With temperatures threatening to kiss triple digits in muggy downtown Reading, PA, Wednesday night, it felt more Hades-like outside the Sovereign Center than inside, where old-school thrashers Slayer and horror-schlock rocker Rob Zombie teamed up for the first time in more than a decade to launch their North American "Hell on Earth" tour. Still, both acts did their part to bring the evil and the chaos, and make stumbling out into the sweltering night air afterward feel like a relief from the draining, brutal assault.
Visually, it was a study in contrasts. Following a taut, no-frills opening set from Bay Area thrash veterans Exodus, Rob Zombie and his three-piece backing band emerged before the two-thirds filled arena with a colorful, theatrical multi-media spectacle that felt like a an especially demented B-movie or carnal comic book had just splattered its guts all over the stage.
As smoke choked the front of the crowd, flames shot up from every conceivable spot of the stage, and Frankenstein footage played on the towering video screens, Zombie emerged from the belly of a giant robot-decked out in a Skeletor-style mask, top hat, and get-up that resembled a Norse warrior transported to the set of Road Warrior-and became one with his skeleton-boned mic stand for opener "Jesus Frankenstein."
While Zombie sneered and bellowed his way through "Superbeast," "Living Dead Girl," and "Pussy Liquor," guitarist John 5 and drummer Ginger Fish (both Marilyn Manson expats) and bassist Piggy were tight and frequently thrilling cohorts, generating both swaggering grooves and surprisingly walloping riffs.
For the duration of the 12-song, crowd-pleasing set, Zombie's over-the-top production offered everything a long-time fan and/or 14-year-old boy could wish for: Walking corpses, skulls, animated nude witches, blood galore, ninja stars, Herman Munster demolition derby clips, a mechanized beast prowling the stage that resembled one of those killing machines from Robocop or Terminator, and plenty of Russ Meyer-esque video raunch.
Boobs were hardly relegated to the stage-egged on by the energetic ringleader, numerous women (even by the usual metal concert standards) perched on shoulders offered views of their assets. "I'm so proud to be in this band," the singer noted. "Every night a kid comes up to me and says, 'Thank you, Mr. Zombie-tonight was the first pair of tits I ever saw." Zombie made sure to thank the ladies, and everyone else, by doing a victory stroll around the floor of the arena during an extended version of "Thunder Kiss '65," then returned to the stage to wrap with an inspired, confetti-dappled rendition of "Dragula."
The boobs stayed out for Slayer, but they were equaled by the number of head wounds and brawls that sprung up during the band's ruthless, 90-minute sonic bombardment. Compared to Zombie's gaudy production, Slayer's stage was positively austere: All the foursome needed was a huge Slayer banner flanked by two shimmering silver eagle logos, two gigantic walls of Marshall amps, and 30 years of uncompromising, synapse-shredding thrash to make their point.
With co-founding guitarist Jeff Hanneman still sidelined by some sort of flesh-eating disease, Exodus guitarist Gary Holt ably filled in, teaming with the band's undeniable live focal point-bald, burly, and fearsome axeman Kerry King-as they attacked the opening one-two punch of "World Painted Blood" and "Hate Worldwide," from 2009's World Painted Blood.
Singer-bassist Tom Araya has had his health problems of late as well-vertebrae surgery had him out of commission for most of last year-but in refraining from his trademark headbanging, Araya channeled all of that energy and aggression into his ungodly shriek; dude hasn't sounded quite this bloodthirsty in quite some time. Drummer Dave Lombardo, meanwhile, offered up his usual sorcery, propelling every song by pounding his kit like a loanshark roughing up a deadbeat to within an inch of his life.
As the pit roiled and bodies were battered, the band fed the fury with the malevolent grind of "Dead Skin Mask," an especially doomy "Seasons in the Abyss," and the obligatory and raging "Raining Blood." Slayer has a tendency to bring out fans who look a lot like Kerry King, and the back of the floor was littered with a couple dozen big, bearded dudes doing that particular thrash-metal sumo-stomp dance each in their own personal spaces as the merciless riffs and squealing solos avalanched onto their bald heads and casualties headed (or were dragged) toward the exits.
In keeping with the stark, no-nonsense onslaught, Araya said little to the crowd as Slayer steamrolled through their 90-minute set, and after 16 career-spanning songs they had so thoroughly articulated their metal dominance, there was no need for a victory lap.