“Bones and blood lie on the ground/Rotten limbs lie dead/Decapitated bodies found/On my wall: your head!” Whether you find these lyrics brilliant, hilarious, moronic, repulsive or genuinely evil (or all of the above) is a nearly foolproof barometer of how you’ll feel about Slayer. A more hateful breed than homeboys Metallica or Megadeth, Slayer was formed from hardcore and metal roots in Orange County, California, in 1982 by singer/bassist Tom Araya and guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman.
Musically, the band combines the frenzied speed and power of hardcore with lurching riffs and ultra-graphic takes on Black Sabbath’s lyrical subject matter. While rockers from Robert Johnson to Venom had flirted vaguely with the forked one down below, Slayer took the pure evil image to realms of hitherto-unimagined overkill on Show No Mercy and Hell Awaits. Although the production is hardly pristine, Slayer’s first two albums are unquestionably among the most threatening music of their time. The Show No Mercy CD adds a three-song 1984 EP, Haunting the Chapel; Live Undead is a barely listenable ’84 live set some claim was recorded in a rehearsal with a bunch of noisy friends.
The unlikely figure of producer Rick Rubin then entered the picture. Although known at that point only for his pioneering work in rap, Rubin had long been sampling old metal albums, and co-produced “Walk This Way,” Run-DMC’s duet with Aerosmith. Applying his lean, less-is-more production technique to Slayer’s blistering aural apocalypse, Reign in Blood wields a punch, clarity and sense of doom rivaled only by Sabbath and Metallica’s best. Variations on the word “death” appear in the lyrics no fewer than 56 times; between “Angel of Death” (a revoltingly graphic song about Joseph Mengele) and “Jesus Saves,” the album manages to offend all denominations. (Public Enemy later sampled the refrain of “Angel of Death” on “She Watch Channel Zero?!” to staggering effect. In a further bit of pan-Def Jam incest, King contributed “frozen metal” guitar to the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.”) A surgically precise hit-and-run attack that lasts all of 26 minutes, Reign in Blood is almost universally regarded as the ultimate speedmetal LP.
Slayer’s cover of “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” on the Less Than Zero soundtrack was an indicator of things to come. Having established a reputation as the fastest and most extreme band in the world, Slayer did the only thing possible: slow down. Produced by Rubin and the band, South of Heaven‘s sound is even leaner, with Dave Lombardo’s astonishingly innovative drumming providing an intricate framework for the sharp, angular riffs and pig-squeal leads. Most impressively, this album grooves from end to end. Araya comes into his own, lofting haunting melodic refrains as well as his trademark volatile spew. The lyrics confront such real-life topics as mass-murderers, abortion and yet more Nazis. Seasons in the Abyss basically fuses its two predecessors, exploring little new territory and even repeating ideas from older songs. That said, it’s still a scorcher, and the title track is one of the quartet’s best songs.
Coinciding (fittingly enough) with the Gulf War, the band’s first arena tour was documented on the 23-track Live: Decade of Aggression, originally released in an extremely heavy limited-edition metal case. Although it’s basically a greatest-hits-live outing, the earlier material sounds great in the hands of the by-then-seasoned band, and it contains some long-absent friends like “The Anti-Christ.”
For the next four years, inactivity reigned in the Slayer camp. Lombardo left and was replaced by ex-Exodus drummer Paul Bostaph, who debuted on the blistering “Disorder,” a collaboration with Ice-T for the soundtrack of Judgment Night (which united rappers and rock bands, to generally excruciating results). While not much of a traditional “song,” this five-minute apocalyptic rant is one of the most exciting tracks Slayer’s ever laid to wax. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Divine Intervention, which is awfully by-the-numbers considering the time it took to make. A lot of the old punch is missing (maybe because Rubin sat this one out), Araya’s voice sounds tired and the band isn’t doing anything drastically different from what it did in 1988. While still a powerfully aggressive band, Slayer is in danger of becoming a nostalgia act.
That threat goes unchallenged by Undisputed Attitude, Slayer’s covers album. The choice of material — unreconstructed hardcore songs by Minor Threat, D.I., Dirty Rotten Imbeciles, Dr. Know, TSOL, Verbal Abuse — leads the band straight into old-time thrashland. Toning down the imposing grandeur of its evil empire, Slayer takes convincing small-scale breakneck rips through simple ravers like “Guilty of Being White,” “Abolish Government” and “I Hate You” (plus two of Hanneman’s vintage contributions to the genre, an incongruous new slow metal number, “Gemini,” and an uncalled-for sexual rewrite of “I Wanna Be Your Dog”). The album is fine for what it is, but Slayer could be roasting in commercial hell if it doesn’t start looking forward sometime soon. Now that’s scary.
The high-concept ’96 EP matches the Slayer album’s TSOL cover medley with that band’s original renditions of the same songs, “Abolish Government” and “Superficial Love.”