Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Slayer - Reign In Blood (1986)

Reign In Blood is the third full-length album from Slayer. This was their major label debut, for Def Jam Records. With an experienced producer and a large recording budget, the band underwent a sonic makeover resulting in shorter, faster songs with clearer production. Gone were the complex arrangements and lengthy masterpieces featured on Hell Awaits, ditched in favor of stripped down, Thrash Metal song structures. Def Jam's distributor, Columbia Records, refused to release the album due to its graphic cover art and lyrical themes, such as the detailed description of Holocaust concentration camps and the human experiments conducted by Nazi physician Josef Mengele, on the first song. Already, the band became aware that things worked quite differently in the big leagues. The album was distributed by Geffen Records in October 1986.

This is one of those records that people seem to love or hate. My first experience with Reign In Blood was at a young age. I bought the album for my best friend, as a gift. I forget if it was for a birthday or Christmas, but I held on to it for a week or so before giving it to him. During that time, I couldn't resist tearing into it and listening to the record, over and over. This was at a time when I was able to just enjoy a new Slayer album for what it was. There was no internet so I had no idea how overrated this L.P. would become. Years later, when I discovered what a large following it had, it seemed strange that anyone would rank this above any of the Metal Blade releases. So many consider this to be the pinnacle of the band's career, seeming to forget classic records such as Show No Mercy, Haunting the Chapel and Hell Awaits. Understandably, the simplistic Thrash Metal approach is more accessible to the masses than these early Black Metal albums. However, this is not the be all, end all of Slayer's catalogue. Reign In Blood borrows the formula of Haunting the Chapel, and some ideas from Hell Awaits, and then strips them of the dark atmosphere and packs it all into short, lethal bursts of Thrash Metal.

The album begins with "Angel of Death". The opening features a dramatic build up that includes Tom Araya's opening scream turn into a murderous roar. This song hearkens back to the sound of "Chemical Warfare" in its straight-forward approach. The production lacks the dark atmosphere that the aforementioned song possessed, but the execution is flawless. This is one of the most structured and thought-out songs on the album, featuring shifts in tempo that work well to add feeling to the music. The slower section helps to build tension and adds to the impact of the latter half of the track, as the pace picks back up. The lead solos add nicely to the song, with Hanneman's being the more hellish of the two. After a brief drum solo, reminiscent of "At Dawn They Sleep". This wouldn't be the only idea borrowed from the previous album. The song ends with fury as Tom screams with murderous conviction.

"Piece By Piece" begins with an unexpected drum beat, before launching into a full speed attack. The song is very short, yet they seem to cram the same amount of riffs and verses into this ephemeral blast. Of course, to keep up with this raging inferno of a song, the vocals are spewed forth at a rapid rate as well. To convey a sentiment that may be repeated throughout this review, there are some nice ideas expressed in this song that would have benefited from being expanded upon.

The next, and shortest, song is "Necrophobic". This goes right into the first verse, bursting forth at high speeds. It only slows down for a few moments, before blistering lead solos attack you from all sides. Near the end, Tom emits a piercing high note that adds to the song, with the pace slowing down to half for the last few lines. In these brief moments, one gets a glimpse of how the song might have sounded if it was a little slower. That isn't to say that a fast pace is bad, but a minute and a half is hardly enough time to explore these themes.

"Altar of Sacrifice" begins with the briefest possible build up, before launching into another high speed attack of thrash. This song works very well at this speed, and is one of the few to feature the typical Satanic lyrics that Slayer had become known for.

"Altar of sacrifice, curse of the damned
Confronting the evil you dread
Coalesce into one your shadow and soul
Soon you will meet the undead

Enter to the realm of Satan!"

This last line is very reminiscent of the last line of "Captor of Sin", having the same pattern as when he proclaims, "I'll take you down into the fire!" At any rate, that line was one of the most memorable parts of the album, having quite the impact when I first heard it. The solos on this song work well to create a hellish feeling, this being one of the few tracks that really manages to accomplish this. Tom's vocal delivery during the closing moments of this song is truly remarkable as well, adding to the dramatic effect. As it nears its conclusion, everything slows down until it bleeds into the next song.

Without even a moment of silence in between, "Jesus Saves" picks up from the last fading notes of the previous song. It begins with a mid-paced thrash riff that cycles a few times as the drums are utilized to build a dramatic feeling. This one is slightly related to the previous theme, though taking a pronounced anti-Christian stance rather than a Satanic approach. After the intro, the song blasts at full speed, featuring vocal delivery that is a bit too fast to be comprehended but some decent solos that give a chaotic feel to the track. The opening riff is, probably, the most memorable part of this song.

