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When someone puts a thrash album on the player, there isn’t really any question about what kind of metal you are listening to, it’s pretty much as obvious as the night being dark. Differentiating between bands is mostly accomplished through the ratio of punk to NWOBHM influences, the quality of the singer’s voice, and the ambitiousness of the songwriting. But as far as I am concerned, what makes a thrash album truly great is how memorable it is, from start to finish. Can a band actually walk a line between the hyper speed shredding and riffing, the rapid paced change-ups and shouted syllables, and still present something that can be recalled after the last track gives way to silence?
In the case of Slayer, memorable songwriting hasn’t been much of a problem, with the notable exception of this particular album. The hype around “Reign in Blood” is for obvious reasons, since for 1986 this was the most brutally fast, lyrically profane, yet musically ambitious releases to ever crack the Billboard top 200. The band successfully crams about 100 riffs into just under 30 minutes of pure evil, often in small doses that would seem more fitting to the likes of S.O.D. and Suicidal Tendencies. However, in this respect this album’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Although heavily influential in the death metal genre and widely heralded as a pinnacle of the thrash genre, as an album it doesn’t have the staying power to earn the lavish praise that most still attribute to it.
With four notable exceptions, I can not recall any of the songs on here unless I’ve heard it within 10 minutes before hand, and only if I just listened to that one song. Everything between the opening track and the closing track tends to run together because of a uniform approach to songwriting, an evil yet unvaried vocal delivery, and riffs and solos that do more to leave murky impressions rather than brand themselves in the memory. When I play this album from start to finish, I’m into it the whole time with the horns in the air, but the minute it’s over I immediately begin to forget most of what I’ve heard, particularly the middle part of the album.
The opening track “Angel of Death” is the obvious winner in just about every department. As a thrash song it balances mid-tempo grooves and high speed thrills the most even-handedly, features some ugly yet perfectly executed vocals, and plenty of riffs for the ear drums to absorb. The lyrics got the band into some trouble with the suits due to their extremely graphic depiction of the works of Josef Mengele in the Auschwitz death camp, although in rekindling those horrors so well I’d argue that the band did a favor to everyone who would be a future target of such evil by getting people to talk about it and condemn it. The title track and album closer “Raining Blood” rides a very close second, featuring one of the most ridiculously fast riffs I’ve ever heard, one that is still difficult to play in time after more than 6 years of being able to do so.
Unfortunately in between these two monumental songs is a good deal of 1 dimensional punk leaning speed/thrash that individually clock in quite short, yet might as well be one massive 20 minute song. The two standouts are “Piece by Piece” and “Criminally Insane” because they have relatively clear-cut structures and don’t try to cram 20 different riffs and 10 verses into 2 minutes. They’re quite compact; they do change up quite a lot in spite of being short in length, but they do stand out from the rest. The other songs are not very memorable, but definitely fun while being listened to. “Jesus Saves” suffers from trying to cram too many words into a verse and succeeds in making one appreciate the value of a lyric sheet. Tom Araya does his best to clearly sound out each word, but it goes so fast that all you get is “blah, blah, blah, blah” which resolves to a resounding “JESUS SAVES!!!”, definitely not my first pick for sing along material.
Basically after 6 years of owning this album I can say that it is a good album, above average by both metal and thrash standards, but it’s not something that I’d call amazing or genre defining. “Hell Awaits” and “South of Heaven” both bring a lot more to the table than this musically and deserve at least as much attention as this. If by some strange set of circumstances you own either or both of those albums and not this one, it is worth getting, although I’d recommend getting the re-issue so you can at least get more than 30 minutes of material for your hard earned money.