I like to be thorough, so having reviewed three of the so-called "Big Four Of Thrash" bands, at some point I was going to review Slayer, right? That said, I'll be honest, I've never listened to Slayer nearly as much as Metallica, Megadeth, or even Anthrax (clearly fourth among the Big Four, in my opinion), though I do have a healthy respect for their importance within the world of heavy metal and I do enjoy listening to them when in the right mood. It's just that I didn't grow up with these guys like I did with Metallica, Maiden, Priest, etc., and as a guy in my mid-'40s as I write this I rarely seek such extreme stuff out. But anyway, with that bit of background information out of the way here's my review of Slayer's Show No Mercy, which (similar to the debut albums from the other Big Four bands) is more a warm up for the even better things that followed than a great album in its own right (Kill 'Em All takes the crown among the Big Four debuts). Don't get me wrong, it's a solid album with many Slayer trademarks: bassist Tom Araya's unmelodic barked vocals (with a touch of high-pitched Halfordisms at times), Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman's uniquely insane riffs and solos, and drummer Dave Lombardo's incredible drumming (simply put, Lombardo is probably the greatest heavy metal drummer of all-time). The songs, all written by King/Hanneman, generally blaze along but could probably be a bit more memorable on the whole, and there's a Maiden-ish gallop to some of them that would later disappear; the influence of Venom and Metallica has also often been noted. Murky sound aside (the album was recorded cheaply), the band are incredibly tight and intense throughout, while the overtly Satanic lyrics are violent, aggressive, and graphic, which would become another not-for-everybody Slayer signature. On the whole, this was a solid first step in what would become a legendary career, but Slayer certainly improved thereafter.
Hell Awaits (Metal Blade ’85) Rating: A-
After an impressive if short EP, Haunting The Chapel, and an inessential live EP, Live Undead, came the ambitious Hell Awaits, which featured longer, more progressive songs (Mercyful Fate is a major influence this time out) that were notable for their complex instrumental passages and more insane King/Hanneman solos. Heck, the vocals on the classic epic-scale title track that opens the album don't begin until 3:22, and throughout this impressive album Slayer stake their claim as the heaviest band in the land and the embodiment of all things evil. Again, lyrics about serial killers ("Kill Again"), vampires ("At Dawn They Sleep"), and necropheliacs ("Necropheliac," which even some of the bands biggest supporters thought went too far!) may not be for everybody, and I wish that the band's songs were a bit hookier (one reason why I'll always prefer Metallica/Megadeth) and the overall sound less murky (though it's still an improvement on Show No Mercy). Still, I can't listen to songs like "Praise Of Death" and "Crypts Of Eternity" and not be incredibly impressed by the great group interplay and the insane solos (sorry to repeat myself but that's really the best way, maybe the only way, to describe them!) on display. Man, just listen to that drum fill on "At Dawn They Sleep," it sounds like a trial run for "Angel Of Death" but it's still thrilling, and though fatigue for me sets in after a while given what a brutal assault to my senses this album is, there's no question that Hell Awaits was a definite progression from Show No Mercy and that it's a classic of its type. But even better albums awaited...
Reign in Blood (Def Jam ’86) Rating: A+
This is considered by many to be THE thrash metal album. Ever. Period. I wouldn't go that far (I'd vote for either of Metallica’s twin masterpieces Ride The Lightning or Master Of Puppets) but it's certainly in the running. For one thing, thanks to producer Rick Rubin and engineer Andy Wallace, the production is much better on this album than the prior two, and the band trims any and all excess fat in releasing a 10-song album that clocks in at only 29 minutes long. The album is famously bookended by the album's two longest and best songs, and in between you get eight extremely short songs that may not always be especially memorable on their own but which make an incredible impact when taken together. Don't get me wrong, songs like "Peace By Peace" (another song about a serial killer; how nice), "Altar Of Sacrifice," "Jesus Saves," and "Postmortem" are notable on their own, but I almost tend to think of this album as "Angel Of Death," "Reigning Blood," and a bunch of other cool fast short songs that I tend to have a hard time naming. As for "Angel Of Death," a comparative epic at 4:51, for my money this is the greatest Slayer song of them all, with Araya's most ear piercing scream, plenty of insane traded off guitar solos, and Lombardo's all-time drum break toward the end. The violent, sadistic, disturbingly graphic lyrics, based on heinous Nazi physician Josef Mengele, certainly aren't for the faint of heart and of course were misconstrued by many who branded the band as Nazi sympathizers. The band defended themselves by saying they're just reporting on a subject that interested them, and hey it actually happened and that's not their fault; better we talk about these things so they never happen again, no? Anyway, "Reigning Blood" (4:54) ends the album with another all-time classic track; consult any "greatest Slayer songs" list and you'll see "Angel Of Death" and "Reigning Blood" near the very top. On the whole, Reign In Blood was the right album at the right time by a tight, talented band at the top of their game (I've mentioned before how incredible Lombardo is, right?). This extremely influential album (it helped spawn death metal, for instance) is a must-have for anyone who likes extreme, truly heavy music, and even the creepy album cover art is completely classic.
