Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Metal Classics

Slayer - "Reign In Blood"

I'm not sure there has ever been a more intense 30 minutes in the history of recorded sound than Slayer's 1986 album "Reign In Blood." Like a bar room bully, it grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go for its duration. People think Metallica is fast? No, with all due respect to Lars, James and the guys, THIS is fast. I have no clue how Slayer plays as fast as they do on "Reign In Blood." But what makes this record work is that it is truly an album. The songs all fit together, usually running right into the next one. The album is relentless, but in a good way. By the end of the audio assault Slayer has just unleashed on "Reign In Blood," you either loved it or hated it. Thought it was either a brilliant piece of metal music or was completely satanic and evil. Either way, your jaw was on the floor at the sheer velocity and intensity Slayer brings on this record.

Looking back, 1986 was quite a year for metal. Metallica released "Master Of Puppets," which has gone on to greater and greater fame as the years go on as the definitive metal record. It was also the year "Reign In Blood" came out but it doesn't get the same level of accolades for some reason. It should. "Reign In Blood" marked the point when the two thrash metal titans formally went off on their own courses. Metallica to being the biggest metal band the world has ever known and Slayer to being the mischevious younger brother who liked to set things on fire. Slayer developed a cult following so dedicated they came up with their own version (facetiously, of course)of the "Clapton Is God" sign...

All my babbling would be moot if the songs on "Reign In Blood" did not hold up so well. The band is amazingly tight, as Dave Lombardo punishes his drum kit while guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hannemann shred with reckless abandon. Bassist/vocalist Tom Araya brings the madness to a fever pitch with his rapid fire vocals and piercing scream. It's that scream which officially announces Slayer's arrival on the opening "Angel Of Death." King and Hannemann start off with simple guitar riff that builds up to Araya's yell, which starts off as a high-pitched wail and gradually gets lower until it literally sounds like someone descending into hell. The band kicks in behind him as Araya's lyrics describe the gruesome crimes of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. Araya has always said he wasn't glorifying Mengele's crimes in this song and by listening to the way he recites the lyrics, I agree with him.

The next two songs, "Piece By Piece" and "Necrophobic" fit together and each plays like a horror film. 20 years later the work of Eli Roth would turn Araya's narratives into film reality with his "Hostel" movies. Each song is barely two minutes long and the band crams as many time changes and guitar solos as is humanly possible to fit into that amount of time.

After that, we get another double-sided suite with "Altar of Sacrifice" and "Jesus Saves." It's impossible to think of these two songs apart. "Altar" keeps up the furious momentum the band has built up to this point. Araya's vocals sometimes seem to struggle to keep up with the music but that effect works to the band's advantage: the snarling chaos of the vocals matches the band. "Altar" then slows things down for the badass guitar riff that opens up the ironic "Jesus Saves." This is the point in the album where a first-time listener probably says "fuck yeah!" That slowed down tempo lasts, oh, 20 seconds, before the band launches into an attack even faster than what they just did in the previous four songs.

"Criminally Insane" comes next and also has a slowed tempo to start, this time with a snare and hi-hat countoff by Lombardo before the band is at it again. "Reborn" keeps things going, while "Epidemic" shows off a style more reminicent of later Slayer releases "South Of Heaven" and "Seasons In The Abyss." "Postmortem" goes on a bit long (odd on a 10-song 30-minute album) and might be the weakest track here but it helps lead into the crowning moment of the record, the closer "Raining Blood."

"Raining Blood" has one of, if not the best intros in heavy metal. It starts off with a clap of thunder and the rain falling. Then Lombardo hits the tom-toms.
It's an eerie sound. Then the guitars come in and the band explodes into the song. Once Araya finishes the verses with the lines "Awaiting you reprisal/your time slips away," the band goes into a military stomp before one final thrash metal freakout, which reaches its crecendo with the thunder and rain again. Its a perfect way to end the album, like you're leaving Dante's Inferno behind.

"Reign In Blood" is one of those albums that doesn't seem to age or get stale. It's just as ass-kicking on the 100th listen as on the 1st. The album took thrash metal away from the more progressive vein it had been going at the time and gave it more of a punk rock feel. Like many things in life, "Reign In Blood's" innovation was a happy accident. Supposedly, producer Rick Rubin shaved the band's songs down to such an extent that the entire album could fit on one side of a cassette tape. However, the band loved the result, which was a much more intense experience than if the songs had dragged on with lots of solos and tempo changes. The band and Rubin were correct. If you don't believe me, listen to the "Hell Awaits" E.P. which is much more of a progressive album but doesn't have the electric chair energy of "Reign In Blood." This was the album where Slayer turned into SLAAAAAYERRRRRR!!!!

The band loved the album so much, they played it in its entirety for its 20th anniversary, complete with a raining blood effect on "Raining Blood." Here's a clip.

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