Keeping Hell Waiting: Kerry King Rises from the Grave

Keeping Hell Waiting: Kerry King Rises from the Grave

- By Dan Franklin

The iconic guitarist expands on the artistic aggression he pioneered with a solo project that presents a bolstered, even better version of himself on record.

Photo by Maurice Nunez

As one of the founders of Slayer, in the early days, before they became “SLAYAAARGH” and an emblem of all that was supremely evil in thrash metal, Kerry King invented a new musical language. It’s a language we all understand, without needing to know the rules.

That’s because King’s guitar playing has never followed the rules. It smashes dissonant, atonal warp-speed riffing against weird, whammy-inflected chromatic soloing. A musicologist might analyze it and suggest one song uses the Phrygian mode, and another the relatively sinister-sounding Locrian mode, but they’d be fast flung into the nearest ultra-violent mosh pit, and soon abandon all reason.

King’s songwriting was shaped by its own infernal illogicality, seeming to speak in tongues. It broke the mold by not following standard musical scales – instead throwing in semi-tonal licks and sickly grace notes that not only invoked variants of the infamous “devil’s interlude”, diabolus in musica, but set it on fire. Slayer came to bury the blues-based approach to heavy rock music.

All metalheads understand Slayer, even if they don’t understand why. One doesn’t leave behind, or grow out of, Slayer. But when Slayer wrapped up as a creative force in 2019, King himself had to move on from the band he founded in 1981. With his new solo album, From Hell I Rise, he has crafted a new dialect of the thrashing musical master-language he pioneered.

“If I put this record out in the mid '80s, people would say, ‘It's the most insane thing I've ever heard!’” he says proudly. “But they have definitely become desensitized over all the genres that have come out since then.”


Thrash metal was developed largely as a response to a world that seemed to be on the verge of mutually assured destruction. Its fusion of hardcore punk and heavy metal mirrored the process of nuclear fusion itself. Once the arms race for heaviness began, it never slowed down. It seemed right this spring that Knocked Loose released one of the most abrasive, uncompromising and heaviest albums of the modern era the week before King returned to remind everyone where the nastiness had all begun.

The devil doesn’t like to ride alone. King has assembled a demonic band around him. Some might call it a supergroup. Long-time Slayer collaborator Paul Bostaph on drums; former Machine Head and Vio-lence guitarist Phil Demmel; Kyle Sanders (brother of Mastodon’s Troy) of Hellyeah and (severely underrated crushers) Bloodsimple; and Death Angel singer Mark Osegueda.

At the time I speak to King the band only has three shows under its belt – one club gig and two festival sets – where they’ve been introducing audiences to the new material and playing a smattering of Slayer classics like “Raining Blood” and “Disciple”. They had played “together” in the studio (where it's long been the norm to record parts separately), and filmed music videos headbanging along to lower-volume renditions of "Residue" and “Toxic”, but it was trial by fire playing live for the first time.

“We had four rehearsals in California, two rehearsals in Chicago, and started to get a feel for what's happening,” says King. “And what jumped out at me is: this band is just a band of monsters, everybody just crushes their instrument. Mark is crushing singing. As far as the shows go, I’m still a little bit of a fish out of water. I haven't really played in four and a half years. But besides that, for me, it's getting used to a stage with an extra person on it, because I'm used to there being only three on stage besides the drummer, and now we have four. So it’s still a feeling-out period. But it's got teeth already. It's fierce.”

King excels in guitar duos: there was the pivotal partnership with Jeff Hanneman, and later Gary Holt, in Slayer. Going solo, he says he never considered stepping out on stage as the only guitar player. He’s from the school of K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton, of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith, in the classic incarnations of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden respectively. Two-guitar attack, even three-guitar attack in Iron Maiden these days, is what King’s about. It’s rawer, more authentic; one player can take off on a solo while the other holds down the rhythm. No-one is jumping on guitar pedals to create a sound that isn’t genuinely there.

“I don't really have a reason for that. That's just how I am,” King says.

He’s very happy to have a take-it-or-leave-it approach to his music and his opinions. King interviews like a Slayer song – fast, direct responses with no rambling. We took less time talking to each other than it takes to listen to 1986 Slayer masterpiece Reign in Blood.

But did he have any particularly different musical ambitions he wanted to explore as a solo artist?

“Not at all,” he responds quickly. “And maybe people think that makes me shallow. But hey, I like metal. I make up what I think my fans want to hear come out of me. I've said a million times: I like AC/DC, because they sound like fuckin’ AC/DC. You know what I mean? I do believe that's why people like me or hate me. If you like me, this is what you want me to sound like.”

