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DUST IT OFF: Slayer’s “Reign In Blood” 25 years later

Junior year in high school, 1986. My childhood dream of becoming a radio disc jockey came true when I found out that there was a vocational skills center for all high schools in the region. I had to do it, this is what I wanted to become, and I joined. It was a radio/TV production course, and while I paid more attention to the radio side of things, the TV production portion would become essential for working in news eight years later. The radio station’s music format was hard rock and heavy metal. Perfect, I grew up listening to hard rock and metal and I still listened to metal so it was not an issue. However, my level of metal up until that point was the mainstream stuff, which meant Black Sabbath, Dio, Def Leppard, and whatever could be read in Hit Parader and Circus. I was aware of small scenes involving something new: thrash metal and speed metal. These styles of music was the “indie rock” of heavy metal in the mid-1980’s, Metallica had yet to break big but their buzz was growing by the time I joined the radio/TV class (their third album, Master Of Puppets, had come out in March of 1986).

When I became a radio DJ, a lot of my classmates were into the heavier stuff. Some of them were into punk and hardcore, styles of music I was aware of but never listened to. In my high school, only the exchange students were aware of anything goth or new wave, but “that” was “meant” for schools in other cities. Nonetheless, kids in those “other” schools were open to listening to it, most likely passed on by older relatives. As a teenager who was open to listening to anything and everything, and had done so for years, I felt like an introvert at my high school. When I joined radio/TV class, it was more than technical knowledge, it would become music. In that time, I’d eventually discover Metallica, would become a huge fan of Anthrax, and Megadeth‘s first album was awesome. MTV had Headbanger’s Ball, the must-see show for all metal fans. We were also in the era of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a parents organization that were able to make record labels place warning labels on music they felt was offensive. If it was sexual, violent, or explicit, they wanted a sticker. Before 1985, if you saw a voluntary label or warning, it was generally on comedy records. But if it had an illustration of a demon-like figure with horns, that would mean it was promoting Satanism, and thus needed a sticker. As with any discussion of Metallica, Anthrax, and Megadeth, all roads eventually lead to Slayer.

When I joined the radio station, Slayer was a favorite amongst my classmates. Show No Mercy, Hell Awaits, and Live Undead would be played and talked about religiously. The music was fast, furious, and it sounded sinister. But did it sound evil? I think the perception was that it sounded that way, but on purpose. The music was not telling its listeners about cutting off the heads of goats and sacrificing babies, most of the time they were talking about social and political ills. There’s a generation of people who will still chant the words !SU NIOJ !SU NIOJ !SU NIOJ !SU NIOJ and those within listening range will answer by saying WELCOME BACK. But the release of Reign In Blood blew up everything, not only for the group but thrash and speed metal.

October 7, 1986. I know for a fact I didn’t buy this album on opening day, but I did buy it. The band had been signed to the California indie label Metal Blade, where they released two albums and a live EP before being picked up by Rick Rubin and Def Jam. Metallica had been signed to Elektra, Anthrax would gain distribution via Island Records (then associated with Atlantic/WEA), and Megadeth were a month away before releasing their major label debut for Capitol. Hard rock/heavy metal was a hot music, but majors were picking up on “the new, harder shit” and just like hip-hop, other labels were still clueless as to its appeal but signed bands because there was an audience. Fortunately they were able to take risks by signing them, and what appealed to fans was that the music didn’t sound glamorous, and neither did the bands. Look at the back cover of Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All. They look like a group of friends ready to skip class, smoke cigarettes at the church across the street, and get high while listening to Deep Purple. That perceived ugliness was something the “ugly youth” loved. For a lot of listeners, hearing the fast and aggressive music would often become the gateway towards punk and hardcore, something that would be called “crossover”. A few punk and hardcore kids would end up checking out some of these brutal metal bands because it didn’t look or sound like Motley Crue and Def Leppard. Slayer just seemed different, but then again you also had an album cover with a bunch of evil beings on the cover. If you had parents who were religious or spiritual, this might get you grounded. At least in my case, music was music and listening to metal was not an issue. I didn’t smoke or drink, nor did listening to thrash and speed metal cross me over to “the other side”, this was just something that was loud and raw, and I loved it.

“Angel Of Death” was a song about the Nazi atrocities of World War II, it didn’t celebrate it but rather focused on its brutality and pain. That loud scream from vocalist/bassist Tom Araya became a rally cry, and those riffs (the “mosh part”) from Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman would turn into meditative drones (the repetition of which would be perfect for Rubin when he sampled them for Public Enemy in the song “She Watch Channel Zero”). As the album goes on, that heaviness never seemed to end. There were moments of progressiveness, all of which would be explored by the band in future albums, but this seemed like a punk effort at times, just going into the song and coming out soon after. Guitar solos were wicked and fast, Araya’s bass came off like drills, and the sick ass drums of the almighty Dave Lombardo made all drummers stop and go “I need to play as fast and good as him.”

