SLAYER’s Reign In Blood Turns 30 - "It’s Hard To Toot Your Own Horn All The Time Without Sounding Like An Asshole"
October 6, 2016, a year ago
Arguably the greatest thrash metal record of all time turns 30 today. Hell, some would say that Slayer’s Reign In Blood is the greatest metal record ever—period. So, to celebrate the 30th anniversary (born October 7th, 1986), we choose to do a bit of a historical piece, tie in a couple of interviews and talk about the most important thing—the music.
I remember as plain as yesterday, picking up this vinyl from Records On Wheels in Barrie, Ontario. It wasn’t raining blood, but it was raining. Kinda like those Stephen King days of doom around Halloween. But life changed that day. Let’s rewind a bit. I hesitated at Show No Mercy. Heard a couple of songs on the ill-timed, after midnight (prejudiced) metal shows on FM radio in Canada. And the artwork—a crucial selling point in the ‘80s—was lacklustre and a bit cheesy. But inside, upon the vinyl, there was (black) magic. And that’s why the band’s set at Germany’s Summer Breeze Festival years later was so special, the band airing “The Antichrist” and “Black Magic” and the rarely heard “Fight ‘Til Death” this summer! Now that’s slaying power. Driven by the masterful Dave Lombardo, who had added a double bass to his repertoire, Haunting The Chapel began to define Slayer’s sound with the likes of the super-speedy “Chemical Warfare,” “Captor Of Sin” and the glorious title track. Hell Awaits would follow in the same vein, and that record to these ears is a close second to Reign In Blood... so bloody strong.
But it was time to enter the big leagues. The band jumped from Metal Blade to Rick Rubin’s Def Jam label, a bit of a strange fit at the time. And distributor Columbia wanted no part of it due to the “proliferation of Nazi-oriented lyrics.” Nazi sympathizing, my ass. You may as well censor all the history books and pull down the plethora of Nazi documentaries on YouTube. History is history, and when you shine a light on it, may it never see the light of day again. So instead of teaching a bunch of metalheads about Germany’s horrific past during World War II, Columbia wanted it swept under the rug. Disgusting to say the least. Of course lead-off track “Angel Of Death,” about the “medical” atrocities of one Dr. Josef Mengele, has become the band’s radiant, but dark moment and a set-closer for decades. And to this day, it’s the fire that lit every death and black metal band on the planet!
Auschwitz, the meaning of pain
The way that I want you to die
Slow death, immense decay
Showers that cleanse you of your life
“Well, I said a million times: We never set out to make that the be-all and end-all of thrash,” Kerry King tells BraveWords about the masterpiece. “It seemed to take on its own legs and become that all on its own. It was ten songs. Me and Jeff were 22 and playing guitar almost every day, just making up riffs and people liked it. It’s hard to toot your own horn all the time without sounding like an asshole.”
Toot away, sir. And as we explore, it gets much deeper and darker than just Nazi tales. It can be dissected as follows: You have the epics—“Angel…”, “Altar…” and the title track—and then four vicious tidbits, each about insanity, mass murder and more grisly human ills. And the tear-jerker is that nine out of the ten songs are written either by the late Jeff Hanneman alone, or with Kerry King. Even more of a reason we felt a bit empty in the heart and soul when he passed in 2013.
Back to business. The serial killer juggernaut “Piece By Piece” is the first example, a chugging beast that is punishing, Tom Araya the menace of the moment.
You have no choice of life or death
My face you will not see
I’ll rip your flesh ‘till there’s no breath
“Necrophobic” is the shortest song on the record, a thrashter-piece of immense proportions. You get dizzy just trying to follow Dave Lombardo’s tornado tendencies, and Araya’s patented scream which ends the tune is spine-tingling.
With the lead of Lombardo’s patented cymbal smash, “Criminally Insane”- albeit the slowest song on the record and a precursor to South Of Heaven - is just plain eerie as you step into the shoes of the mentally deranged. But the time changes on the tune are genius as Hanneman and King shred away madly. And you must acquire the remix of the song. It adds about a minute of shrieking guitar and noisy insanity, kinda like you are sitting in the asylum in your straight-jacket staring at four padded walls.
“Reborn” and “Epidemic” are two more flowing speed metal works of art. And it’s apparent with the concise clarity, this is Slayer’s finest hour production-wise. That’s what Rubin brought to the table—the rap-guru had this sixth sense, which is probably why he was chosen for Sabbath’s final curtain call, 13.
