Current readers of this article know that it's closing in on Christmastime, and I'd like to assure you that around Chateau Forbis the holiday decorations are being posted with care. Eggnog is being consumed, chestnuts are getting roasted and during every moment the delightful sounds of Slayer's "Reign in Blood" album fill the air. After all, nothing says Christmas like the definitive thrash metal album of all time being performed by the hardest hitting heavy metal group of the ages. And what's that? Why it's a group of holiday carolers at the door. I do believe they are singing the verse from "Necrophobic". Let's join them, shall we?
And a merry Christmas to all!
I, of course, couldn't help notice that you weren't singing along. But I'm not unaccustomed to some people's reticence in defining Slayer's "Reign in Blood" as a Christmastime classic. That's why I created this special Christmas edition of Motherfucking Masterpieces to provide an introduction to a holiday album that's sure to be a frequent spinner on the LP players in the family room of every household.
I've mentioned before that I spent my teenage years immersed in hard rock and heavy metal, but I freely confess that I was not a huge Slayer fan. Certainly, I was aware of Slayer and I had several friends who wouldn't think of performing a baby sacrifice without the group's delightful music in the background. But I admit at the risk of being called a "pussy" that I tended to like "lighter" heavy metal acts like Guns-n-Roses and AC/DC. Slayer was just too dissonant and discordant for a metal lightweight such as myself.
This is not say that when I hear Slayer's breakout album, "Reign in Blood," I'm not transported back to those carefree days of being a teenager in the mid eighties - days of vodka consumption, Dungeons and Dragons and zit medication. In a certain sense, listening to that album now is like traveling in a time machine. Open the doors and you step out into an era that seems familiar and yet so strangely alien. The notion of alternative music had not yet been propelled by a Mr. K Cobain into the mainstream. And indeed, the odds of a band like Slayer, and their thrash metal contemporaries like Exodus or Death Angel, ever achieving mass appeal seemed unlikely, nay, impossible. Thus for a lot of my friends, the mere act of listening to Slayer was a way of declaring our independence from the pablum pod people who populated the prom podiums of our high school hierarchy. To live the life of a Slayer fanatic - a life that consisted primarily of head banging, binge drinking and pot smoking - was to celebrate one's freedom from the servitude of Top 40. It was way of jointly declaring your uniqueness while at the same time conjoining yourself with metalheads across the globe that looked, dressed and thought exactly as you did.
Of course, Slayer and aggressive metal and most underground '80s music did evolve to become to become the dominant style of the next decade. Rob Zombie slightly toned down the Slayer sound but kept their horror movie lyrics and became a household name. Slayer contemporaries Metallica secured their place as one of the definitive rock bands of all time. And Slayer themselves became millionaires and established a career that continues to this day. What once seemed so rebellious became part of the soundtrack for the majority of teens and twentysomethings in the '90s.
How did something that seemed so small in the '80s rise to such magnitude only a decade later? One album was the flashpoint for this musical revolution. And that album was Tears for Fears' "Songs from the Big Chair."
No, seriously, it was "Reign in Blood." It's in "Reign" we hear the first fully realized recordings of unapologetic aggression. Other groups before Slayer attempted to combine the fury of punk rock with the dark melodicism of metal, but it wasn't until "Reign in Blood" that practitioners of this form of black magic found their Ten Commandments of evil. Mix in one part of Tom Araya's throaty lyrics about death and torture with a dash of Dave Lombardo's breakneck drumming. Combine a chunk of Kerry King's atonal whammy bar antics with an equal part of Jeff Hanneman's chromatic shredding*. Apply to songs that never fall below 150 beats per minute and you have the perfect recipe.
* King, it could be argued, created an entirely new style of soloing with his crazed whammy bar dive bombs, but as I've listened through various Slayer albums I've found co-guitarist Jeff Hanneman did a lot of them as well. And both players deserve credit as technical wunderkinds, capable of virtuosic speed metal solos.
The album starts off with the brutal "Angel of Death," an uncompromisingly fast romper stomper highlighted with standard thrash metal drum accents. Araya comes in with an unusual (for him) high pitched scream, and then graces the listener with lyrics about Nazi death doctor, Joseph Mengele. The pounding grooves continue with "Piece by Piece," "Necrophobic" and "Alter of Sacrifice" (about cannibalism, torture and entering hell, respectively.) The next song, "Jesus Saves" actually burns faster and mocks the existence of God ("In an invisible man you place your trust.") But things slow down into a Soundgarden groove for the opening bars of "Criminally Insane" before speeding up into a hardcore backbeat. "Reborn" touches on a topic close to all our hearts: the rebirth of a witch burned at the stake, while "Epidemic" describes the onset of a mystery disease. "Postmortem" is in a vein of more traditional metal, approaching the sounds of mid-80s Iron Maiden.
The final song, "Raining Blood" is probably the most acclaimed piece of music on the album, as well as a permanent fixture on the Slayer concert set list. The tune starts out with Vincent Price sound effects (including the sound of rain), and then invites in a guitar part reminiscent of "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from Edvard Grieg's "Peer Gant" Suite. But it doesn't take long for this song to speed back up to the standard Slayer heart attack rhythm while Araya shouts out lyrics like.
There's no doubt that there's something juvenile about the whole affair. Fortunately, Slayer have shown a refreshing predilection for not taking themselves too seriously in interviews and commentary. At the end of the day, "Reign in Blood" comes from the same cartoonishly dark corners of the creative mind as the 1960s Hammer horror films or dimestore pulp suspense novels. Only someone with way too much time on their hands would take this stuff seriously as, of course, did a number of religious and PMRC style lyric watchdog groups of the era. But I daresay most of us who listened to "Reign in Blood" at its release grew up to be responsible well adjusted members of society who limit our baby sacrifices to one a year.
Wil Forbis is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at email@example.com
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