Friday, December 18, 2015

Slayer - Reign in Blood (1986)

"Reign in Blood" is one of those albums so frequently hailed as a masterpiece that people don't even bother to really articulate why. It's been called the best metal album of all time, the best thrash album of all time, the most extreme album of all time and God knows what else. I don't agree with any of those claims, but it's still an indispensable classic, and a desert island disc to be sure.

It stands at a crossroads, as an ultimatum to all other 80's thrash bands. Behind it lie Exodus, Metallica, Testament, and Slayer's other contemporaries, having such a blast frightening parents with tales of demons, destruction and war. Then Slayer drops "Reign in Blood", their third record, with its killer opener "Angel of Death". There's no cute acoustic intro, no "spooky" samples, just a sharp, jagged guitar pummelling that sounds like somebody repeatedly being curbstomped as Tom Araya lets loose a scream that doesn't even sound human. Then he starts yelling about Auschwitz.

This was a new kind of violence. To many listeners at the time, I'm sure Slayer sounded like they might actually practice what they preached. The truth is, as any metalhead today could easily pick up, that this was still just theater and an excuse to have a mosh pit. But there was a huge difference in approach. Slayer didn't crack jokes or write cheesy anthems to metal. They just described horrors with no embellishment or context, the perfect counterpoint to music that spends not a second dicking around.

"Reign in Blood"s reputation rests primarily around two legendary songs that bookend the record: the aforementioned "Angel of Death" is a perfect thrash composition that lays the foundation for the mayhem to follow, detailing horrors that metal hadn't yet dared to express. The band plows forward with lockstep brutality as Araya describes Josef Mengele's horrifying prison camp "experiments". Then the music stops abruptly for a second, before howls of unearthly pain erupt Kerry King's and Jeff Hanneman's guitars, sounding like the screams of innocent victims. Bon Jovi it ain't.

The rest of the album is made of shorter pieces that seem to run together like some kind of thrash suite. There's no dead weight to be found, as Slayer famously intended to cut down all repetition in their song structures until nothing but the good stuff remained. I'm still blown away when midway through the second verse of "Altar of Sacrifice" the song abruptly switches riffs, like they were bored of that one after playing it last time. Most of these songs bleed together musically and lyrically, but fit together like perfect little puzzle pieces. Reign in Blood is without question one of the best constructed albums in metal history.

A word must also be said for the production, traditionally the Achilles' Heel of 80's thrash. I can't think of another thrash album until at least the mid nineties that sounded anywhere near this good. Credit Rick Rubin, genius hip hop producer and metalhead, with stepping up to the plate and finally showing the world how to actually capture the intensity of thrash on record.

And the cherry on top is the brilliant closer "Raining Blood", which actually manages to incorporate rain and thunder effects in a way that sounds scary, not cheesy. As the soundtrack to Satan marvelling at the destruction he has wrought, it can't be beat. And the song begins with one of the most indelible riffs in metal, one that I don't recommend playing to any thrash fan without being prepared for a spontaneous mosh.

More extreme, and more controversial albums would come after Reign in Blood. But at the time, thrash bands realized they were no longer going to be able to just pile atop one another searching for yet more brutal extremity. Slayer had them beat. Thus began the later era of 80's thrash which led to more ambitious and diverse albums like Death Angel's "Act III", Metallica's "And Justice for All", and Anthrax's "Persistence of Time". 

It was left to the burgeoning death metal movement to try to surpass Slayer's achievement here, and they did so by using less melody, more complicated song structures, and inhuman death growls. But while most of those records are certainly harder to listen to and digest, they're nowhere near as scary. On "Reign in Blood", you can understand the lyrics, hear the terror, and feel chills running down your spine that cookie monster vocals and constant tempo changes just can't provide. It's not the be all and end all of metal, but there's nothing quite like it.

Check out more great records in The Gallery