There are not many perfect albums in heavy metal history, but Slayer’s Reign in Blood is one of them. In this writer’s opinion, when it comes to the greatest metal album of all time, it’s a toss-up between Reign in Blood, Master of Puppets, Ride the Lightning, and Paranoid. We’re dealing with an untouchable album here. Well, near untouchable, as Decibel’s Andrew Bonazelli had the brilliant/insane idea for a new way for us to argue about our favorite metal records: why not rank the songs on each Decibel Hall of Fame inductee? Sure, why not?
Being the “dad metal” nerd that I am, I immediately volunteered to tackle Reign in Blood (inducted November 2004, buy the issue here), not only because I’ve been so fond of it for nearly 30 years, knowing it inside out, but it gave me a chance to take a closer critical look at each individual track, which, when you dig, when you dissect, can help you rethink, reassess, and eventually see the album clearer, or perhaps even in a different way.
Dissecting Reign in Blood is particularly unique because it’s one of the first albums my generation experienced as a front-to-back, continual, 29-minute listening experience. We didn’t listen to vinyl back then. Vinyl was passé, and a handful of us were starting to move gradually to compact disc. Cassette was the format of choice for the ‘80s metalhead – why spend $20 on a CD when you could get two, maybe three tapes for the same price and build your metal collection more? – and because Reign in Blood was so short, it made a lot more sense to release it as a double-sided cassette, with the complete album on both side A and side B. So if you had an auto-reverse tape deck, the album could go on and on smoothly, ad infinitum. Because of hearing Reign in Blood as a single, continuous piece of music, uninterrupted by changing sides, it’s extremely difficult to rank all ten tracks on their own. Each song serves each other, and the album as a whole, so brilliantly. But therein lies the challenge, and it’s one I gladly took on.
Another website posted, “Now, in a world ruled by Portal, Deathspell Omega, and Gridlink, would we even bat an eye at ‘Raining Blood’ if it came out today? Maybe not.” First of all, Portal, Deathspell Omega, and Gridlink, while all incredibly talented bands, do not rule anything – to assume as much is myopic and foolish – and besides, any of those artists would give their right arm to come up with a song that great. If one of those bands does irrevocably, incalculably alter the entire genre of heavy metal like Slayer did in 1986, then we’ll talk. In metal, there’s great, and there’s iconic, and no attempts at Millennial revisionism will change Slayer's status. Even in diluted form in 2015, Slayer remain icons, and Reign in Blood will always be one of the genre’s most crucial, influential touchstones. So please, read, enjoy, and feel free to debate. That’s half the fun.
The speed of “Reborn”, like the rest of Reign in Blood, is astonishing – from Lombardo’s fluid drumming, to the nimble picking by Hanneman and King, to the lyrics spit out with machine gun rapidity by Araya. Let’s face it, though, it’s not a go-to track, not one you clamor to hear on its own. As part of the brilliant, groundbreaking whole, however, it’s a relentless transition track between “Criminally Insane” and the astonishing latter third. One track of the ten has to rank last in this piece, and “Reborn” draws the short straw.
8. “Jesus Saves”
The way “Jesus Saves” emerges out of the blue, connected seamlessly to “Altar of Sacrifice”, you can imagine the two tracks combined passing for a Hell Awaits-style epic. Either way, musically this quick speed demon is on point, but thematically is probably the weakest, King showing another of what would be many tendencies to slip into lazy anti-Christian rants. “You spend your life just kissing ass / A trait that's grown as time has passed,” is a hackneyed line for such an otherwise provocative album. Little did any of us know at the time, but the slow, menacing, controlled pace of the opening third of the song – its best part – would totally anticipate the jarring change of direction on South of Heaven two years later.
This track, which kicks off the thrilling climax to Reign in Blood, is all about the break at 1:30. Dynamics, kids. It’s not the frantic 2/4 speed of the first half that gets the pit moving, the heads banging, it’s that quick little bridge that wakes you right up, gives your brain a chance to take a pregnant pause. A quick, wicked little groove, a scream by Araya (“before it can be CURRRRAAAAAAAAAGHRED!”) and it’s off to the races.
6. “Criminally Insane”
What an intro by Lombardo. Heavy, heavy thuds of kick and snare, but linking those beats are the gentlest, most graceful taps on ride cymbal. A stutter of a kick beat, and the rest of the band enters, towering, authoritative, ominous. This album’s ace card is always the breakdown, and what a fun one here, with its herky-jerky riff pattern and shout-along crescendo that no metal fan can resist: “I have yet only just begun to take your fuckin' lives!”
