Slayer - Reign in Blood (1986)

Slayer - Reign in Blood (1986) Cover
Ben Ben / January 16, 2019 / Comments 0 / 2

A controversial yet undeniable classic that set the bar for metal intensity.

Reviewing Slayer’s Reign in Blood album is probably a bit pointless. After all, the album has received so much recognition and praise over the years that me adding my own five cents isn’t going to make much difference. We’re talking about an album that received plaudits such as: Kerrang! Magazine described it as “the heaviest album of all time”. Metal Hammer Magazine named it “the best metal album of the last 20 years”. Stylus Magazine added “the greatest album of all time”. Over two decades later and the recognition just keeps on coming. It came in at number 1 in Terrorizer Magazine’s reader’s poll for “most important album of the eighties”. It’s even included in the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, a very big deal considering how shunned metal usually gets in such lists. When guitarist Kerry King was asked why Reign in Blood is so special to so many people, his answer was "If you released Reign in Blood today, no one would give a shit. It was timing; it was a change in sound. In thrash metal at that time, no one had ever heard good production on a record like that. It was just a bunch of things that came together at once." After witnessing Slayer perform the entire album live at the end of their set list in Sydney a few months back, I can safely say that Mr King is wrong. This wasn’t just right time, right place. Reign in Blood is as fucking awesome today as it was in 1986!

Let’s take a trip back to that very year and see how this classic album came about. Slayer’s previous album Hell Awaits had been a huge success and the band’s producer and manager Brian Slagel knew that there was every possibility that their next release could hit the big time. Rather than continue with the low budgets and not particularly advanced recording equipment that his own label Metal Blade Records could offer the band, Slagel aimed high and began discussions with several larger scale labels. One of these labels was New York based Def Jam Recordings, but when founder Rick Rubin expressed interest in Slayer, Slagel was reluctant due to Def Jam being primarily a hip hop label. When drummer Lombardo was informed of the interest from Def Jam, he tried to make contact with Rubin on his own accord, eventually tracking him down through Def Jam’s distributor Columbia Records. He convinced Rubin to attend a Slayer concert where he clearly made the decision that he needed this band on his label. He would eventually track the band and Slagel down at a European music convention, where he persuaded them to sign with Def Jam Recordings. This decision was key to the success of Reign in Blood as having a major label recording budget combined with the fresh perspective of a producer with no previous experience with metal resulted in an album vastly different to any that had come before it.

Once Reign in Blood was finally released on October 7, 1986, it was immediately met with enormous critical praise, but Slayer would face controversy both prior to and following that release date. Columbia Records refused to distribute the album due to its graphic artwork and lyrical content, with Rubin eventually distributing the album through Geffen Records. Even Geffen were fearful of backlash and purposely left Reign in Blood off their release schedule for fear of negative media attention. (For more info on this controversy and its impact on the public and band, see the sidenote at the end of this review.) Slayer’s target audience, being fairly used to litigious content in their albums, were unfazed, and were blown away by the clarity, precision and power of the new material. King later remarked "It was like, 'Wow—you can hear everything, and those guys aren't just playing fast; those notes are on time'" which is arrogantly put but bang on the money. The production was so good that it became apparent that the chaotic and frenzied nature of Slayer’s music was in fact incalculably talent-filled, controlled aggression. Every element of the band is performed at high speed with a natural technicality that never feels forced, just brutally organic. But this increase in production is by no means the only shift in the Slayer sound.

The band had become bored with the predictable structures and repetition of riffs that filled their previous albums, as well as those by thrash metal legends Metallica and Megadeth. They decided to cut the excess off, leaving only the most intense material and not giving the listener any chance to relax. This method resulted in a ten-track record with a running time of less than 29 minutes, but Slayer fit more into this short period of time than most hour-long epics could dream of. Each track joins onto the next one seamlessly making Reign in Blood play like one solid half hour of awe-inspiring thrash metal ferocity. Opener Angel of Death runs into Piece by Piece which in turn becomes Necrophobic and before you know it you’re half way through an album of exceptionally recognisable classics seemingly without blinking or taking a breath. Hanneman and King lay waste with a continuous flow of awesome riffs and mind-blowing leads, Lombardo puts in a performance for the ages with flawlessly efficient yet crushingly potent drumming, while Araya hollers atrocities at a hundred miles an hour while remaining completely in command of proceedings. Each member of the band is in their prime and by the time the drool worthy title track breaks off into an apparent rain of the red stuff, you’ll be grinning ear to ear and desperately reaching for the play button again...and again...and again...

