The 33 1/3 Odyssey: Slayer Reborn?

33 1/3 is a series of pocket-sized books, each volume focusing on a single album. This is the seventeenth installment of our attempt to read all 57 (and counting) of these things, and to scribble some impressions of each. As always, please keep in mind that it’s always just one writer’s opinion, often skewed, and somewhat ill-informed. Accuracy is ensured as time permits. For the full introduction, check out the first installment and read the others here. On to the demi-tomes!

Part 17: Reign In Blood by D.X. Ferris

reviewed by Chris Estey

If you’re into metal, Slayer are inarguably the kings. As Ferris, a Cleveland Scene and Alternative Press scribe, argues well of the Four Horsemen of 80s heaviness -- also including Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax -- Slayer was the band that persevered with undiminished respect from fans and metal-friendly critics alike. A more casual observer of the scene might wonder why ...And Justice For All or Peace Sells ... But Who’s Buying didn’t come out first as 33 1/3 assessments, as they have great behind-the-album stories, being all caught up in the angsty drama that is the Metallica and (Metallica ex-guitarist and Megadeth founder) Dave Mustaine world, but Slayer is the band that perversely fascinated rock critics of the time.

Their interest was spurred, at least in part, by the Laibach-like allegations of possible fascism (the opening cut on Reign is sometimes perceived as a glorification of Josef Mengele) and the then current fear of a band otherwise so extreme and unrelenting in its lyrics, cover art, public image, and the music itself put fear into the hearts of casual and more mainstream rock fans. (The flirting with the skinhead milieu was accidental -- bassist Tom Araya was born in Chile, identified with his background, and “Angel of Death” was as much an endorsement of concentration camp medical experiments as Randy Newman’s hick-baiting “Rednecks” would be an expression of support for George W. Bush.) Those other three new wave-of-American metal groups were more melodic, less caustic in every way, no matter how dark or angry or fast they played. Slayer simply did it darker, much harder and weirder, and without any sense of humor or easier topical reference points. (For example, “Jesus Saves” was probably the most blasphemous song recorded until this point; save perhaps the Feederz’ “Jesus Entering From The Rear,” but that was art-hardcore and had a much more limited audience.)

This brings up one of the interesting topics the book addresses: the lyrics sung by Araya (who also plays bass) on Reign are written by Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King, but Araya has never publicly rebelled against his Catholic upbringing. Ferris asserts that the imagery in Slayer’s songs are theater, whether they concern bloody personal vengeance or the end of the world. But a hatred for religious hypocrisy is something the band doesn’t seem too shy to express inside or outside the songs, and this rings true with their pissed off fans. Ferris thoughtfully relates how Rick Rubin brought the band on board his label Def Jam, though he himself is of the mystical persuasion and Slayer seem almost Objectivist in their hatred of most spirituality. Another interesting note presented brilliantly in this book is the story of transgressive artist Larry Carroll’s LP cover art, and how the band came to approve it -- the disparity between the artist’s NYC post-punk career and their Los Angeles metal values comes together when a band member’s mother hates what Carroll did, causing them to use it.

With Reign In Blood, recorded mostly before Rubin even got involved (though blessed the project with his ferocious mid-80s buzz even if only by osmosis and some occasional fierce in-studio commands), a strict 29:00 minute anomaly in heavy metal in its time, and adeptly captured on the boards by Andy Wallace (who would go on to doing the same for Nevermind), everything in this genre evolved. This was my first Slayer record and it was completely unique to me at the time, but I have friends who disagree with Ferris and argue that this album wasn’t all that much different from their previous two, recorded before they signed on with Rubin. (They also seem peeved at the amount of typos and redundancies of quote content, but that’s what metal guys are like: Due to the righteous example of their over-the-top technical mastery, a real Slayer fan is never going to put up with any kind of sloppiness.) I still think Ferris does a noble job, conducting informative interviews and letting us get a good glimpse of the personalities of a band which usually seems like the most inimical on the planet. In fact, it sort of makes me wonder if his humanizing of the group is what bothers my buddies the most.

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