Gary Holt in place of Jeff Hanneman and drummer Paul Bostaph as the long-term replacement for Dave Lombardo, they just felt like redundancies. It was all too much.

Still, seeing Kerry King, in full thrash regalia, snarling like a feral dog from his stage left post, wailing through his screaming, tangled solos, is near sacred. Holt, to his credit, filled in admirably, but Hanneman’s once perplexing counter to King is something sorely missed in a Slayer show. But this is 2019. Extremes must be met. The fire was intense, and the backdrop, a heady melange of Slayer imagery, was a welcome sight. The band was mercurially on brand, rarely taking time for any banter while stacking an assault of songs back to back to back.

Most telling, from our seats in the arena’s lower bowl, was seeing the churning mosh pit maintain itself for the entire night, and the dozens of faithful crowd surfing over the barriers, only to return again to the melee. During the length of Slayer’s hour-long set, that element never relented. When Slayer is dead and gone, there will always be that need for catharsis. Thankfully, my generation has always had Slayer. And so it was a thrilling night, but also bittersweet; the absolute titans of thrash will no longer be around to fill that void.