Sidenote: As mentioned earlier, Reign in Blood’s release was delayed due to concern over its lyrical themes and graphic artwork. The album cover was designed by Larry Carroll, who was known for his political illustrations for media such as The New York Times. It’s depiction of Hell, complete with a goat-headed Satan performing a Hitler salute and being carried on a throne surrounded by fire, severed heads and the impaled, was highly controversial and overtly satanic. To make matters worse, the subject matter, particularly the lyrics of opener Angel of Death, also provoked allegations of Nazism. The track describes the horrific acts of Nazi physician Josef Mengele, who was dubbed the Angel of Death due to his surgical experiments on patients at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. These acts included experimental surgeries performed without anaesthesia, transfusion of blood between twins, the sewing of bodies, isolation endurance, gassing, injections with lethal germs, sex change operations, the removal of organs and limbs, and abacination (where the victim is blinded by having a red hot metal plate held before their eyes), most of which are described in Slayer’s lyrics. The song caused outrage amongst Holocaust survivors and the public in general, with the band being labelled Nazi sympathisers and racists.

These labels would follow the band throughout their career and they’ve continually had to defend their use of the material. They’ve stated numerous times since the release of Reign in Blood that they do not condone Nazism and are merely interested in the subject. Hanneman was inspired to write the lyrics for Angel of Death after reading several books describing Mengele and his various forms of torture. He says the reason there is no mention in the lyrics that what Mengele was doing was evil is because he didn’t think it necessary. Surely that was obvious to everyone right?! As flimsy as this defence is, it certainly would have stood up better if the band hadn’t attempted to capitalise on the controversy by adding an eagle to their logo that distinctly resembles the Reichsadler (during Nazi rule, a stylised eagle combined with the Nazi swastika was made the national emblem by order of Adolf Hitler in 1935) for their early nineties releases. Check out the cover of Decade of Aggression if you’re not sure what I’m talking about. Hanneman also placed SS stickers on his guitars and wrote the song SS-3 for Divine Intervention which speaks of Reinhard Heydrich, the second in command in the Schutzstaffel, so if Slayer wanted to clear their name and rid themselves of this negativity, they certainly went about it the wrong way. I guess there’s no such thing as bad publicity.


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Sonny Sonny / February 16, 2020 / Comments 0 / 1

When it was released in 1986, Slayer's controversial third album left Tipper Gore and the PMRC, along with other "moral arbiters", frothing with indignation at it's brutal and blasphemous imagery, but most especially because of one song, the opener Angel of Death and it's alleged glorification of Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele. I am of the opinion that this was purely a shock tactic used by the band, in the same way they utilise violent imagery on other songs like Piece by Piece and Postmortem and is no indication of any Nazi sentiments held by any member, as they have on many occasions attested.
Controversy and lyrical content aside this was at the time probably the most shocking and brutal introduction to any record up to that point. Initially the album flashes by in a killing frenzy, from Tom Araya's opening scream, via King and Hanneman's weaponized solos and Dave Lombardo's jet-propelled drumming, right up until the closing thunderstorm a mere 28 minutes later, leaving the unsuspecting listener breathless and stupefied, instantly demanding another listen to confirm that what you just heard was real. In an interview at the time I remember the band saying that during rehearsals the album was weighing in at around 34 minutes, but with the aggression and energy they put into it at the time of recording it ended up at just over 28 minutes! Despite the pace of the songs, the production allows every note to be heard distinctly and a large degree of respect has to go to Rick Rubin and Andy Wallace for such a brilliant job done.
Ultimately, this is one of those rare albums that defined what metal is and is firmly ensconced in the top few albums of most metalheads, or certainly those who were around at the time of it's release. Sure, with the explosion of extreme metal genres there are certainly more brutal and/or intense albums out there, but they don't have Reign in Blood's legendary status for a very good reason - the songs just aren't as fuckin' good. Angel of Death, the duo of Altar of Sacrifice and Jesus Saves and the apocalyptic Raining Blood. These are all-time classics and need no justification! Reign in Blood is an album that still sounds as vital and thrilling as it did over thirty years ago and that is no mean feat, my friends.

