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If there is one position that a thrash fan would never like to be put in, it is a state of cognitive dissonance between what he personally enjoys and what the scene may see as inferior material. Although not quite as strict in its limited stylistic evolution as black metal, there are certain avenues that tend to be unacceptable in thrash metal quarters, and slowing down and utilizing groove more often than in a few sporadic changeup sections tends to fall into that. But there is a fine line between what constitutes all out groove metal in all of its dim witted majesty, it’s mostly poor panhandling half-thrash predecessor, and what is instead a better fit of catchiness and aggression than what is normally accepted as standard.
There’s this bandwagon mentality that tends to accompany either absolutely loving or loathing this release, because there isn’t really anything on here that is offensive or boring, nor is there any fits of unfettered speed and rage. The production, the riff collection, the vocal delivery, and every thing else is an even match of the fast paced Slayer that pushed the boundaries in the mid-80s and the seasoned discipline of a soldier. The mixing quality is just a tiny bit short of the extremely polished sound of Metallica’s self-titled, while the lead guitar tracking is as crystal clear as the glass door of an unused shower, and the bass being about an inaudible as was the case on Metallica’s “And Justice For All”.
The solos themselves are the overall highlight if you’re looking for something that breaks out of the solid arrangement category and represents the more out-of-control side that Slayer was better known from earlier in their career. Hanneman and King dish out the usual neo-tonal smatterings of rapid scale ascensions and 3 and 4 note clusters and sequenced patterns, which negotiate this cleaner cut version of the band well when considering how their style was originally crafted for a much more extreme sound. Even when things slow down the leads somehow manage to maintain their extreme edge, serving up a better version of the half-thrash atmosphere than what was encountered a couple years later.
When the songs are faster and closer to the Reign in Blood/Hell Awaits sound, everything manages to maintain a solidly good to exciting ratio. If there is a best of the fast paced thrashers it’s “War Ensemble”, which is almost a more compact and controlled version of “Hell Awaits” meets a more discernable version of “Angel of Death”. The structure is a little more of a methodical fast to slow and back to fast thrasher than the epic riff machines it sounds similar to, but it gets the job done nicely. “Hollowed Point” and “Born of Fire” reach the closest to the bash your best friend’s head in with a shovel, vomit on the masses brand of speedy thrash that most in the scene eat up, but are constructed much more symmetrical riff and lead break wise than the pre-South of Heaven material. Everything else in the fast category tends to fall into a middle ground between these two extremes, and consequently don’t stick out quite as much.
The slower material gets a little bit mixed, but nothing really crosses over into being the brain killing, chug-a-chug tribal groove that dominated the mid to late 90s. “Dead Skin Mask” and “Expendable Youth” are a little too slow and not quite as interesting as the bulk of South of Heaven’s parallel material. The vocal delivery on the former is a little bit awkward, and the spoken section is more silly than scary, but the music itself stays interesting. “Skeletons of Society” is probably the simplest and most groove-like of all the individual songs on here, but it also proves to be the most fun and head nod worthy. If you don’t like simplistic riff work and a catchy chorus, it will obviously not appeal to you, but if we have nothing but thrashers from start to finish the intended effect tends to diminish quickly.
As is usually the case on a good Slayer album, most of the greatest ideas are reserved for the title track. Instead of a fairly repetitive doom riff that sounds like a slow version of “Reign in Blood” (South of Heaven), the intro has this dark atmospheric quality that sounds middle-eastern, but with this almost Southern sounding slow riff superimposed upon it. When it kicks into the main riff it takes on a heavier mid-tempo character but with an underlying epic feel. The chorus is extremely memorable and occurs with the same regularity as your typically structured song. What it may lack in total numbers of riffs it makes up for with a perfect execution, as Tom Araya gets about as close to melodic singing as he has ever gotten. The lyrics are also extremely progressive and intellectual in comparison to past work, taking a sort of philosophical approach that matches up with similar progressive death/thrash albums of the time such as Death’s “Human” and Darkthrone’s “Soulside Journey”.
As far as the reputation that this album has gotten over the past 18 years or so, everyone opining on it tends to sound like a seasoned critic yet misses the mark entirely on this album. It isn’t the poison groove pill that many think it is, nor is it quite a classic in the same vein as “South of Heaven” or “Hell Awaits”. It’s sort of a compromise between those two contrasting eras of Slayer with some very limited modern elements. There comes a time where you either let a collective misconception of this album’s nature based on the time of it’s release and what was going on around it prevent you from enjoying it, or you simply tune out all the chatter and let your own ears be the judge of things. If you choose the latter, you will likely find yourself enjoying this as much as most other top tier thrash metal releases.