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This revision of my old review of Reign in Blood has been a long time coming. I did not and still do not particularly enjoy this album, but considering that I'm pushing an unpopular opinion on a much-beloved thrash metal album, I think it deserves more than the old, naive, frankly somewhat embarrassing review I wrote for it so many years ago, especially considering that I've more recently listened to the three other classic Slayer albums (Hell Awaits, South of Heaven, and Seasons in the Abyss) and the greatness of those three albums (especially Hell Awaits) brings the shortcomings of this one into sharper focus.
Rumor has it that part of the reason this album sounds like it does is because the members of Slayer had been listening to a lot of Metallica and Megadeth and were bored by the repetition of guitar riffs in those bands' work. Indeed, in some ways the songwriting on this album is like a mirror image of Master of Puppets--whereas Master of Puppets endlessly belabored its limited set of riffs, throwing in countless superfluous bridges and transitions that do little besides pad out the running length and test the listener's patience, Reign in Blood feels like musical ADHD, lurching seemingly at random from riff to riff and section to section with little effort made at shaping these collections of violent riffs into actual songs. The riffs are strong on an individual level, but there's no songwriting context to put them in.
Compounding the problem is the relentless uniformity of the songwriting--the tempo seems to be essentially the same ~220 beats per minute through most of the album's running length, and without the variations in tempo you encounter in better thrash albums (including the other '80s Slayer albums), the hyperfast parts lose meaning and impact. Aside from the first and last songs (more on them later), the tracks run together with the transition between (for example) "Altar of Sacrifice" and "Jesus Saves" almost unnoticeable. Nothing stands out of the amorphous pile of riffs, and they just sail through one ear and out the other, even if they might individually be good riffs when pulled apart from their nearly identical kin.
Another issue is the production. The sound on Hell Awaits was just about perfect for the sort of music Slayer play--it was clear and sharp but also raw, with an amazing cavernous reverb to the rhythm section that enhanced the album's malevolent atmosphere. With this album, they enlisted the services of the eminently overrated Rick Rubin, who has brought the best technical recording techniques 1986 money could buy, but in the process stripped away the haunting ambience that made Hell Awaits so compelling. Dave Lombardo sounds like his drums are made of plastic, the bass has been sent to the concentration camp, and the guitars are oversaturated with distortion and almost like a precursor to the hideous "noise blaster" sound that would plague albums from the mid-'90s onwards.
Speaking of Dave Lombardo, he's a truly elite drumming talent but this album does not show it at all. Gone are the rumbling, threatening double bass runs, incredibly forceful snare flams, and tricky drum fills of his earlier performances, and he mostly sticks to a single "polka" beat for the fast sections and generic backbeats for the rare slower section, with fills almost absent. Kerry King likewise seems to be phoning it in with his leads, hitting notes seemingly at random without any regard for coherent phrasing while apparently unable to distinguish between his whammy bar and his penis. He jerks that thing so hard you'd expect it to smack him in the face. Meanwhile, Tom Araya is at the start of his slow slide towards the hilarious Angry Yelling Man persona he now exhibits, his vocal delivery reduced to a monotone caricature and sounding more like an ill-trained dog barking at cars than the demonic snarling of Hell Awaits or even the way he sounded on Seasons, where he at least tried to change things up a little.
However, when this album gets its shit together, it completely destroys. Exhibit A is opener "Angel of Death", which is probably 80% of the reason why most people like this album to begin with. It is by far the longest and most developed song on the album (indeed, the only fully realized song on the album), and it is the riff monster to end all riff monsters, charging out of the gate on the back of Tom Araya's infamous "rape scream" (the only time where he really shines), monstrously heavy yet carefully structured. This song does everything right, from the way riffs are developed instead of played a couple of times and cast aside, Dave Lombardo using his whole kit instead of just the snare and bass, and then...the thrash break to end all thrash breaks. Holy Mosh Jesus. The song lurches into a churning rock-crusher riff that redirects the high-speed fury of the first half of the song into pure sledge, stomping inexorably forward as Tom Araya spits out the lyrics with the most vigor he has anywhere on the album, the tension building and building and building as the riff becomes more elaborate and the beat becomes more insistent before suddenly blasting to warp speed again for the solo section and grand finale. Pacing, development, tension and release--this song has all the elements the rest of the album lacks, and is so good Slayer recycled it wholesale for "War Ensemble" off of Seasons in the Abyss and even the retread was an absolute motherfucker of a song.
The second highlight is "Raining Blood", which is paradoxically even more of a fragment than the songs that came before it but simultaneously more interesting. It sounds like an unfinished start to a 7-8 minute epic, with a moody atmospheric intro gradually building into a pummeling mosh riff, the song thereafter deftly transitioning between fast and slow, ratcheting the excitement higher and higher until...it stops. It doesn't really end, but just abruptly cuts off for no apparent reason, leaving you dazzled by what you just heard but frustrating and wondered what could have been, if they actually bothered to write the whole song. It's almost like a summation of the whole album, really--a lot of good ideas and potential wasted by a lack of focus, furiously raging at nothing in particular, expending its formidable energy in vain before collapsing from exhaustion all too soon.
Fortunately, Slayer seemed to have learned from this album, first creating its antithesis in the slow-burning, brooding South of Heaven, and then a synthesis in Seasons of the Abyss, which, while marred by a slight shift towards commercialism, comes the closest of any of the albums with Rick Rubin to embodying all of Slayer's strengths. But that's another story for another time...
Killer tracks: "Angel of Death", "Raining Blood"