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Saxy S Saxy S / November 29, 2021 / Comments 0 / 0

The Metal Conundrum 

It has been thirty five years since what is undoubtedly the most important year in all of heavy metal, as Metallica and Slayer both released iconic records in 1986 with Master of Puppets and Reign in Blood. It also saw a cultural divide in heavy metal that, while not apparent at the time, would become commonplace in heavy metal during the 1990s and beyond. That fissure would eventually be referred to as “the loudness war” during the late 2000s, but I propose that it began here, on 7 October, 1986.

Now for context, Reign in Blood was not the first record to experiment with heavier tones and a horrible production budget. Metallica’s debut record, Kill ‘Em All, Slayer’s first two records and Possessed’s Seven Churches all fell victim to this. And got in the face of the hook driven hard rock and metal that was coming out of the United Kingdom (Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Deep Purple, etc.). But then March ‘86 came around, and that Metallica band had just released Master of Puppets, which proved that thrash metal could be more than just blistering guitars, face shredding solos, while still maintaining its sonic edge over power and speed metal. It was a record that was produced to near perfection, the hooks are enormous and the variety in the band's sound was impeccable.

October of ‘86 was also significant as it produced Reign in Blood. And this album sounds very different from Metallica’s record even though they are both technically labeled as thrash metal. For starters, you will notice a drastic change in tone as Slayer incorporates E-flat standard guitars instead of the traditional E natural. Right out of the gate, the album sounds darker and heavier than other heavy albums, as the chugging zeros invoke a key center that is still very uncommon to be performed in. These keys are very commonly used to imply being otherworldly, major for heaven, minor for hell.

When the opener “Angel of Death” begins and you hear that howl from Araya, you expect to be hit with a cinder block while the gates of hell open up directly below your feet. And if that is what Slayer were going for, then mission accomplished. “Angel of Death” is ferocious, pummelling and destructive, the bridge is calming, but still maintains its intensity, and the solos from Hanneman and King are ridiculous as they defy scales and just blast off into whatever dissonant notes they can imagine. Hell, I’m sure these two don’t even imagine their notes; they probably just slid their hands across the fretboard of the guitar and whatever sound came out is what they got!

All of this got me really excited to hear the next track and what would come next...only to find out that the “Piece By Piece” main riff has way too much in common with the opener. After a triplet intro, it resorts to tremolo picking, Araya rap shouting, Lombardo’s skank beat, and the key-less soloing. “Necrophobic” is all of that but double time to match its shorter runtime. “Altar Of Sacrifice” begins with an “Am I Evil?” intro, then returns to the same beat ad nauseam.

By the time “Criminally Insane” comes on, I’m genuinely pleased to hear an actual refrain in the guitars interspersed between Araya’s inaudible vocals. Which does lead into another big problem this album has: the production. This record is produced by Rick Rubin. This producer is most noted for his work with Hip Hop artists LL Cool J, Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys. The last two of those should be intriguing because of their obvious rap rock leanings. In those cases, he had artists that could enunciate their words, and if not, they could always go the way of an instrumental break. Meanwhile, Araya produces the equivalent of word vomit just spewed onto the page, which is drowned out by the band's incessant need to play as many notes as possible in as little time anyways. And this occurs for the entire record! It’s even more insufferable when Araya cannot even keep up with the blistering tempos.

Now, none of this on its own makes an album bad. What makes heavy metal so great (following Reign in Blood) is how dissonance is used as a tool to create uncomfort to the listener and in turn, give the feeling of anger, hatred and in some cases, satanic emotions. And Slayer has that locked down. Far and away the discomfort of this record is unlike anything in metal at the time and helped pave the way for the eventual rise of extreme metal, or in another term, death metal. But here what irks me the most: it is not used as a building device. Every track on this record (with a few exceptions), has the exact same timbre with no room for development or growth. Which in hindsight sounds ridiculous for me to say, since the final three tracks on this album are the best of the bunch. “Epidemic” has some catchy guitar leads, even if they do sound similar to “Angel of Death”, “Postmortem” has a nice change of pace groove before transforming into another skank beat assault. And “Raining Blood”, of course, has the most iconic guitar lead and “bang yer head” breakdown in all of 1980s thrash.

