Slayer – Reign in Blood – What’s the Secret Sauce?

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‘Reign in Blood’ is the seminal 1986 offering by Slayer and widely voted by many fans to be the greatest Thrash Metal record ever made. There are other strong candidates of course, many of them having been covered on this blog, but pretty well everyone would agree that ‘Reign in Blood’ has a super strong claim. But what makes it so good? Classic Metal Hawk has a few ideas to share.

‘Reign in Blood’ is the seminal 1986 offering by Slayer and widely voted by many fans to be the greatest Thrash Metal record ever made. There are other strong candidates of course, many of them having been covered on this blog, but pretty well everyone would agree that ‘Reign in Blood’ has a super strong claim. But what makes it so good? Classic Metal Hawk has a few ideas to share.

The Birth of Thrash

Thrash Metal was born in the 1980s, making it a shoe-in for any Classic Heavy Metal blog. And not only did the 1980’s represent thrash’s inception, it was also quite a shake-out period for the genre. Lots of bands formed and started to play music with the distinctive thrash characteristics that we all know and love – the ever-faster tempos, double-bass pedals on the drums, palm-muted riffing and screaming / growling vocals. The list just trips of the tongue of anyone who remembers the time. Slayer. Megadeth. Metallica. Anthrax. Testament. Sepultura.

What’s Your USP?

But within that style of play, how would a band come up with a unique selling point? That was critically important, because just playing fast and aggressive was never going to lead to longevity for any act. When Classic Metal Hawk would occasionally buy thrash compilations as a kid in order to check out new bands, it was the same old story. Those lower-league thrash bands were often a bit boring, and samey – able to play fast with good ‘technical’ ability, but no songs you’d want to listen to again. The Hawk gave up after Speed Kills 6 (‘Violence of the slams!!’) – to find the odd diamond, you’d have to do an awful lot of mining.

It’s no accident that the successful bands that ended up emerging from that era all managed to blend the trademark thrash sound with a point of difference – a dimension of originality that would help their music stand the test of time.

That’s clear if we take the so-called ‘big 4’ of thrash – Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax. All 80s era thrash bands with plenty in common obviously, but none of them sound alike. Metallica always sought to escape being defined by the ‘thrash’ label anyway, with their tight and expressive musicianship and breakout songs like the ballad ‘Fade to Black’.

For Slayer, it was the dark, atmospheric Satanic themes, combined with their trademark discordant guitar licks and Tom Araya’s unique vocal style. Anthrax had their hip-hop influences and brought that to the party. Megadeth sounded a bit like Metallica in the early days, and why not, considering Dave Mustaine was influential in both. But they ended up going their own way as well.

The Year

1986 proved to be a particular high point for at least 3 these powerhouses in establishing their unique bona fides. Metallica, with once-in-a-lifetime  ‘Master of Puppets’; Megadeth growing in confidence with ‘Peace Sells … But Who’s Buying’; and of course, Slayer, with ‘Reign in Blood’ also appearing.

‘Reign in Blood’ is just unique – there has never been anything quite like it, and almost certainly never will be again. It created such a stir on release that everyone wanted to get it just to see what all the fuss was about. Easier said than done, mind you. When Classic Metal Hawk tried to buy it, it felt impossible. The band seemed not to have a Europe-wide distribution deal, so it was only ever available to buy as an import – way out of The (young) Hawk’s price range at that time. No YouTube back then of course, and obviously no radio play. Magazine journalists were going crazy about it, and yet still no way to have a listen. In the end, The Hawk managed to save up for an import, and was it ever worth the wait?

The Sound

Whilst still searching for that unique sound that they could make their own, Slayer had also been mulling over a change in record label. In a common theme for Classic Heavy Metal bands trying to break through, they too felt that they needed a label with more clout to take them into the big time – at least as far as that was possible for a thrash band. They had tentative contacts with Def Jam, Rick Rubin’s label, but at the time, that seemed to be a left-field choice. Rubin was seen as a hip hop guy, his most famous work up to then having been done with Run DMC and LL Cool J. But Rubin took personal charge of negotiations and impressed the band with his passion and conviction – they took a chance and signed a deal with him.

Despite his lack of heavy metal experience, Rubin’s fresh perspective brought a complete change to Slayer’s sound, compared with their first 2 albums, ‘Show No Mercy’ and ‘Hell Awaits’. The most obvious change was to clean up the guitar sound – no more muddy distortion with individual parts completely lost in the mix. Instead, you would be able to hear all the guitars with crystal clarity, and think, ‘wow – you can hear everything … those guys aren’t just playing fast, all the notes are on time.’ That quote came from Slayer guitarist Kerry King himself, who was super impressed with the results, just as the fans would later be.

The Songs

Then there were the songs themselves. The album is famously short – only about 29 minutes for all 10 tracks. There are different stories about whether the band and management were completely cool with this, whether they were worried they’d be seen as short changing their fans. Some say they didn’t even realize the total length was so short until they got well into the mixing process.