In Phil Demmel he’s picked an excellent foil for his guitar-playing. King works best bouncing off a more melodic counterpart. In Slayer, generally speaking, King’s solos seemed to squall more violently than Hanneman or Holt’s – sometimes verging on rabid free jazz. On “Where I Reign”, the second track of From Hell I Rise, King’s first solo blazes a furious trail whereas Demmel’s is something of a mini-epic, dancing at points in the style of a classical Allegro section ripped from some J.S. Bach sheet music.


“He's incredibly melodic – way more than me,” says King. “I remember when I would send him demos. And he would put some lead ideas down and say, ‘Hey, it's too melodic, I can change it.’ I said, ‘Hey, dude, it's your lead. This is our thing. That's your lead, if you like it and it don't make me throw up, I'm cool with it!’”

It’s long been a topic of discussion that early Slayer albums, and even the classic ones, lacked the sonic heft of their live performances. 2001’s supremely punchy God Hates Us All, produced by Matt Hyde with oversight from Rick Rubin, finally seemed to correct that. From Hell I Rise is produced by Josh Wilbur, known for his work with Korn, Lamb of God and Trivium. King has said it’s the closest a producer has come to capturing his somewhat elusive guitar sound.

“I don't use a conventional way to get distortion,” says King. “I don't use conventional cabinets. And I think the marriage of my signature [2203K Marshall JCM800 amp] head with the cabinets I use  which have been [Marshall] Mode Fours since I had my signature head put out – it's got a real girth to it. Don't get me wrong, there's been great [recordings]. I think [Slayer’s 2015 album] Repentless was a great-sounding record. But the guitar performance [on From Hell I Rise], in the mastering and mixing, I think Josh really captured the girth that comes out on my live stage, which is just an elusive thing. You know, it's how the mics hear it. How the mics transfer it to the mixing board. And, just finding the happy medium where I'm like, ‘That's about as close as I've ever heard. So let's go with that.’”

For me, the secret weapon on From Hell I Rise is vocalist Mark Osegueda. His delivery is forceful, controlled and characterful, every bit as good, if not better, than his recent Death Angel output, such as 2019’s Humanicide. Yes, there are echoes of Tom Araya in his delivery, but also a southern-style drawl to his tone which brings to mind Kyle Thomas of fellow thrash legends Exhorder. That’s before you factor in the inhuman, I’m-having-molten-lead-poured-on-me-as-I-sing screams Osegueda was capable of even as a teenager, on Death Angel’s 1987 debut The Ultra-Violence. Post-Covid, and in no rush to hit the road amidst the bottleneck of bands embarking on tours, King and Wilbur used that time to hone the vocals.

“We worked a long time with Mark, not because he needed it, just because we had time,” says King. “I did scratch vocals on everything. So he knew where everything went when he came in. So for him, I think it was the first time in his career that he knew where all the vocals went before he came in and sang them. He said it was the first time recording that he's ever gone in there and not read off a lyric sheet, so you know the practice did good. Me, Josh Wilbur and Mark worked very hard on his cadence, his enunciation, everything that can make him stand apart from what he was in the past. We wanted a better version of Mark. And I think we got it.”

On From Hell I Rise, there’s the strong sense that King is also striving to be the best version of himself, as a performer and songwriter, as well as honoring the ghosts of his past, rather than trying to dispel them. In particular, “Two Fists” and “Everything I Hate About You” feel like King is getting back to basics. The latter is the shortest original he’s performed on since “Ddamm” aka “Drunk Drivers Against Mad Mothers” (1.02 mins) on 1996 Slayer album Undisputed Attitude. 


“I wanted [the album] to have a flavor of everything I've done historically, even including Undisputed Attitude, which is heavily punk-influenced,” says King. “‘Everything I Hate About You’ is 1 minute 20 seconds of pure thrash-punk purity. “Two Fists” is a very laid back, more driving '80s punk song. And when I wrote that one in particular, I wanted it to sound like it was written by an '80s punk band. I wanted it to sound like it was written by an angry '80s punk vocalist, so I allowed myself some room in those lyrics. There's definitely some lyrics in ‘Two Fists’ that never would have made Slayer. But since this has no real backbone yet, as to what it's supposed to sound like, I ran with the punk on that one.”

The song has a swaggering, sarcastic recklessness to it: "This fuckin ship’s about to sink/I think I need another drink/I only want the right to choose/Which tree I hang my fuckin noose".