South Of Heaven (Def Jam ’88) Rating: A
On this album the band made a conscious decision to (generally but not always) slow down the tempos in creating their doomiest, most atmospheric release to date. The reason for this change was so that this album would resist any comparisons to the super-speedy Reign In Blood, which let's face it is the album that any Slayer album will be compared to (and be found wanting) anyway. Again overseen by Rubin and Wallace, sound wise what's also notable is how up front and center Lombardo's drums are, which is a reasonable strategy given that he's always been the most impressive musician in the band, and his performance throughout is simply stunning (and don't worry, Hanneman/King still lend insane solos to every song). Also notable is that Araya at times sings more melodically, which some fans found disconcerting but which I approve of (not unlike Pantera with Anselmo), and he also contributes significantly to the songwriting, though Hanneman is still the main writer (along with King to a lesser extent). Perhaps because of this, the lyrics are generally more concerned with real world affairs (topics like abortion, war, and televangelists) than previously, though adjectives like brutal, grim, and disturbing are still appropriate. On the whole, I'd say that this is another great album, one that was criticized at the time of its release (likely due to how different it was from Reign In Blood) but whose reputation has risen over the years. Certainly the menacing, darkly churning title track is awesomely evil (when Araya shouts "Before you see the light you must die!" it's surely one of the greatest of all Slayer moments), and when "Silent Scream" blazes away next (like I said, not all the songs are slower) the contrast works very well. Other highlights include "Live Undead" (which has nothing to do with the earlier live release), "Behind The Crooked Cross," "Mandatory Suicide," "Ghosts Of War," and "Spill The Blood" (another epic finale with "blood" in the title), while a strong cover of Judas Priest's "Dissident Aggressor" pays fitting tribute to a prime influence. Perhaps a couple of songs here are less impressive than the rest, but on the whole I think that this album's return to longer songs and a more mid-tempo sound (which is still heavy as hell) worked extremely well.
Seasons In The Abyss (American ’90) Rating: A-
Slayer was always the most challenging and extreme member of the Big Four, but Seasons In The Abyss was their most accessible outing to date. It's something of a middle ground between Reign In Blood and South Of Heaven in that it has a good mix of speedy blazers and mid-tempo groovers, and though on the whole I don't think it's as consistent as either prior album, this was another stellar release by an inspired band still in their prime. Like Reign In Blood, this album peaks with its opening and closing tracks, both of which (like "Angel Of Death" and "Reigning Blood") also inevitably appear towards the top of any "greatest Slayer songs" lists. "War Ensemble" is incredibly fast and quotable ("The final swing is not a drill, It's how many people I can kill"), plus there's Lombardo's avalanche of drums and Araya's intense bellow is at his most authoritative and evil (actually I think he puts in excellent performances throughout the album). The epic (6:38) title track is classic Slayer in every respect and is arguably their catchiest song ever, and in between those two high points you get plenty of other goodies, including speedy thrashers ("Spirit In Black," "Hallowed Point," "Born Of Fire") as well as more mid-tempo tracks ("Blood Red," "Expendable Youth," "Dead Skin Mask"). The latter tune is about serial killer Ed Gein and is genuinely creepy (in part thanks to a little girl cameo), while "Temptation" (another speedster) is notable for its dual multi-tracked lead vocals. On the whole, this album is more a consolidation of prior strengths rather than delivering anything completely new (once again there's no dead space between songs, as per usual), but the album delivers at least two all-time classic Slayer tracks and several other notables. As such, Seasons was another easily recommendable Slayer album, and when I saw them play this album in its entirety on the 20 year anniversary tour of its release, it still sounded damn good.
Decade Of Aggression (American ’91) Rating: A
To quote the liner notes: "Unlike most live recordings, this is Slayer completely LIVE. No overdubbing exists on this recording." Impressive, and though this whopper of a live album was culled from three different performances, it sounds like a single legitimate, all-inclusive live set. The timing was right too, as the band still had their original lineup intact and by then had recorded enough first rate songs to release a double album (21 songs over 85 minutes). Perhaps you could argue that the band included too many songs from the recently released Seasons (8) and not enough from Hell Awaits (only the title track opener which is a big improvement on the original), but on the whole the set list is about what you'd want, especially the first disc which delivers classic after classic in versions that generally at least approach and sometimes even exceed the studio renditions. I tend to think of the second disc, which mostly delivers deeper album cuts (including some from Show No Mercy and Haunting The Chapel), as something of a bonus disc; though it's also quite good, 145 minutes of Slayer is typically too much for me, so I usually just listen to the first disc. Anyway, the band is in fine form throughout, and this works as an excellent introduction to and/or de-facto "best of" the band, who I feel lost several miles off their fastball after this release (losing Lombardo for a number of years didn't help, with all due respect to Paul Bostaph), with the nadir being the St. Anger-like atrocity Diabolus in Musica (1998). Slayer still slays in concert though, that much I (and their rabid fans) can attest to.
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