Saturday, 27 October 2012


ARTIST: Slayer
ALBUM: Reign In Blood
RELEASED: October 1986

Angel of Death/Piece by Piece/Necrophobic/Altar of Sacrifice/Jesus Saves/
Criminally Insane/Reborn/Epidemic/Postmortem/Raining Blood

An album needn’t be the best example of something to be deemed a classic, nor even the first to do what it does, but it has to have captured the imagination, and somehow proved itself to be ‘important’.

And important is basically how one might best describe Slayer’s Reign in Blood. Revered as one of the definitive moments in thrash metal,[1] and even as the greatest metal album of all time by some, Reign in Blood is without a doubt a very good album. However, it is not the greatest heavy metal album ever made. Nor it is the best trash album ever released. In fact, it’s not even the best Slayer album (Paranoid, Rust In Peace, South of Heaven, before you ask).

What it is, however, is a stone-cold classic, respected by metal-heads and (somewhat amazingly) mainstream critics alike.

Raining Blood

Raining blood from a lacerated sky
Bleeding its horror
Creating my structure
Now I shall reign in blood 

1985-86 was the golden era of thrash metal, with all the genre’s major players peaking within a year or so of each other. There was Metallica’s epic Master of Puppets, Megadeth’s vitriolic Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? and Anthrax’s personality packed Spreading the Disease (if it sounds like I'm damning Anthrax with faint praise it's only because I don't think they were that good). Throw in an endless stream of underground classics also released during that period and it's hard to imagine a single album setting itself apart so thoroughly as Reign in Blood seems to have in the eyes of many.

But it did. How?

Music isn't a competition for me. I certainly think some bands are better than other similar acts, but I'd never argue that is what defines them. Pearl Jam are good because they're good, not because they happen to be a shitload better than Creed. However, there has always been a tendency amongst metal fans to try to quantitatively assess the speed, heaviness and musicianship of bands - to rank and define them. The thrash scene was defined in part by being heavier than the hair-metal scene. Motorhead were defined in part by being faster than Black Sabbath. Reign in Blood holds its place in people's hearts because established wisdom has it as being faster, heavier and darker than anything that came before it.

Thing is though, it really wasn't. Sure, it was darker and harder than anything the other 'Big 4' bands were doing at the time, and sure it was played so fast the final recordings of the ten songs set for inclusion clocked in at less than 29 minutes. Its solos are abrasive squalls, it’s lyrics are uncompromisingly unpleasant. It’s a distillation of what thrash metal set out to be. But was it really that much heavier than what was happening at the time? I'd argue not.

Angel of Death

Apart from anything else, fellow first-wave thrash band Exodus's 1985 release Bonded by Blood is arguably every bit as heavy, as were European releases of the same year from the likes of Kreator and Celtic Frost. And besides, the sort of extremity in evidence on a mid-80s thrash album has long been put in the shade by proponents of death-metal, black-metal and the like – so why did Reign in Blood have such an impact at the time, and why has it endured?

A big part of it I think is Rick Rubin's production. Reign in Blood just sounds good, and in this genre at that time, that was a big deal. Early to mid-80s metal bands pushing the envelope were doing so on a shoe-string budget, with producers, engineers and equipment often ill-suited to realizing their visions. Many of the great early thrash and death metal albums suffered from horribly chaotic productions, with little or no low-end, poorly mixed vocals and guitars that sounded more like angry bees than hammers of the gods. Of course, this was all part of the genre's underground charm, but it diluted the intensity of the music. What set Reign in Blood apart was a clean, clear precise sound that, perhaps for the first time, truly captured a thrash-metal band in full flight. Quite a calling card for a producer who had previously produced the Beastie Boys and would go on to work with everyone from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers to Johnny Cash.

For all respect you cannot lust 
In an invisible man you place your trust
Indirect dependency
Eternal attempt at amnesty

That's not all of course. Working within their limitations (with the exception of drummer Dave Lombardo, no member of Slayer is particularly noteworthy as a musician), Slayer released an album of singular focus. On the one hand, playing as fast as you can for the sake of it, and being as offensive as you can be for the fun of it, may be a terribly self-indulgent approach to making music, but the fact is that Reign in Blood is otherwise an extremely restrained album in its way. There's nothing superfluous in sound or arrangements, no riff that overstays its welcome, no hooks that are fallen back on one too many times. Just what needed playing, played fast.

My rage will be unleashed again
Burning the next morn
Death means nothing there is no end
I will be reborn

Ultimately Reign in Blood sounds like nothing that came before, and an awful lot that came since. The squalling solos. The chaotic bursts of speed that crash headlong into inexorable, juddering grooves. The disjointed lyrics that sound like some sort of demented haiku. The shouted, hardcore-style vocal approach. There’s a little bit of Reign in Blood in half the metal albums made after 1986, from the death metal genre (pretty much in its entirety) through to Pantera and more contemporary acts such as Slipknot. For as great as some of the bands it influenced are though, its hard not to listen to Reign in Blood and feel that, no matter how fast or how heavy they may be, those acts are a dilution of something that had already been done.

Criminally Insane
At their best, that was what separated Slayer from the pack, and what makes this album a classic. It’s a distillation of everything its genre was about and a foundation for much of what was to come. In a genre often vilified for self-indulgence, it’s an album that carries no fat. 1988s South of Heaven was better. It was more nuanced, more varied, and it rewards repeated listening far more thoroughly. However, it’s not nearly as pure a statement of intent. 

But then, very few albums in any genre ever have been.

 Get Thrashed - Documentary

Raining Blood - Tori Amos

Next Edition: A golden god across the water.

[1] Thrash metal could be a blog post in its own right, but for the uninitiated, it was a sub-genre of metal that first flourished in the early-mid 80s. Building on the work of Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Motorhead and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, bands sought to develop a faster, more aggressive sound influenced in part by the simultaneous evolution of hardcore punk. Thrash would take hold in the mid-80s as the established alternative to more pop-focused hard rock of Motley Crue et al. A remarkably well-defined genre that most notably flourished in California, New York and Germany, most proponents were quite happy to self-identify as being thrash. It was led by a well-defined big 4 consisting of Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer. For an excellent documentary (one of the best I've seen on any scene/genre), check out Get Thrashed.

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