But one thing for certain is that the band made a deliberate decision to go for intense, short-burst type songs. Whilst Metallica were going the other way, adding riffs, repetitions and melodies on Master of Puppets to create some lengthy numbers, and an album with nearly an hour of play time, Slayer thought that a boring approach. They wanted to break the template of 2 or 3 verses / choruses with repetitive riffs and deliver a new level of intensity that would leave fans gasping for breath.

According to informed sources, the album clocks in at an average speed of 220 beats per minute – which anyone who’s ever picked up a musical instrument of any kind will know, is quite up tempo. Actually, scratch that. It isn’t up-tempo. It’s insanely fast. And that’s only the average. The band were still adding slower sections for variation and a darker mood, meaning that they were capable of busting through 220 at will. The band’s trademark discordant use of key remains evident especially in the guitar solos. Not particularly melodic (this was by design and another clear departure from the ‘Metallica’ school of writing, where Kirk Hammett had been trained by none other that Joe Satriani in how to incorporate melody), the are nevertheless blistering and memorable.

The song themes are probably the area that show the least changes compared to previous Slayer releases. There’s Satanism / religion (‘Alter of Sacrifice’, ‘Jesus Saves’, ‘Reborn’), violence / dismemberment (‘Piece by Piece’, ‘Criminally Insane’, ‘Postmortem’), being trapped in Hell for eternity (‘Raining Blood’) and of course the opener (‘Angel of Death’). Covering the Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele, the song is named for the nickname Mengele was given by his torture victims at the Auschwitz – Birkenau death camp.

Needless to say, the songs would attract controversy from the outset, especially ‘Angel of Death’. Were the band Nazis? Was the piece a homage to Mengele? The band always denied this and cited their long-time interest in war history – from guitarist Jeff Hanneman especially, whose father had served in 2 wars. Not Nazi sympathisers, Slayer never went out of their way to avoid that type of publicity though. The fan club name (‘Slaytanic Wehrmacht’!?) and use of the S character in the band logo that resembles SS typography rather too closely were always going to encourage speculation about their politics. However, as the band said, the Holocaust was so obviously such a dreadful chapter in history that it didn’t need to be spelled out in the song – the song thus treats listeners like adults.

Astonishingly, Tom Araya’s trademark scream on ‘Angel of Death’ wasn’t in the original plan – it was added as somewhat of an afterthought on Hannemann’s suggestion. Since that passage elevates the whole album already to something extraordinary in the opening bars of the first song, let’s be thankful he thought of it.

The Cover

The cover art for ‘Reign in Blood’ completes the package – a Hellscape delivered in graphic / comic / cartoon style which nicely describes the overall album concept as well as the content of a few of the songs. Artist Larry Carroll came up with the art concept, whilst Steve Bryam took care of the overall design and packaging.

Like all thrash bands at that time, the album had no air play or mainstream publicity, but still incredibly managed to hit #94 in the US Billboard charts.

In the end, of course, the controversies died down although it’s perhaps still surprising the extent to which material from Reign in Blood has popped up in popular culture since it was released. Anything from movies (‘Gremlins 2’) to video games (‘Grand Theft Auto: Vice City’, ‘Tony Hawk’s Project 8’) to comedy (‘South Park’).

Favourite Song?

When a whole album goes by in a 29 minute blur, it can be hard to pick favourite tracks. The Hawk loves the whole thing – but put a gun to his head and force him to pick? It’s gonna be one of the least remarked tracks – ‘Criminally Insane.’

The Legacy

In the end, the most important thing about this album is its contribution to the legacy of heavy metal and thrash in particular. Many other bands have tried and failed to re-create its unique blend of aggression, speed, intensity and musicality. Ironically, despite its place in Classic Heavy Metal history, the album was probably a little too successful from the band’s point of view, as they spent the rest of their careers releasing albums that would be compared unfavourably to ‘Reign in Blood’. The first 2 albums, ‘Show No Mercy‘ and ‘Hell Awaits’ were leading up to this masterpiece, so it’s fine that they had the odd weakness. But afterwards?

Imagine performing your best work so early in your career, and somehow knowing, deep down, that this was the best it was ever going to get. Acknowledging that they couldn’t bottle the lightning twice in a row, Slayer took a deliberate decision to change direction completely, slowing things right down for the next offering, ‘South of Heaven’, before being hit by the inevitable accusations of selling out, and nothing was ever quite the same again. They released plenty more memorable tracks and albums, but nothing to re-scale the heights of ‘Reign on Blood’.

It must have been a drag – painful even. But imagine also having been a part of the greatest thrash metal release of all time. To burn as bright as a supernova for a brief moment in time. That’s still got to be a better outcome that releasing a steady stream of ‘good’, but never quite making the leap. The whole point of this article was that the best bands create a unique sound that is unmistakably them. Now listen to the first 30 seconds of this again and say it ain’t so.

‘Reign in Blood’ is the complete thrash package, no? Or will somebody stick their head above the wall and dissent? The Hawk can’t wait to hear whether there are recommendations from readers for something even better.

Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.

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