5. “Altar of Sacrifice”
When espousing the metal riff mastery of the late Jeff Hanneman, few mention this track, which plays to all his strengths: melody, ferocity, dexterity. The way the song transitions between its three sections is beautiful; a marvel to behold. It’s not easy to gracefully shift from frenetic 2/4 speed to a controlled, jazzy swing, but once you “enter to the realm of Satan” – clumsy use of preposition there, Kerry – there you are, head nodding to Lombardo’s masterful drumming as you mentally picture the Dark Prince. You’re locked in, seduced, learning the words, “Praise hail Satan, Satan, Satan, Satan…”
4. “Piece By Piece”
At first I thought I’d be ranking “Piece By Piece” lower on this list. But this track’s only fault is that it’s the first one after the mighty “Angel of Death”, forever dwarfed by a timeless masterpiece. It’s like poor Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana at the Louvre: despite being an awe-inspiring 32 feet tall, nobody looks at it. Everyone’s crowded around the Mona Lisa. It’s time to give King full credit, as this song is one of his greatest works, his rhythm riffs focusing more on the physicality of Slayer’s sound more than Hanneman’s melodic innovations, his lyrics hitting pubescent male paydirt with one of the most delicious, Fangoria-style verses in heavy metal history: “Bones and blood lie on the ground, rotten limbs lie dead / Decapitated bodies found, on my wall, your head!”
3. “Raining Blood”
Only number three. I feel like I’m going to get an earful about this, but you know it, there are three crown jewels on Reign in Blood’s horned head, and this is one. Ranking becomes strictly arbitrary from here on in. And on an album so riddled with attempts to shock, what a moment of gorgeous, breathtaking, gothic poetry: “Fall into me, the sky's crimson tears / Abolish the rules made of stone.” Where did that come from? Hanneman’s composition here is stunning, the dynamics masterful, the repeated melody sounding unsettling, dramatic, before the song segues into chaos of drums, cymbal crashes, insane dive-bombs, cut off by a clap of thunder, pouring rain, and eerie silence.
Three and a half minutes, eight time signature changes. Child’s play by today’s extreme metal standards, I suppose, but the control and discipline which is on display on “Postmortem” is unparalleled, a lesson to any kid who wants to write a heavy metal song. After the majestic opening riff, responded by primal tom thuds, the first portion of the track is all about swing, which in turn is a result of the band’s inspired use of triplets. 4/4 time gives a song groove, but 3/4 or 6/8 gives it swing, and it’s all about those beats of three. Lombardo gliding along with those beats on the bell of the ride cymbal, the palm-muted crunches by Hanneman and King, the sly melodies written by Hanneman, Araya’s vocals (“Fatality / reality / await the / final call”): all built on threes. And neatly divisible by 666, too, come to think of it. After that, things get a little crazier, the speed doubled, the song shifting into overdrive. First fast, then faster as the song reaches its zenith, Araya’s final line punctuated by a snare hit by Lombardo that sounds like a gunshot. “What I am, what I want, I'm only after death,” ka-POW! You have barely a moment to recover before “Raining Blood” brings the record to its dramatic denouement.
1. “Angel of Death”
“Black Sabbath” might have spawned an entire form of music and a culture to boot, but “Angel of Death” is the greatest opening track in the history of heavy metal, bar none. End of story. A muted cymbal jarring you alert, Hanneman and King announcing their presence with grandeur and intimidation, Araya letting out a scream for the ages. Heavy metal epitomized in 30 seconds. The horrifying tale of Josef Mengele told unflinchingly, shockingly. Not in anti-Semitic fashion, but with no bias towards either side whatsoever, just a brutal, stone-faced depiction of horror as clinical as the loathsome man himself. What’s far more frightening than a horror tale is a vivid, true account of man’s inhumanity to man, and one way to get the message across to kids is through music: “Auschwitz, the meaning of pain / The way that I want you to die / Slow death, immense decay / Showers that cleanse you of your life.” The song is exhilarating, but that mental picture is never lost, providing strong gravitas underneath all the cathartic energy.
On an album defined by its breaks, its greatest is at the 1:39 mark. That riff by Hanneman is the turning point for Slayer as a band. They underachieved on Hell Awaits, coasting a bit, showing little to no progression in the wake of Haunting the Chapel, but that riff, that wicked groove shakes the band out of their creative stasis. So cleanly produced and mixed too, Rick Rubin and Andy Wallace making it sound so crisp so you can hear every drum and cymbal – the reverb on that snare, oh my – every guitar part from riff to atonal squeal, and best of all, Araya’s vocals. He is screaming, growling, snarling, but you know what he’s saying. Imagine He sent all us kids scurrying for a dictionary way back when: “Did he say, ‘abacinate?!’” A blaring solo duel between guitarists, a brief pause as Lombardo displays jaw-dropping speed and timing on double-kick, a reprise of the chorus, and you’re left breathless. Heavy metal does not get any more exciting than this song.