Release Date: October 7th, 1986
Label: Def Jam Records
Producer: Rick Rubin
Personnel: Tom Araya (lead vocals, bass), Kerry King (guitars), Jeff Hanneman (guitars), Dave Lombardo (drums)
How do you review a Slayer album? I suppose the obvious answer is to listen to the album and write what you think. But, with Slayer albums, there’s more to consider; a depth that you may not encounter on the first spin. At the tender age of 12, I was living smack in the middle of a Heavy Metal renaissance. While still honor bound to the classics, like Sabbath and still loyal to Ozzy, I’d just discovered Metallica’s Ride the Lightning on a genuine bootleg tape that had been passed around my school and found its way into my boombox. I was curious and creative, but also naïve and impressionable. I explored different styles of music simply because the “cool guy” in school listened to it. In my school in the 7th grade, that guy was Gary Kowalsky. He was not only cool with his long hair and torn jeans, but he was tough. He failed the 7th grade and was held back and wound up in my classes.
The first day of 7th grade, my best friend Scott and I shared a locker in gym class right next to Gary. On the first day, we were supposed to have already bought gym uniforms over the summer, but Gary was too cool to come to gym class prepared. He had no uniform. In fact, he had no books at all. That could be my memory, filling in the blanks where fear and reverence occupied the space. But, I’m pretty sure Gary depended on the kindness of strangers and bullying the meek and mild. In the 7th grade, Scott and I were all those things…meek, mild, and kind strangers. In the locker room, we were seated at the benches in front of the lockers awaiting the gym coach to tell us what to do. As he rapidly approached, Gary looked more stoic with each step. Me, I was nervous. I simply asked, “What are you going to do?” Gary turned to me and with the same stoic stare told me, “Give me your shirt.” He did not ask. He told. Gary only ever told. I protested, “I can’t do that. I’ll get in trouble.” Gary only ever asked once. With his hand held out, I reluctantly gave him my pristine, yellow Seneca Ridge Middle School gym shirt. I looked at the floor with burgeoning shame. Scott was now in my ear asking me, “What are you going to do?” I looked to him, almost reaching out for help. His eyes were as wide as saucers when we noticed Gary standing in front of us in his slightly grey underwear and my gym shirt on. Of course, at 12 my first thought was, “Doesn’t his mom wash his underwear?” He didn’t have to tell Scott. He just handed Gary his gym shorts. My jaw agape, I felt the slight twinge of shame, but I was also exhilarated. Gary had us, and Scott and I knew it, but Gary was cool. We both had to sit out the first week of gym class, while we watched Gary reign superior in dodge ball, floor hockey, and volleyball…all the while in our gym clothes. But we didn’t care, Gary was cool.
A week or so later, Gary returned my gym shirt, unwashed of course; I’m not sure Gary’s mom washed his clothing. I carefully placed it in my back pack, suppressing my slight disgust at the dirty shirt. I thanked him for returning it, still feeling slight shame for having been so easily taken advantage of. Gary patted me on the shoulder and said, “Thanks man. See you Monday.” “Man? He called me Man.” My brain was alight with the fire of acceptance. Scott was standing behind me asking, “What about my shorts?” In the exact same way Gary patted my shoulder, I patted Scott’s, “We’ll get you new shorts MAN!” On the bus ride home, I carefully pulled the gym shirt out of my backpack. Admittedly, I was worried that it would it stink up my backpack. I unfolded it in my lap, noticing writing in marker on the back. “I’m in so much trouble,” my 12-year-old mind thought. Sprawled across my lap, I saw something that brought fear to my heart and my breath labored. A pentagram. I looked closer; sharp letters spelling “SLAYER.”
I wore that gym shirt for the remaining 2 years of middle school, and Scott and I were Gary’s shadow. The Saturday following the bus ride home, I was at the record store spending my allowance on the “Reign in Blood” cassette; the absolute scariest, most sacrilegious cover that I could find. Of course, I had to hide it from my parents. Amid the Heavy Metal renaissance, the PMRC cast a dark shadow over the rock world warning parents that Lucifer was, in fact in the jacket cover and lyrics of every rock album. I raided my sister’s mix tapes and found a blank insert, which I replaced with the Slayer cover. Problem solved! During that period, Heavy Metal was merely an outlet to rage against a strict upbringing. I did it with headphones on and the darker the lyrics, the eviler the sound, the more I wanted to listen. It represented feeling and not belief nor intent. At 12 and 13, Slayer’s Reign in Blood was as dark and evil as it could get. The salesperson at the “Waxie Maxie” record store said as he rang me up, “It doesn’t get much heavier than that.” I carried it home like a prize and listened from to start to finish with headphones on. Complete disclosure from this lifelong Metal minion, it scared the s- – – right out of me. I’ve never admitted that any other place than here. But, it was like a horror movie, and I was delighted by the fright. Sure, it took a few days to get over it, but I soon fell into the furious driving rhythms, hidden grooves, impossibly syncopated drum beats, and angst-ridden vocals singing about the evils of our dreadful world.
Reign in Blood is Slayer’s third studio album, and in my estimation, the one that set the tone for future records. Even though only one of the Big Four, they were a perfecter of the Thrash sound, blending sounds from hardcore punk bands like Minor Threat and Black Flag with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM). The advent of the thrash sound was also more about imagery, storylines, and the human condition rather than politics, socioeconomics, and the class system. Reign in Blood is a portrait painted with broad strokes and a more refined technique then their two previous albums. The portrait is really a mosaic, with depth in places that you’d least expect in an album that’s about as heavy as it gets. Although the obvious choice, ‘Raining Blood’ is the stand out track. My neck hurts just thinking about the multiple refrains laden with harmonic rage. Both Hanneman’s and King’s styles are cemented and ever-present in this effort and leads the way for some of their best songs. ‘Piece by Piece’ is a headbanger’s anthem, where you will find that you must, at least bob your head and tap your foot. ‘Jesus Saves’ has that anathematic build, emblematic of Thrash Metal, that will make you feel rage in the best way possible.
The foundational rhythm section is the driving force behind the sound. Dave Lombardo’s drumming is unmatched for the time and is still an influence on most metal drummers and a force to be reckoned with. Kerry King is a beast innovating the constant use of harmonics, Jeff Hanneman is the architect, Tom Arraya’s angry, rage filled howl and booming bass lines will stick with you like meat to your ribs. As much as I love Reign in Blood, it is not for the faint of heart. Reign in Blood’s song list is strong but may take some getting used to by the casual listener. For the die hard, it is a must listen and is part of the roots of the renaissance.