Fans loved the album because it lasted as fast as the songs themselves, and just mentioning song titles will bring memories to those who embraced each track: “Necrophobic”, “Jesus Saves”, “Altar Of Sacrifice”, “Criminally Insane”, “Post-Mortem”.

The greatest high on the album comes when “Post-Mortem” is played on Side 2, especially when the song breaks down for a moment before “filling up” before the last drive home. Araya sings the last verses at a rapid pace, including the lines “The waves of blood are rushing near, pounding at the walls of lies/turning off my sanity, reaching back into my mind/non-rising body from the grave showing new reality/what I am, what I want, I’m only after death”. About 10 seconds later, King and Hanneman do one last vamp and then you hear the thunder. Upon first listen, one has no idea what’s about to happen, and then you hear guitar feedback and distortion, along with a tribal drum pattern, going through the echo chamber. You then hear the sound of heavy pouring rain and you think “oh oh”. The song is called “Raining Blood”, and it’s the album closer. It already sound epic, but at that point you have no idea how big it will be. Then the thunder claps, the cymbals come in, and a guitar melody comes in. You’re sitting down, looking at the cover, flipping it to the back cover seeing them smile and grin with a broken beer can. The riff feels awesome, you have that shiteating grin, the drums pound, you want to turn your stereo up loud, but it’s already loud as it can get. Then comes the last thunder clap until the end, and then SATAN HAS ARRIVED!!! The music gets locked into that fast groove, and you feel like making your evil horn hand gesture annd rocking out, and you do. You don’t care that your neck becomes sore, this moment means something to you. You can’t believe how great this sounds, and then out of nowhere it leads to the “JAGGADA-JAGGADA-JAGGADA-JAGGADA-JAGGADA-JAGGADA-JAGGADA-JAGGADA” and they play faster. Holy shit. Araya finally sings:

Trapped in purgatory
A lifeless object, alive
Awaiting reprisal
Death will be their acquisition

The sky is turning red
Return to power draws near
Fall into me, the sky’s crimson tears
Abolish the rules made of stone

Pierced from below, souls of my treacherous past
Betrayed by many, now ornaments dripping above

Awaiting the hour of reprisal
Your time slips away

It is at this point where the band finally break down a bit into another groove, at half the speed but still as intense. You don’t know where this song is going, but you look at the needle on the record and you see there isn’t much time left until it reaches the label. The riffs keep on going, and all of a sudden one last verse:

Raining blood
From a lacerated sky
Bleeding its horror
Creating my structure
Now I shall reign in blood!

You then feel like Slayer is speaking not only to you, but about you. You feel the horror and disgust of your own young life, wanting better, and you want to tear up your room. Then all of a sudden, you hear the band drone, and then TSSS-TSSS-TSSSTSSSTSSSTSSSS. There’s complete mayhem coming out of the speakers, the riffs keep on getting faster, Araya and Lombardo have no problem in keeping up, you hear King and Hanneman fucking up the tremelo and it feels like the guitars are about to explode in their hands. If there is such a thing as a hell, it truly awaits and we all want to go there to party, for hell is the place where great music like this comes from, and you want to celebrate that in unity. You now want to get the closest piece of glass and start slashing your wrist or abdomen to spell out SLAYER or SLATANIC WEHRMACHT, and at the moment you feel you’re about the mentally ejaculate, the thunder rips one last time, the raining blood falls, and you realize you have just experienced the biggest heavy metal orgasm ever.

25 years later, the oddity of Reign In Blood being on Def Jam, the label that gave us LL Cool J and Public Ememy, seems perfect. Rick Rubin knew what he was doing, and taking a complete left turn for what he would become known for was what he needed to solidify a career that continues to this day. I was able to witness Slayer when they had taken part in the 1991 Clash Of The Titans tour, where I was up front, feeling the pressure of the crowd and the heat of everyone being in there, plus the drums pounding in my chest as it was macked into the speakers, hip-hop style. For over an hour I felt like I was in the hell Slayer had created in their music, and I loved it. To this day, it remains one of the best concert experiences I’ve ever had.

To Tom Araya, Kerry King, Jeff Hanneman, Dave Lombardo, and Rick Rubin: eternal gratitude for your major contribution to my life. Mahalo nui.

What do you think?