On “Reign In Blood” Slayer finally came into its own in terms of identity and lyrical themes. Whereas the band’s first two records dealt mostly with horror, and goofy (if not downright comical) depictions of Satanism, here the lyrics are more grounded in reality, as they deal with real-life horrors as World War 2 atrocities, insanity and serial murder. Debuting on this record is legendary artist Larry Carroll, who would provide the artwork to the next two albums after this. In all “Reign In Blood” is the penultimate Slayer album: concise, to-the-point and not a single note or riff is wasted. This is where speed – and thrash metal became so extreme it spawned a new genre: death metal.
In terms of production this is the first truly good sounding Slayer album, and every instrument is balanced evenly. The rhythm guitars possess a lot of crunch, Tom Araya’s bass guitar can still be heard, and Dave Lombardo’s drums aren’t overly processed. With producer Rick Rubin behind the knobs the band’s sound is streamlined and simplified for greater impact. Only three songs on this record surpass the three-minute mark, of those three two bookend the record. “Reign In Blood” is custodian to 5 classic songs and many of the shorter songs laid the template for the emergent death metal genre in terms of architecture, intensity and lyrical themes. This is the one but last album to include Araya’s falsetto and the first chapter of Slayer’s most-known era, spanning the next two records “South Of Heaven” and the much-publicized “Seasons In the Abyss”. It is the transitional record between Slayer’s faster-than-thou first era, and its more deliberately paced and melodic second era. It is simultaneously an end and a beginning for the band.
The record opens with the controversial ‘Angel Of Death’, a song about human experimentation during World War 2 at the hands of infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, and Araya’s opening scream pretty much sets the tone for the album. This is Slayer at its most poignant, direct and straightforward. It is no wonder the song sparked such controversy, as the opening line dryly imparts the macabre scene: “Auschwitz, the meaning of pain. The way that I want you to die.” If that weren’t enough to make the average music fan flee in terror, the band piles on an additional set dressing line with the graphic “slow death, immense decay. Showers that cleanse you of your life.” Slayer was no stranger to controversy even in its early days, but this song (and what the mainstream press thought it was about) took things to an entirely different level.
‘Piece by Piece’ and ‘Necrophobic’ are two short cuts that on any other Slayer album probably would have been one longer song. All it seems to miss is a bridge to connect both song ideas. Despite both songs brief length they are very effective in what they set out to do. Nothing is ever wasted, although Rubin could have merged both songs and have the band write an additional song in the studio, the songs work the way they are. Many of the shorter songs work due to the unique alchemy of guitarist duo Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King. Both have conflicting styles of leads/solos, and the constant dueling between Hanneman’s technically refined and melodic style versus King’s more direct and screaming style of solo’ing forms the highlight of many songs on this album.
Following those are two loved live staples with ‘Altar Of Sacrifice’ and ‘Jesus Saves’, the latter being the second instance of Slayer dealing with more earthly and socio-political subjects, in this case organized religion. Both tracks are more melodic and dynamic than the cuts that preceded them. The band then burst through another three short tracks before finally settling into the much slower ‘Postmortem’. At long last, the now classic title track arrives with ‘Raining Blood’. ‘Raining Blood’ (which sounds phonetically similar to the title the band choose for the record) opens with about a minute of thrashing brutality only to ease into a falsely atmospheric break. This break is only accentuated by a deceptively simple pattern of resounding kickdrums by Lombardo that are vintage Slayer. It is something the average metalhead is able to hum instantly. The song lasts little over 4 minutes, but in actuality the song is barely 3 minutes long if you consider that the ending consists of about forty or so seconds of simulated rain sound effects.
For the first time does the earthy production matches the band’s grittiness and intensity. This album tends to be described as “chaotic” or “random”, but it seems to be neither. “Reign In Blood” is mostly an album obsessed by speed and brutality, and more than half of the album sacrifices songwriting in name of speed and brutality. Since there are about three well-developed songs the record goes by in a blur of screams, wailing solos and cymbal crashes. “Reign In Blood” is rightly remembered for its then-unheard levels of speed and intensity but despite its legendary status the record isn’t without its faults. The mid section of the album consists of nothing but half-conceived ideas, but not actual songs. Slayer’s 2-minutes-or-less outbursts greatly enhance the aggression, but all of these seven cuts could have used some additional writing to make them fully developed songs. Discounting these 2-minute cuts you are left with less than 15 minutes of actual worthwhile songs – and this feels diametrically opposed to the preceding “Hell Awaits” with its longer, slower paced songs that were steeped in technically refined songwriting.