Five thoughts: Slayer at MGM Grand Garden Arena (November 27)

Slayer, shown here during a May show in Michigan.
Photo: David Bonvillian

1. Some metal fans were perplexed by Slayer’s choices for opening acts on its Final Campaign tour, but the run’s penultimate stop proved the thrash metal legends knew what they were doing. Phil Anselmo & The Illegals performing a Pantera set was a particularly inspired choice to start the proceedings, as they packed the MGM Grand Garden Arena at the un-metal hour of 6 p.m. The two biggest sing-alongs of the entire night took place when the former Pantera frontman launched his all-star band—which also included Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante on this night—into “I’m Broken” and “Walk.” Anselmo and the band sounded terrific, but unlike at previous dates, he didn’t dedicate the set to deceased former Pantera bandmates Darrell and Vinnie Paul, which felt like a glaring oversight in a city that served as the latter’s late-life home.

Industrial-metal mainstay Ministry made the most its spot on the tour, seemingly tripling its production value from recent local shows at Brooklyn Bowl and Fremont Country Club. A movie theater-sized screen for Ministry’s visuals behind a never-ceasing attack of smoke machines and strobe lights resulted in sensory overload, adding another disorienting layer to 40 minutes of thudding abrasiveness.

Primus played it closer to its usual performances, but the band’s funky, jammy weirdness seemed to go over surprisingly well, with circle pits turning into dancing circles. “Slayer is one of the most reputable bands of our generation,” frontman/bassist Les Claypool said in one brief address to the crowd. “They’re no longer going to play, so this is a night to celebrate.”

2. The celebration was a long time coming, as Las Vegas was conspicuously left off the first two American legs of Slayer’s “farewell” tour last year. The wait might have been worth it, certainly from a production standpoint. Slayer’s setup for the last run of dates blew away anything the band had done before—literally, as Slayer shot off enough pyro during a 95-minute performance to make Kiss or Rammstein feel insecure. The setlist was finely tuned and comprehensive—20 songs deep and dipping into all but one of the 11 proper studio albums.

3. That doesn’t mean everything went perfectly. The sound mix was at least slightly off all night. Kerry King’s guitar overpowered everything else for the first handful of Slayer songs, and even after some adjustment, Tom Araya’s bass was turned up too high. The levels often drowned out the 58-year-old Araya’s still-spectacular vocal yelps and a few of Slayer’s most iconic guitar solos, which have been performed by Gary Holt since the 2013 passing of Jeff Hanneman. The roughness didn’t seem to bother drummer Paul Bostaph, who plays at the rapid pace—and with the technical sharpness—the songs demand. Original drummer Dave Lombardo might always be more synonymous with Slayer, but Bostaph demonstrated he’s deserving of closing out the band’s career after spending three stints totaling 15 years in the seat.

4. Sound issues couldn’t mar an untouchable five-song stretch to end the show. Bathroom breaks became minimal, if not nonexistent, once Slayer launched into the title track of 1988’s beloved South of Heaven. That was follow by the title track from 1983 debut Show No Mercy before the band burned into a trio of greatest hits: “Reign in Blood,” “Dead Skin Mask,” and “Angel of Death.” Slayer could have easily split some of the songs into an encore, but staying true to its reputation as one of metal’s most unrelenting acts, there was no respite.

5. In other ways, Slayer’s final Las Vegas show felt at odds with the band’s legacy. Throughout its 38-year run, Slayer was the consummate metal band, never breaking into the arena-rock realm of Metallica, its most-associated thrash contemporary. Slayer’s haunting, raging songs sound a little less evil in a 15,000-seat venue at roughly 80 percent capacity. Adding to the detachment was a VIP section in front of the stage that looked like a peaceful refuge from the more typical jungle of banging heads and colliding bodies behind it.

Slayer had a transcendent run of Vegas shows over the past decade alone—at midsize Vegas venues like the Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel and the Pearl at the Palms—that felt more representative of Slayer’s career. That doesn’t mean the MGM Grand date wasn’t memorable or worthwhile. On the contrary, for all the band has done for metal, Slayer deserved the grandest possible send-off.

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