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It seems like sooner or later everyone comes down on one of two sides regarding this album:
1) it’s one of the best metal albums recorded, an indisputable classic, and a must-own.
2) it’s not. For all the influence it hath wrought, the songwriting just isn’t there, aside from the first and last tracks.
At least a certain grudging respect is mandatory for any metalhead aware of the art form’s history. Aside from giving us quite a lot of thrash, it’s one of the huge, looming influences on death metal, so far ahead of it’s time that a good many of death metal’s canonical albums – early Death, for instance – arguably sound thrashier.
Even so, a negative viewpoint is supportable. Slayer started out with a lot of Judas Priest in their veins back on Show No Mercy but quickly set about eliminating it (partially with heavy doses of Discharge). Reign in Blood takes them as far away from Judas Priest – from classic heavy metal – as they would get, and as seems to happen to a lot of bands, they immediately beat a hasty retreat from the abyss right afterward, covering Priest’s “Dissident Aggressor” on their very next outing.
From a classic metal standpoint there are only two real songs here, and they’re the two that are going to stick out to any first time listener. “Angel of Death” is mostly straight-up aggression but with a slower break that everyone likes, and “Raining Blood” prophesizes the riffing style Slayer would move towards on South of Heaven – but in between them there are eight other, much shorter tracks, which might be the most important ones.
During that bulky mass in the middle the riffing and transitions are too frantic for the songs to have an immediately apprehensible flow. The slower midsection of “Angel of Death” is sort of unveiled, but the slow parts of “Necrophobic” hit like airbags in car accidents. Araya’s delivery is too breathless to be sung along to and the riffs pile up as fast as the listener can process them. Catchiness is neglected, but structure isn’t; even after countless listens I find myself consistently impressed by the way the riffs play off of each other.
This is a better death metal album than a heavy metal album; typically we split the difference and call it thrash, though it’s still a fair distance from the kind of metal Metallica or Exodus were playing. How much you enjoy it will depend on the standards you judge it by. In my case (which is typical), it took me a long time to fully get into this album, but nowadays it’s one of the very few I can listen to non-stop without ever getting bored. If not perfect, at least as close to perfect as we’re ever likely to get.