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By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Monday, May 20, 2019 @ 8:56 AM

At Merriweather Post Pavilion

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All Photos By Peter Atkinson

I thought “this was it” last summer when I caught SLAYER’s “Final Tour” at its Jiffy Lube Live stop in suburban Virginia. But the band has kept adding legs to the tour, which has now stretched into its second year, and that brought it back to just outside the Beltway again, this time to Merriweather Post Pavilion between D.C. and Baltimore.

So perhaps “this was it” this time, a last chance to see the band who I first witnessed in 1986, when SLAYER played to a couple hundred people on the small stage at the long-gone Agora Ballroom in Hartford, Conn., in support of Reign In Blood. It was fucking awesome. Since then, I’ve seen the band a couple dozen times at venues as small as Toad’s Place in New Haven, Conn., and as massive as New York’s Madison Square Garden during the Clash Of The Titans tour – and not once was SLAYER anything less than fucking awesome, even when the band wasn’t quite on its “A” game.

The Merriweather Post show was no different. Sure, there was an air of finality to it – just like during the last “last” show – but the band has been firing on all cylinders during its ever-longer Final Tour. At least from what I have seen. This show had all the abandon and intensity of last summer’s – even if guitarist Kerry King seemed more brooding and distant than usual, stalking his spot stage left like a dog on a chain and staring intently at his handiwork during solos from his familiar crouch – and the spectacle to match.

While the stage set was a bit less ornate, there was no shortage of pyro. Between the flame throwers and fire pits, the show featured a veritable inferno to accent the already impressive lighting and make everything just that much more intense. It was enough to render LAMB OF GOD frontman Randy Blythe nearly speechless – which is no easy task.

In giving SLAYER a shout-out during LAMB’s opening set, Blythe attempted to describe what was to come. The best he could do was, “they have more fire then … well … anyone!” And he wasn’t bullshitting, especially during tunes like “Hell Awaits” and “Born Of Fire” – as you might expect.

The set list was changed up just a bit from the earlier leg, with “Evil Has No Boundaries”, “World Painted Blood”, “Temptation” and “Gemini” getting a turn at the expense of “Blood Red”, “When The Stillness Comes”, “Jihad” and “Dittohead”. But that hardly mattered, since all the essentials – “Postmortem”, “Raining Blood”, “Chemical Warfare”, “Mandatory Suicide”, “South Of Heaven”, “Seasons In The Abyss”, “War Ensemble”, “Dead Skin Mask” and “Angel of Death” – were deployed with their usual vigor, and to the usual adulation.

Bassist/frontman Tom Araya seems to have been re-invigorated by the Final Tour, and the prospect of retirement, and was looking even fitter than last summer – after having gone through a worrisome “Satan’s grandpa” phase a few years back. His voice was as resounding as ever. And while he still missed a vocal cue or two – and “Born Of Fire” was a bit of a mess – his presence carried its usual understated but undisputed command.

Long-time fill-in guitarist Gary Holt from EXODUS was his usual enthusiastic self, making repeated laps around the stage, posing up a storm during his solos, admiring the pyro with reverent, Beavis-like glee and stopping to chug the odd beer stage right when King was doing his thing. Holt has been every bit the breath of fresh air SLAYER needed following the loss of Jeff Hanneman, and his boundless energy helped make the 90-minute set seem more celebratory than funereal.

When it was over, and after the flames died down and the band members had thrown their leftover guitar picks and drum sticks into the crowd, Araya stuck around for a few minutes more to take it all in, as he did last time. “I’ll miss you guys,” he noted earnestly. And if this was indeed “it,” I will certainly feel the same. But I guess we’ll know for sure next summer.

LAMB OF GOD seems to be SLAYER’s designated main support for the U.S. legs of the Final Tour. Perhaps that is an effort to pass to baton to the Richmond, Va.-based band with whom SLAYER has toured many times - and who would seem to be the most likely candidate to assume SLAYER’s role as the go-to act for thrash metal on the big stage.

LAMB is certainly seasoned and popular enough and has a formidable live presence in its effortless intensity and feral frontman. With Blythe pacing, leaping and snarling like a wolf on the hunt, LAMB was as vicious as ever during its hour-long set – even with Art Cruz sitting in for drummer Chris Adler. And with a growing slew of classics of its own – “Walk With Me In Hell”, “Laid To Rest” and “Redneck” among them - a bit more production and/or pyro could easily send LAMB over the top to stake its claim as a legitimate arena/shed headliner.

Over the top has never really been an issue for Sweden’s AMON AMARTH. With its dragon-headed long boat, mead horns and synchronized headbanging, its 10-song set was every bit the “Viking metal party” frontman Johan Hegg promised it would be. AMON AMARTH brought an element of cheese and exuberance that was welcome in this otherwise dead serious lineup - which is not to say it was any less imposing than the other acts.

Indeed, the quintet delivered quite a battering, with its crunching riffs and anthemic swells, galloping drums and Hegg’s burly rasp powering “First Kill”, “Twilight Of The Thunder God” and newbies “Crack The Sky” and “Shield Wall”. But the giant Hegg is more jovial than threatening, and when he and his bandmates hit a groove and all their hair started twirling in unison, it felt like victory. “Raise Your Horns” indeed.

I heard, but did not see, most of CANNIBAL CORPSE’s brief set during the slog to Will Call and a long, slow security line after that. And that’s a shame because I was curious to see what guitarist Erik (MORBID ANGEL/HATE ETERNAL) Rutan brings to the band as he fills in for Pat O’Brien - who subbed for Holt in SLAYER for a handful of shows in 2011 – while he gets his shit back together after suffering a rather spectacular breakdown a few months back. CANNIBAL sure sounded heavy, anyway, even from a distance.

Check out some more photos from the show!
All Photos By Peter Atkinson

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