About the sound King reflects, “I think a lot of it has to do with signing with Def American, and Rick Rubin convincing us that we don’t need reverb to be heavy. But, you know, we didn’t go out of our way to make it special. To me and Jeff and Tom and Dave, that was just the next ten songs (after Hell Awaits). But back then, we were so gung-ho, and we were playing stuff that nobody really was doing but us.”
But before we tackle the grand finale, let’s backtrack to epic #2, “Altar Of Sacrifice”/”Jesus Saves,” a witch-hunt and bible-bashing session united with hatred! It begins as a giant adrenalin rush, Lombardo laying down the foundation as Hanneman and King try to keep pace. It’s just pugilism at its finest. A “repentless” assault as it were. It’s Araya as masterful storyteller, akin to Vincent Price, but more morbid and realistic.
Waiting the hour destined to die
Here on the table of hell
A figure in white unknown by man
Approaching the altar of death
High priest awaiting dagger in hand
Spilling the pure virgin blood
Satan’s slaughter, ceremonial death
Answer his every command
But then the all-out attack on Christianity marches slowly, building momentum into another thrashy affair, Slayer intent on beating all the believers physically with the bible. They don’t mince words or actions.
You go to the church, you kiss the cross
You will be saved at any cost
You have your own reality Christianity
You spend your life just kissing ass
A trait that’s grown as time has passed
You think the world will end today
You praise the Lord, it’s all you say
“Postmortem” could be the single heaviest riff of all time. It certainly secured Hanneman a seat beside the dark lord in the pits of hell. It actually begins with Lombardo’s cymbal, signalling a death march of sorts that ties in with the iconic cover art by Larry Carroll who coincidentally was famous for political illustrations.
Lombardo told BraveWords about his one Slayer drum accomplishment that sticks out: “I would have to say Reign In Blood... that entire album.”
“Raining Blood” is the grand finale and one of heavy metal’s greatest epics of all time. All of us can sing in unison as Slayer overthrow heaven. The timeless song ends fittingly with a thunderous roar and blood spilling from the night sky. The horror is over. But you immediately flipped the LP over to devour it once again!
From a lacerated sky
Bleeding its horror
Creating my structure
Now I shall reign in blood!
Araya remembers the recording sessions fondly: “I looked up and realized it was only 28 minutes long and said, ‘Is that all the songs?’ And Rubin looked up and said, ‘Yup, that’s all the songs.’ We were recording the songs and never once did we even think to look at the times structured to those songs. Because they were complete songs. You don’t give a thought about how long the song is. The only one we thought was short was ‘Necrophobic.’ That’s the only one we knew that, of course, it’s obvious that it’s a short song. The other ones, we were singing them and playing them, like, ‘Arrggghhh, this is great.’ We’re getting down to the final vocals and doing the mixes, and we looked up and went, ‘Shit, 28 minutes. Is that all the songs?’ I look over at Andy (Wallace) and with a confused look on his face he says, ‘There must be an error’ that must be wrong. It’s right, but that can’t be right!’ Then we talked to Rubin, and he said, ‘Well, you’ve given me ten songs.’ It didn’t state the length. He wasn’t freakin’ out—it was his label. Rubin is the boss: ‘You’ve given me ten songs; nothing stipulates time.’ He was happy; he thought it was great. He wasn’t really concerned at all. They put the album on both sides of a cassette tape! If anything, that would be the one record that could’ve gone platinum (one million units in the US) because it was sold twice every time you bought a cassette. I thought it was probably the only record we hit platinum with and we won’t get credited for it. It’s an hour album, but it’s only considered one album.”
And here we stand, 30 years later. A triumph of immense proportions. A record that has graced these ears regularly in repeated plays from start to finish. Reign In Blood was a stepping stone for a band and a scene as a whole. They call it the Big 4. I call it the Big 1. Slayer are truly the most consistent of the lot, and to this day remain second to none on the bloodied stage.
“We did it within three years, because in 1986 we came out with Reign In Blood. In 1983 we came out with Show No Mercy. In those three years, we evolved to Reign In Blood. From there, everything revolved around that—with speed and heaviness.”
Amen to that.
(Slayer top photo by Neil Zlozower)