Next up is a faster version of "Criminally Insane" than what was heard on Postmortem. The pacing of the riffs and vocals are pretty much the same, but the drums are vastly different, adopting a faster approach. This also lacks the intro and the early solos that were on the other version. The missing solo really takes something way from the song, but the faster drums, during the verses, works a lot better. With a little more work, mixing and matching different parts of the two different versions, this song could have been even better.

"Reborn" is another extremely short song, yet it manages to fit in just as many lyrics as a track twice as long. The best parts, vocally, are when Tom slows down and stretches a few words out. Short songs are one thing, but racing through lyrics that were meant for a longer song just drains the words of any power that they may have had. King and Hanneman still manage to weave plenty of wicked solos into the song, though they aren't so memorable once it is all said and done. Also worth noting is that the bass is a little more audible, similar to Hell Awaits.

This is followed by "Epidemic", which is a vast improvement over the formula that has been used on so many of these songs. This one is very short as well, clocking in at under two and a half minutes, but it's executed perfectly. The pacing of the vocals is much more natural, rather than trying to fit in way too much. The thrash break at the 1:30 mark is very memorable, leading up to another high-pitched scream from Tom.

"Postmortem" begins with a dramatic build-up, possessing the feeling of a war march. This is followed by a mid-paced thrash riff and some of the darkest vocal work that the album has offered, thus far. The lyrics have a dark and morbid feeling.

"Funeral held for the depression of man
Holds the key to his own death
Entering a tomb of a corpse yet conceived
Tighten the tourniquet around your neck"

However, one of the true highlights is when Tom screams, "Await the final call!" The first half of this song has kind of an epic feeling to it, before it speeds up to a frenetic pace. It continues to build a sense of tension until reaching its climax and then bleeding into the next song.

[Something else that is worth paying attention to, here, is that the older versions of the CD, this song cuts off at the 2:44 mark, just before the fast part. This error wasn't fixed until more recently. It is impossible to count the number of times that I've read reviews of this album, in 'zines and online, where they talk as if the ending of this song is actually the beginning of the last one. For years, I imagined that I was the only one to realize that the song simply continues during the first 50 seconds, or so, of the next track. It seems that most people are not very observant.]

As the previous song fades, the sound of thunder and rain introduces the last song of the record, "Raining Blood". This uses some of the hellish, tortured guitar sounds that were found on the intro for the version of "Criminally Insane" that was on the Postmortem single. Slowly, the drums make a thunderous sound of their own. As the evil guitar riffs join this flurry of malevolence, the epic feeling grows. Suddenly, the riffs change and the song transforms into a monstrous thrash assault. What this lacks in darkness and evil, it makes up for in pure energy. As it progresses, the pace quickens ever more, matching those songs that preceded it, yet the vocal delivery is far more fitting. There are plenty of riff changes. The song then slows down, building a sinister feeling with the darkened guitar riffs and Tom's murderous scream

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

This memorable verse is followed by noisy and chaotic guitar solos as the song gets faster and faster, reaching an insane climax, with everything ceasing with the roar of thunder and the albums concludes with the sound of blood raining from the sky.

Reign In Blood is overly praised by many and then torn apart by others. Everyone has an opinion on this. Mine is that it is a good Thrash Metal album yet it fails to deliver the dark feeling that was prevalent on their earlier works. Often, the album seems to go by too quickly, with the first and last tracks being the only ones anyone really remembers. I would add "Altar of Sacrifice", "Epidemic" and "Postmortem" to that list. Five out of ten songs isn't so bad. There was a lot that could have been improved with more complex arrangements and simply more time, but this was not Slayer's goal. In the end, the band succeeded with what they set out to do. They wanted an incredibly fast and brutal album of straight-forward Thrash Metal and that is what they recorded. They may have sacrificed atmosphere for speed, but this is the lasting impression that they wanted to leave with this album. One could say that Reign In Blood is very derivative of their earlier works, but they may have seen what they did as trimming away the extra elements to create a more streamlined representation of the Slayer sound. The overly Satanic approach of the Black Metal albums that they released on Metal Blade probably had to be toned down for a major label, whether they intended to make this change or not. More importantly, they lost the atmospheric features that made their early work so special but, ultimately, this is the direction that they wished to pursue.