We’re very excited to be gearing up towards publishing D.X. Ferris’s book on Reign in Blood, which should be on sale in stores by the end of April. Here’s an extract from towards the very start of the book.
Slayer isn’t the biggest band to emerge from the mid-80s thrash movement; better, they’re the standard-bearers of metal itself. They’re revered by groups you know, bands you’d never heard of, and musicians you’d be surprised to hear weigh in on their behalf. Slayer has as many better-than-good albums as any band, but guitarist Kerry King says they wouldn’t play another full record live. They’re all longer, and none has an unbroken string of favorites. Explains the guitarist, “Everybody likes Reign in Blood.”
The controversial album remains the golden standard for extreme heavy metal. It’s a seamless procession of 10 blindingly fast songs in just 29 minutes, delivered in furious bursts of instrumental precision, with lyrics so striking that Tori Amos was moved to record a cover. Reign in Blood saw the Southern California standouts permanently fuse classic rock’s technical proficiency, hardcore punk’s speed, and metal’s brute power – all captured with crystalline clarity.
“I think it was one of the first records of its genre that was recorded well, which makes a lot of difference,” says producer Jack Endino, who has worked with Nirvana, Soundgarden, and High on Fire. “And that’s why that record has such impact. It wasn’t just a shitty indie band any more. It’s clear, it’s crisp, it rips your head off. It’s the first one I took seriously, and I was not paying attention to metal or thrash much.”
Little wonder, considering the record’s pedigree.
At the time, the team behind Reign in Blood were unusual matches. Years later, the combinations only seem more odd: Reign was produced by Rick Rubin, then just some New York rap dude – albeit a successful one. Then, he was best known for creating hip-hop albums with groups such as Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys. Now he’s a Grammy-winning Producer of the Year, renowned for his work with Johnny Cash, Jay-Z, the Dixie Chicks, and Justin Timberlake. When he’s not producing, he’s the co-head of Columbia Records. Reign was engineered by Andy Wallace, now the first name in rock mixing, producer of Jeff Buckley’s ethereal Grace, and engineer of Nirvana’s earth-shaking Nevermind. Not to mention Slayer themselves, a rock combo for the ages, with thrash’s most combustible onstage chemistry.
Working in a much-maligned genre, guitarists Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King emerged as the Lennon and McCartney of speed metal, having penned a collection of blood-soaked scenes comparable to haunting novels like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The record stands as a grim treatise on human nature, a statement of violent naturalism, an unflinching look at the human condition’s darkest corners.
Reign in Blood opens with a song about the true horrors of Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz. Three songs about serial killers follow. Two gory tales threaten vengeance from beyond the grave. An explicit indictment mocks religion. A plague obliterates the human race. A Satanic cult slaughter virgins for evil power. A piledriving climax looks at death nine ways from Sunday. It’s grisly stuff. Issued on America’s premier rap label – Def Jam — at the pinnacle of the thrash movement, Reign in Blood set the bar for an emerging genre called death metal. The record continues to serve as a touchstone for headbanger musicians internationally, from underground to arenas, from Poland to Iowa.
“Reign in Blood, it’s a dogma,” says Nergal, frontman of Poland’s Behemoth. “Slayer kills. Reign in Blood is really top of the tops, definitely one of the best extreme metal albums ever. Not just thrash metal. They’re more than just a thrash band. They are a rock band. Slayer stands there along with Metallica, Kiss, and the Beatles.” If, unlike Endino, you were paying attention to metal, Reign is still relevant, recognized as a high-water-mark from a golden age.
“[Reign in Blood], to me, is the epitome of thrash metal,” says Slipknot guitarist Jim Root. “It’s great. I’d definitely give it five stars. It’s straight-forward, no-bullshit. Every song kicks ass. Every riff kicks ass. It’s such a short record — absolutely no way you can get sick of it. I would put that album right up there with [Megadeth’s] Peace Sells and [Metallica’s] Master of Puppets and [Anthrax’s] Among the Living. It changed [metal] for the better.”
