By Dave Pehling

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — One of the most anticipated metal tours of the summer arrives in San Francisco on Wednesday when thrash-metal icons Slayer bring their jaunt with fellow headbangers Lamb of God and opening act Behemoth to the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.

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They may have never achieved the mainstream popularity of fellow thrash pioneers Metallica and Megadeth, but Slayer’s dedication to creating relentlessly ferocious metal without compromise has earned the group something far greater: iconic status as one of the heaviest bands in the world and a fierce loyalty from a rabid fan base.

Anchored by the tandem guitar attack of founders Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King, the blood-curdling bellow of singer/bassist Tom Araya, and the furious propulsion of monster drummer Dave Lombardo, Slayer pushed metal into more brutal and blasphemous territory starting with its 1983 debut Show No Mercy. From the raw, punk-influenced beginnings of the band’s early albums through seminal recordings like the landmark efforts Reign In Blood and South of Heaven, Slayer laid the blueprint for countless extreme metal bands that followed in their wake.

Over the course of a nearly 30-year career, Slayer’s dark vision and largely unchanged line-up has remained remarkably intact. Lombardo left in the early ’90s, only to return in 2002 when his replacement, Paul Bostaph, was forced to temporarily retire due to a chronic injury. In 2009, the band issued its second album since Lombardo’s return, the blisteringly powerful World Painted Blood. Hailed by some as the band’s greatest achievement since 1990’s Seasons in the Abyss, the effort proved that the passage of time hasn’t mellowed the brutal quartet one bit.

Slayer had already been dealing with guitarist Hanneman’s health issues after he contracted necrotizing fasciitis in 2011 and sat out several tours with Exodus guitarist Gary Holt filling in, but in 2013 the band was forced to cope with two serious blows. First Lombardo left the band over a pay dispute that had many fans crying foul, even after he was replaced by returning longtime drummer Bostaph. Far more difficult was the sudden passing of Hanneman in May from liver failure.

The group decided to soldier on with Holt continuing in his role as the band’s second guitarist and over the course of 2014 and 2015 worked in the studio on Slayer’s first album since Hanneman’s passing. Including several tunes the late guitarist had been working on prior to his death, Repentless came out in the fall 2015 on Nuclear Blast to wide critical acclaim. Tunes like “Implode” and the vicious title track proved Slayer has lost none of its characteristic ferocity.

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Closing on two years since that album came out, the band members have started to talk about plans for the group’s next recording with a possible new album slated to be released in 2018. Slayer returns to the Bay Area this week for its biggest San Francisco show in years, topping the bill at the Bill Graham Civic with support from Lamb of God and Behemoth.

One of the biggest metal bands to emerge during the ’90s, celebrated Richmond, VA-based band Lamb of God has roots dating back to 1994 when guitarist Mark Morton, bassist John Campbell and drummer Chris Adler founded the group the moniker Burn the Priest. Several years later after the addition of punk-influenced singer D. Randall “Randy” Blythe, the neo-thrash outfit was signed to Prosthetic Records and switched its name for their label debut, New American Gospel.

With hints of sonic brutality that recalled Pantera mixed with the technical riff construction of classic thrash-metal bands like Megadeth and Testament, Lamb of God built a fiercely loyal following with its relentless touring schedule and steady output of solid albums. The band eventually scored a major label deal with Epic and found even greater commercial and critical success with Ashes of the Wake in 2004 and their follow-up effort Sacrament.

Tabbed as one of Metallica’s favorite support acts in the past decade, Lamb of God continued it’s upward trajectory with the release of 2009’s Wrath and Resolution three years later. Hailed my many as their best album yet, Resolution found a newly sober Blythe delivering a ferocious vocal performance. However, the band suffered a huge setback when the singer was arrested when their European tour landed in Prague after charges were brought against him in connection with a fan’s death from a head injury suffered at a 2010 Lamb of God concert.

Incarcerated for almost 40 days before finally being released on bail, Blythe and the band would spend much of 2012 dealing with the singer’s legal battle instead of touring to support the album. That struggle, vividly depicted in the documentary As the Palaces Burn, eventually found Blythe acquitted of all charges, but the trial took an emotional and financial toll on the group. The singer would write lyrics inspired by his time in a Czech Republic jail for the group’s most recent album, VII: Sturm und Drang. Another triumph for the band after overcoming enormous obstacles, the effort stands as Lamb of God’s most focused and intense metal onslaught yet.

Last year, the group put out a couple of new songs with The Duke EP. Dedicated to fan Wayne Ford who was battling leukemia and was befriended by Blythe as he battled the disease, the collection of songs including several recent live recordings was aimed at raising funds to support Ford’s family after his passing. Polish black-metal extremists Behemoth will open the show, pummeling the crowd with their ferociously complex songs to kick off what is sure to be a full night of heavy metal insanity.

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Slayer with Lamb of God and Behemoth
Wednesday, August 9, 7 p.m. $49.50-$69.50
Bill Graham Civic Auditorium