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Slayer with Primus, Ministry, and Philip H. Anselmo and the Illegals

Madison Square Garden, New York, NY — Previous legs of Slayer’s sprawling farewell tour included support from Lamb of God, Anthrax, Behemoth, Testament, Napalm Death, Obituary, Amon Amarth, and Cannibal Corpse, none of whom could entice me to drag my ass into a cavernous arena or amphitheater. And the last time I saw Slayer turned out to be the last ever appearance of the original lineup, shortly before the untimely death of Jeff Hanneman and the departure of Dave Lombardo, which seemed like a fitting moment for me to call it a day with Slayer. But I should have known Slayer wouldn’t be denied. The bill for the final leg of their final tour was a somewhat unorthodox early-’90s nostalgia trip tailor-made for me, and resistance was futile.

First up was Philip H. Anselmo and the Illegals. The few times Phil has persuaded me to pay attention to him in the past two decades generally haven’t gone well. Whether he was making boring sludge metal records, publicly feuding with his former Pantera bandmates, or giving a drunken, probably-sarcastic-but-still-gross white power salute, it was clear that whatever I once found compelling about him was long in the past. I do still love listening to those first two Pantera records he sang on, though, and since his current band is playing all Pantera songs on this tour, I thought it might be fun to hear him belt them out again. It was fine, but more than anything, it underscored how essential Dimebag Darrel (RIP) and Vinnie Paul (RIP) were to what made those songs special.

Ministry and Primus, on the other hand, have retained their most essential members (Al Jourgensen in Ministry’s case and the entire lineup in Primus’s case) and have pretty steadily recorded and toured for decades. I stopped following both in the mid-’90s, so festival gigs and opening slots like the ones they played at this show are ideal for me: they stick to the hits from their heyday, with varying success.

While Ministry played pretty much exactly what I wanted to hear – classics from The Land of Rape and Honey, The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste, and Psalm 69 – Al’s awkward stage banter suggested that he resented the implied necessity of playing the hits. And I hate to say it, but, at 61, his dreadlocks, copious facial piercings, and undiminished sardonicism give him the look of someone clinging to something, a stark contrast to the lived-in rockstar vibe of an elder statesman like, say, the late Lemmy Kilmister. (He also appeared to be lip-syncing to Gibby Haynes’s original vocal track on “Jesus Built My Hotrod,” which was… weird.)

Primus has aged more gracefully, and they sounded fantastic. Their set heavily favored their first three records, and the time limit kept them from indulging their more irksome jam-band tendencies. Les acknowledged that this was an unusual gig for them, but when fuckin’ Slayer is calling it quits, you don’t stay home. He amiably suggested that anyone unenthused by Primus’s set take this opportunity to buy Slayer merch. My only gripe with the performance was how underlit it was – Les in particular is usually really fun to watch, and we could barely see him.

What can I say about Slayer? Their excellent reputation is entirely deserved. Like every other time I’ve seen them, this show made me wonder why I’ve ever passed up an opportunity. Even if they haven’t made an important record in nearly 30 years, they remain a live force to be reckoned with – no one does it better. I typically abhor the arena setting for live music, but this is where Slayer belongs, and they make it work effortlessly: the music’s unrelentingly ferocious intensity, the lights, the fire – oh g*d the fucking fire – no corner of that huge room was safe from their assault. The setlist sampled from nearly every record they’ve made, and was expertly crafted so no one would ever be more than a moment away from one of their favorite songs. Slayer is going out on top, and I’m so glad I was there to see it one last time.

SATAN’S SON I’M BORN OF FIRE