Slayer's Thrash Masterpiece 'Reign in Blood': Still Ahead of Its Time 30 Years Later
Today (Oct. 7), Slayer’s Reign In Blood, a defining album of thrash metal and a masterpiece of 20th century music, turns 30. On the blistering ten-track sprint, guitarists Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King compressed their mix of speed metal and hardcore into 28 minutes of tightly bound chaos, and combined with drummer Dave Lomardo’s finesse and frontman Tom Araya’s wail, they set the standard for genre extremity. They broke away from the NWOBHM leanings they dispalyed on 1983's Show No Mercy and the doomy atmospherics of 1985's Hell Awaits, finally arriving at their trademark sound. Blood replenished the underground with new inspiration, laying the seeds for death metal, and also propelled Slayer towards metal’s upper echelon. Three decades on, its fit into the modern metal landscape remains seamless, and it offers to teach us as much with its vital brutality as ever.
No metal band ever matched merciless lyrical content with musical aggressiveness quite like Slayer, and Blood is their finest example. Naturally, this had some consequences: CBS declined to distribute the record because they thought “Angel of Death” glorified Nazism. Araya could sell “AUSCHWITZ, THE MEANING OF PAIN / THE WAY THAT I WANT YOU TO DIE” as legitimately terrifying, and it's certainly an attention-grabbing opening line for any record. But the anger in his voice was a denouncement as swift as the band’s rampaging tempos.
Had “Angel of Death” come out in 2016, Slayer would likely feel the wrath of waves of terrible thinkpieces -- and they would be for naught, because Slayer never have been and never will be Nazis. With an increased call for metal to address social justice and biases within the culture, and the backlash as a result, Blood gains a new importance. People who cry about PC in metal often argue that “metal should be allowed to sing about uncomfortable stuff,” and yes it should, but not to serve as a smokescreen for artists' intolerant, ignorant views.
Blood knows there is a thin line between acknowledgment and glorification, and the picture it paints of evil is alluring, but never flattering. Despite being a Catholic, Arraya could convince you to abandon the church with the barbed religious commentary of “Jesus Saves" ("For all respect you cannot lust / In an invisible man you place your trust"). But the song's true purpose isn't to convince listeners to abandon God; Slayer just tapped into an anti-authoritarian angst with a fury no band had matched since. Araya’s screams come from a shared disdain for injustice and needless suffering; King and Hanneman sound like they’re about to collapse at any point, because we’ve all felt, at one point or another, that the apocalypse is upon us. The thunderstorm that opens “Raining Blood” still signals a miniature end of days 30 years later, and most of us can relate to the feeling: “Trapped in purgatory/ A lifeless object, alive/ Awaiting reprisal.” So you think metal should address the ills of the world? Blood did it well, and it wasn’t exclusionary.
One of the most overlooked, yet fundamentally important things about Blood, is that it was released on Def Jam, then home to hip-hop stars like LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys. It was a controversial move, and there’s still virtually nothing like it -- not only did a metal band sign to a rap label, they became fully realized on it. Can you imagine if Birdman tried to court Deafheaven, or if Kanye decided that GOOD needed Ghost? Metalheads would be holding congressional hearings to stop the merger. Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin releasing Reign in Blood is the closest we’ll ever get to a promised land where metal and hip-hop are united forces, or at least seen as equals more often than not. Nü metal failed to do it, -- in part because the metal world never really embraced it, in part because it wasn’t that great of a fusion to begin with -- and nobody’s been ready to assume the mantle since.
Are we ready to try again? We’re long overdue. The whole point of Blood is that it forces us to confront the fact that the line between civilization and total anarchy is flimsy, and that by putting our fears uncomfortably close to our faces, we don't have to be scared by them. Their gospel is controlling your fear, not letting your fear control you. If a metal band aligning itself with a hip-hop label keeps you up at night, the real world is much harsher.
Three years after Hanneman’s tragic 2013 death from liver failure, Slayer still feel like they’re at a crossroads. Yes, they’re still touring, and new guitarist Gary Holt is pretty much a permanent member at this point. 2015's Repentless was a fine record — just fine, a little too heavy on the '90s groove, but far from the directionless mess it could have been. Lombardo’s been out of the band since 2013 too, and thus, half of the lineup that made Blood a classic is no longer part of Slayer. King flies in the defiance of critics saying the band’s done for good; Araya thinks they might have a point. Depending on how you look at them still being around in 2016, it’s either trudging or it’s perseverance.
Either way, it’s crucial to remember a time when Slayer were at a different turning point, one where they could have coasted on their underground cred and instead became the band they were meant to be. With Blood, they blazed through that crossroads, expanding metal’s possibilities while creating timeless songs in the process. And even as it’s taken on a new life, those ten tracks still sound just as badass as they did 30 years ago.