Critics, musicians, and fans generally recognize Reign as the quintessential thrash album. You can argue whether the sonic variety of Metallica’s Master of Puppets makes it superior or inferior. Regardless, as Spin magazine’s Joe Gross put it, Reign is “is the thrashiest thrash ever.” The disc marked Slayer’s coronation as the kings of thrash, and their ongoing streak of vitality places them in the small fraternity of rock’s greatest groups. Don’t just take the headbangers’ word for it.
“They are one of the very best American rock bands,” said Greg Kot, host of rock talk show Sound Opinions, a biographer of the hallowed Wilco, and contributor to Rolling Stone. “I take them out of the realm of metal. They are just a pure great rock band of the past 25 years. What they do with a guitar, bass, and drums is unequalled in the history of modern music.”
After more than 25 years, Slayer is still Slayer. The band has only changed drummers. Its other three members are constants. And original skinsman Dave Lombardo returned to the group years before 2006’s Christ Illusion, which netted the band a Grammy win. The musicians interviewed for this book invariably ranked Slayer as the top thrash band, and “top five” among metal bands. Using different criteria, you can argue Slayer, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, or Metallica as the best group in the genre: Biggest? Most influential? Best musicians? But consider this: Metal or otherwise, no group has remained as true to its peak intensity or intent through a continuous career. Any argument to the contrary puts Slayer in contention with some of the greats.
The Rolling Stones are still a top draw, but only a diehard, easy-to-please fan would argue that any material from the past 30 years is more than a pale shade of “Paint it Black.” R.E.M. made great records from 1983 through 1998; some say they’re still good live. The Who has a great legacy. U2 is more popular than ever, but Kerry King’s worst lyrics – and he’s written a couple groaners; who hasn’t? – don’t scrape the bottom of the barrel like “Vertigo.” The Grateful Dead don’t count. Sonic Youth still do their thing, though Rather Ripped is no EVOL.
Mötörhead has never sounded like anything but Mötörhead; and surviving years of mind-melting volume is impressive, though playing their slower material isn’t as physically demanding. Pantera? Great band, never fell off, maybe more influential than Slayer – but not as groundbreaking. The midtempo heroes of AC/DC certainly never took a step off their boat. The Ramones never hit bottom, and went out on top. What if Black Flag, the hardcore band that stands as the epitome of do-it-your-self independence and uncompromising attitude, had stayed together for 25 years? Imagine if the Stooges had stuck around to make eleven albums. There is no “What if?” with Slayer. Slayer never sucked. Slayer’s worst is never too far from their best.
And Reign in Blood is Slayer’s best. It’s one thing for a single alpha-geek music fan run his mouth for 100 pages; don’t take my word for it. Read on, and you’ll hear from 45 musicians, producers, and artists who find Reign in Blood an enduringly significant piece of art. And 20 others were there to see Reign happen. None of are them the type to shout – as countless fans do – “FUCKIN’ SLAYER!” and leave it at that. But Reign in Blood has touched their life. And they have some thoughts as to why.
What band besides Led Zeppelin has such a cumulative consensus? Slayer’s high-profile fans include metal musicians from three generations. Old-school hardcore legends. A singer-songwriter piano queen. A composer-musicologist. A tattoo-artist TV star. Underground rappers. Hip-hop heroes. Ukrainian gypsy punks. They all agree: Like Black Sabbath before them, Slayer has an appeal that goes beyond the traditional hesher demographic. Slayer is the one thrash band palatable to music fans that don’t own a Metallica album and never heatedly debated the merits of various Megadeth lineups.
“Slayer have as much integrity as these hipster bands who carp on and on about integrity,” says Henry Rollins. “They just go out and make that record and do that tour. They don’t talk about integrity. They don’t need to. And that’s what gives Slayer undeniable power, unimpeachable credibility. If you notice, the people that are into Slayer, you can’t convince them there’s any better thing to be doing on that night. And it’s for good reason: because Slayer’s never sold out.”