In hindsight, the release date of Slayer’s God Hates Us All was sort of mind-blowing. The morning that the album dropped, two planes collided with the World Trade Center in New York City, in what became the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil. For millions of metalheads, the day’s plans of bumping the first new Slayer record in three years instantly changed to confusion, mourning, and wondering what sort of world they lived in. Suddenly, the record’s title seemed like something between a bad joke and an ominous warning. For a lesser band, the coincidence would’ve proven devastating.
Instead, God Hates Us All changed everything. Not only was the album a new beginning for Slayer, it altered the course of heavy metal as the world knew it. Though it was released on a day of unthinkable tragedy, and came from a band that many modern critics had written off, the record’s sound and attitude breathed fresh life into a genre struggling to find its identity at the turn of the millennium. And for musicians and fans around the world, it was the start of a new dark age.
To best understand God Hates Us All, one has to look at its predecessor. 1998’s Diabolus In Musica wasn’t a terrible record by any means, but it was in many ways a huge departure for Slayer. The kings of steely satanic thrash were suddenly going groovy and muscular, with lyrics skirting topics of unholy violence rather than confronting them, and riffs that stomped along instead of skipping across the battlefield hand-in-hand with Satan. Tracks like “Bitter Peace” and “Stain of Mind” bristled with power but were lacking any edge, while “Love to Hate” and “In The Name of God” felt like attempts to mimic the repetitive grinding of the booming nu-metal scene.
Even worse, Slayer toned down their art and imagery. The cover of Diabolus shows an overexposed image of a Marilyn Manson-ish priest grabbing his crotch (maybe? It’s not very clear), while the most hardcore merch available involved someone having their lips pierced shut. This was gory and spooky, sure, but it didn’t bring the blazing fire and dripping blood that were so vital to Slayer’s distinctive character. Perhaps most indicative was a shirt with a chalk outline on one side and hazard tape on the other reading ‘DO NOT CROSS SLAYER,’ the message being that these guys and their music were super tough. But that was why fans listened to Metallica — to feel like brolic metal bros. They came to Slayer for Ed Gein and the Goat of Mendes, and when the band seemed to forsake those topics, many fans felt abandoned.
But for God Hates Us All, Slayer made an intelligent choice to return to their roots — but not regress entirely. The album’s title and lyrics wouldn’t just be a series of hellscapes full of repitlian monsters, but they’d still get back to the band’s core themes of chaos, murder, perversion, and pure rage. The title felt like a throwback, but one that was more about being a metalhead on the ground than some sort of satanic priest. “I definitely wanted to put more realism in it, more depth,” Kerry King told Matt Diehl at Guitar World in 2001, saying the title wasn’t “an anti-Christian line as much as it’s an idea I think a lot of people can relate to on a daily basis. One day you’re living your life, and then you’re hit by a car or your dog dies, so you feel like, ‘God really hates me today.’”
The songs spoke for themselves. King and Hanneman’s guitars grind and gallop throughout God Hates Us All, their arch riffs made especially menacing by drummer Paul Bostaph’s rolling double bass and frontman Tom Araya’s refreshed cries and growls. The first three real tracks of the record — “Disciple,” “God Send Death,” and “New Faith” — all tackle topics of violence and blasphemy, but made them sympathetic and cool instead of ponderous and nerdy; the latter’s belted line, “I keep the Bible in a pool of blood so that none of its lies can affect me!” could exist on any of the band’s previous records, even without a direct reference to the Antichrist. Not trying to go too scorched-earth fast, the album also includes some deliciously slow numbers — “Seven Faces,” about the seven deadly sings; “Bloodline,” a paean to Dracula that doubles down on the character’s unholiness; and “Deviance,” a peek behind the eyes of the killers that Slayer so often wrote about.
But perhaps the most important song on the record is the closer. With “Payback,” Slayer seemed to finally stop giving a fuck, and in 2001 just wrote a straight-up thrash anthem, with lyrics born out of just how plainly pissed off they were at everyone around them. Where most bands were trying to write a mid-paced hit that could dominate rock radio, Slayer put their all into a throwback speed metal track that used the word ‘fuck’ 27 times and featured the chorus, “Payback’s a bitch, motherfucker!” Metalheads rejoiced, and even younger fans who didn’t obsess over Lucifer and serial murder were instantly won over. Their whole lives, they had been told Slayer were the angriest band on the planet, and now, finally, there was a song that proved it to them.
The cover art and imagery was no less important. Sure, Walmart shoppers saw the white sleeve with the hermetic symbol on it, but the rest of us knew that underneath was a gore-caked Bible with nails driven through it and ‘Slayer’ carved into the cover. With this came a return of Slayer’s old-school imagery to their merch and promotional materials, albeit with a modern bent. There were inverted crosses and bloody demon heads, skull-faced priests and corpses blossoming with goats’ horns. The message of God Hates Us All flourished behind the change: you could still have satanic symbols and not be a slave to Dungeons and Dragons. You could enjoy the theater of the dark side and remain deadly serious.
The shockwave that Slayer’s triumphant return sent throughout metal at large was awesome to behold. Sonically, bands like Kreator and Testament were once more finding their footing, mixing burly groove metal with flashes of the classic thrash that they’d long ago been told was no longer commercially viable. Stylistically, established acts like Arch Enemy and Exodus began putting pentagrams and Baphomets on their shirts once more, while up-and-comers like Thy Art Is Murder and Black Breath were respected embracing of satanic imagery if not ideals. The realization was that these symbols were more about metal than philosophical evil, exciting because they were synonymous with the genre’s dangerous foundation in the ’80s. You could be a band who didn’t pray to the Devil every night, but still dug the giant metaphors of Paradise Lost and The Exorcist.
That God Hates Us All dropped on 9/11 is important to its history, but today it’s almost incidental. The coincidence was scary, but Slayer were scarier, taking on the new world that was thrust upon listeners with a steady hand. The album reminded so many listeners of what metal was all about before it got caught up in the mire of subgenres, radio edits, and DJ scratches. For older fans, the record was proof that hell still awaited, and for new ones, it was permission to indulge in all the breakneck evil that their forefathers had enjoyed. It was finally okay to be Slayer again.
Words by Chris Krovatin