Elsewhere, King has experimented. “Trophies of the Tyrant” is a mid-paced stomper but has a sudden, steady increase of acceleration at the end which King came up with on a whim. It also has distinctive guitar arpeggios during the chorus with shades of Slayer’s “Dead Skin Mask”. If you invented the language, you can quote it. 

“Crucifixation” has a spectacular, extended instrumental midsection where Bostaph rolls in and out of the riff with multiple drum breaks, not unlike the introduction of classic “South of Heaven”. The riff has the ancient air of a Pharaonic tomb.

“I came up with a big riff that I knew was gonna be a harmony. And then I stumbled across the recurring drum-break part,” says King. “And once I knew I could get in and out of both of those riffs repeatedly, I texted Paul and said, ‘Paul! Paul! I made a recurring drum fill part that you really need to channel your inner Bill Ward, because it's gonna be rad.’ So it was just getting it from that point. That was actually one of the last things he did on drums, because he did tons of takes of those. And he and I, and Josh, were sitting there with notebooks, just writing down which takes we liked, what we didn't like about it, and we took all the best ones, and made that one. So that's what you hear. That's what he tries to recreate live.”

For “Shrapnel”, King wrote a riff that he reckons must have come from recently re-listening to the sonorous, wide-open refrain of “Animal Magnetism” by Scorpions. He crossed it with the insistent down-picking of the opening of Slayer’s “Hell Awaits”. He admits he rarely nails the blends of sounds in his head when he executes them, but this was different: “That's exactly what I set out to write. That rarely happens. But there's a success story right there.”


“Shrapnel” is a particularly visceral depiction of the damage done by the perpetual war machine: “Limitless human flesh/Scattered for all to see”. The album’s title track invokes the other persistent target of his ire: “Religion’s plague just never dies”. It’s the chief rebel angel, Lucifer, who presides over hell. I put it to King that rebellion is at the heart of the album.

“I think that's fair,” he agrees. “We're rebelling against the government, religion, etc. Whatever's not exactly what you think, really. Everybody's got a government; most people are not happy with their government. Most people have religion; most people are not happy (or they think they're happy just for the hell of it) with their religion. So, it's easy to attack. And I'll be the first to tell you, and I've said a million times: I'm an atheist, I don't believe one or the other. But this is fun to write about. And it's compelling to people. And they're interested in reading the lyrics and hearing what you have to say.”

The pandemic pulled some of these generic themes into sharper focus close to home, when King found himself sickened with Covid and glued to the 24-hour news cycle in a hotel room. The song “Rage” comes from the post-truth era, speaking of “Alternative facts/For an alternative god”, and is strongly suggestive of a certain former president. Lucifer is a demagogue who famously presides over hell, but the demagogues we should really be worrying about share this earthly plain.

“Toxic” highlights the trampling of the legal system: “Laws are washed away/Society will bleed”. “Biased policy/Aborting history” is a thinly veiled analogy for the US political battle over reproductive rights.

“Those two are like sister songs,” says King. And ‘Residue’ a bit too, because ‘Rage’ was left over from the last album [Repentless], but ‘Residue’ and ‘Toxic’ I wrote when I was stuck in California with Covid. Me and Paul were out there rehearsing. We both got sick. And I'm like, well, I might as well get to work. So I finished those last two lyrically. It was right after Roe vs. Wade got shot down. I have a lot of opinions about a lot of things. So that's why those are probably more pinpointed than usual.” 

King has seen a lot of cycles in his musical lifetime. In fact, it’s his 60th birthday on the opening date of his European tour on 3rd June (“at the only venue I've ever canceled!”). Would he have expected he’d still be hitting the stage at 60 years old when he started out in Slayer? Probably not, he admits. But age isn’t the barrier it used to be. There are a few metal bands with septuagenarians in their ranks. 

“I've got reasonable goals, I want to put out as many records I can, and reevaluate at 70 and see where we sit,” he smiles.

Over the years, he’s taken a huge number of fledgling metal bands out on the road. These days, he finds it easiest to dip into new music when he’s tuned into SiriusXM’s Liquid Metal in a rental car. Things pop out and he enjoys snatches of what he hears, but I think King is rather set in his ways when it comes to the classics that still influence him today. 



Now, some of the younger bands he first took out, twenty years ago or so, aren’t so young anymore, and are returning the favor. King is supporting Lamb of God and Mastodon on their Ashes of Leviathan tour this summer. I speculate whether it might necessitate lighting a fire under himself, being the underdog again.