It is hard to imagine extreme metal without the contributions of Slayer during the 80s and this album in particular. And while for a time, this was far beyond the realms of what anyone considered accessible music, as decades have passed, the necessity of an album like Reign in Blood has been lost on me. With Sepultura and Kreator both managing to copy this record's formula with far more variety, I find this record to become less essential.

Which will inevitably bring me to the ultimate conclusion of this review. Slayer’s Reign in Blood was never meant to be commercialized. With its raw sound and lacking any sort of hook/motif to make these songs stand out from one another, it just sounds like musical nothingness. Araya being unable to keep up with the blistering tempos is not a show of DIY mastery, it sounds like he’s running out of breath. Not having any hooks is not a display of breaking boundaries, it's a surefire way to make sure that anyone who listens to your album cannot remember a single thing about it after its conclusion. “Oh yeah I love that one Slayer song that goes ‘brrrrrrrrrrrr buh buh brrrrrrrrrrrrr buh buh brrrrrrrrrrrrrr” and “boots n’ cats n’ boots n’ cats n’ boots n’ cats n’...”

But as this album gained popularity and slowly found its way to the top of most lists of the greatest heavy metal albums of all time, it would spawn an almost infinite number of copycats. And they all make the same damn mistakes that Reign in Blood made thirty-five years ago with no sense of self-reflection that this will get them nowhere; not just because their music is completely forgettable, but because it’s trying so hard to be like an album that sounded like hot garbage thirty-five years ago!

When I listened to this record for the first time nearly fifteen years ago, I hated its entire existence. Fortunately for me, reviewing the album today means I get to maintain some of my feigning credibility as a metalhead by exclaiming that Reign in Blood is not a one star album. But it was never an all time classic; only unmistakably influential. As this album’s legend grew, and every thrash band tried to be Slayer’s Reign in Blood (much like with progressive metal with Dream Theater’s Images and Words), I grew to despise this band; not because of its quality, but the culture that formed out of it. The kind of culture that believes a relentless assault of getting beat over the head by a cinder block for thirty five minutes is artistic genius, while a decent hook every once in a while is shunned as “commercialization” of their sacred genre and less than metal.

In the end, I found Reign in Blood to be more boring than anything else. But Slayer were at least attentive enough to make many of the same changes Metallica did earlier in the year, and this resulted in South of Heaven, and my personal favourite Slayer album, Seasons in the Abyss. It is hard for me to recall an album that I have listened to more that I didn’t like than Reign in Blood to see why I never cared or liked it. Now I know why, and I will take it to the grave with me.

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SilentScream213 SilentScream213 / April 01, 2020 / Comments 0 / 0

At exactly 19 seconds into this album, you can feel what it's like to have your skin melted off your face from the inside out.

What the fuck are you waiting for?

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illusionist illusionist / August 16, 2019 / Comments 0 / 0

Metal as fuck

When someone says "metal", Reign In Blood is what I think of first. It is the quintessential metal album. Visceral, aggressive music in its purest form. One continuous ten-track onslaught of fast, bloodcurdling riffs and unrelenting violence. The playing (especially the drumming) is incredible and Araya's snarling rasps and screams give the music an an additional pointed edge that is instantly-recognizable. Not a trace of filler to be found - just about every unholy second is immaculate.

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Release info

Release Site Rating

Ratings: 24 | Reviews: 5

4.6

Release Clan Rating

Ratings: 14 | Reviews: 3

4.9

Cover Site Rating

Ratings: 9

3.8

Cover Clan Rating

Ratings: 7

3.8
Band
Release
Reign in Blood
Year
1986
Format
Album
Clans
The Pit
Genres
Thrash Metal
Sub-Genres

Thrash Metal (conventional)

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