“I already know what we're packing. So I don't need to,” he says, like he can’t help but beat his chest a little. “But I do appreciate those guys helping me out, like I helped both of them out. It’s definitely a full circle story. So that's gonna be a fun tour.”

And how about Slipknot, celebrating their 25th anniversary this year? When Slipknot first played the second stage at Ozzfest in the summer of 1999, word spread like wildfire about the boiler-suited Iowan maniacs, and soon reached Slayer who were on the main stage that year.

“I never got to see them because they were on a different stage," says King. "But so many people around Ozzfest '99 would be just raging about Slipknot. I'm thinking, I gotta go check these guys out. Probably after that tour I went and got the record and I went, ‘Oh, I get it. The singer's like... intense, insane.’”

King finally witnessed the full Slipknot spectacle later that year in Ontario.

“They came on and there was a bonfire on the stage. I don't know how they got away with that. And they just come walking out on stage like they're in a trance. I'll never forget, it was the sickest thing I ever saw from a band with really no production and playing a little club. It was cool. That's when it really clicked for me.”

To a greater or lesser extent, all of these bands were speaking the musical language that King invented in Slayer, and went on to enjoy strong touring relationships and friendships with him. With From Hell I Rise, King has done the unthinkable. He has set himself up for another decade (or so) of aggression. As long as God, Satan and those in power continue to lord over us, King is motivated to keep on thrashing: living for the day of their ruin.

From Hell I Rise, the debut solo album from Kerry King is now available via Reigning Phoenix Music. Order the album - HERE


Kerry King begins his From Hell I Rise European tour next month. Following the international dates, King will return stateside as the special guest on the Ashes of Leviathan Tour with Lamb of God and Mastodon. A current list of dates and cities can be found below. 

Get tickets - HERE


03.06.2024 NL Tilburg - 013
04.06.2024 NL Enschede - Hertog Jan Zaal
06.06.2024 SE Sölvesborg - Sweden Rock Festival
07.06.2024 DE Nürburgring - Rock am Ring
08.06.2024 PL Gdańsk - Mystic Festival
09.06.2024 DE Nuremberg - Rock im Park
11.06.2024 DE Hamburg - Große Freiheit 36
12.06.2024 DE Berlin - Huxleys Neue Welt
13.06.2024 AT Nickelsdorf - Nova Rock
15.06.2024 CZ Hradec Králové , Rock For People
16.06.2024 UK Derby - Download Festival
18.06.2024 UK London – Electric Ballroom
20.06.2024 BE Dessel - Graspop Metal Meeting
21.06.2024 DK Copenhagen - Copenhell
22.06.2024 FI Nummijärvi, Nummirock Metal Festival
26.06.2024 ES Viveiro - Resurrection Fest
27.06.2024 FR Clisson - Hellfest
28.06.2024 FI Helsinki - Tuska 
29.06.2024 PT Lisbon - Evil Live Festival, Altice Arena
ASHES OF LEVIATHAN TOUR with Lamb of God and Mastodon
19 Texas Truce CU Theatre, Grand Prairie, TX
20 Germania Insurance Amphitheatre, Austin, TX
21 713 Music Hall, Houston, TX
23 Daly’s, Jacksonville, FL 
24 Fairgrounds Amphitheater, Orlando, FL  
25 Ameris Bank Amphitheater, Alpharetta, GA
27 Red Hat Amphitheater, Raleigh, NC
30 Stage AE, Pittsburgh, PA
31 Budweiser Gardens, London, ON Canada
 1 Bell Centre, Montreal, QC Canada
 3 Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, CT
 4 SHNU, Manchester, NH
 6 Main Savings Amphitheatre, Bangor, ME
 8 Santander Arena, Reading, PA
 9 Jacobs Pavilion, Cleveland, OH *
10 Michigan Lottery Amphitheatre @ Freedom Hill, Sterling Heights, MI
13 Bluestem Center For The Arts Amphitheater, Moorhead, MN
15 Scotiabank Saddledome, Calgary, AB Canada
16 South Okanagan Events Centre, Penticton, BC Canada
17 Accesso ShoWare Center, Kent, WA
18 Theater of the Clouds, Portland, OR (LoG itin. has venue as MODA Center)
21 The Forum, Los Angeles, CA
23 Arizona Financial Theatre, Phoenix, AZ
24 Rio Rancho Events Center, Albuquerque, NM
25 El Paso County Coliseum, El Paso, TX
27 Salt Air Amp, Salt Lake City, UT
29 Red Rocks, Denver, CO
31 The Astro Amphitheater, Omaha, N
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