The album to start with
Reign in Blood (1986)
In 1986, thrash truly emerged from its classic, generally British, heavy metal influences, with the “big four” – LA’s Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and NYC’s Anthrax – all finding their sound. Metallica emphasised a paranoid grind, Anthrax a tongue-in-cheek, streetwise hardcore bounciness, and Megadeth a remnant of old-school, hard-rock boogie; Slayer, however, distilled and concentrated the essence of pure metal: the crystal meth to Iron Maiden and Judas Priest’s medical Dexedrine. Every blastbeat and guitar widdle is faster, every scream higher, every grunt lower, every mood either assault or preparation for assault, and the subject matter is boiled down to Satan, slaughter and pain. All of metal’s preposterous theatre and grandiosity is here, but at only 28 minutes from the first everyone-hitting-everything stab of Angel of Death to the final trickle of Raining Blood, it’s perfectly nasty, brutish and short.
Those two tracks are the classics that never left Slayer sets. Yes, Angel of Death is about Nazi surgeon Josef Mengele; no, Slayer are not Nazis, any more than they are Wahabbists for writing Jihad from the point of view of a 9/11 hijacker in 2006. In fact, their politics seem to lean to the oafish side of libertarianism. Like the rest of the album, Angel of Death is a schlock slasher movie, to the bone. Raining Blood, meanwhile, is utterly thrilling: even the squeamish or metal-averse can get caught up by the sharp-toothed earworm riffs. The twin-lead intro emerging from thunder and rain is probably the ultimate metal moment for main songwriters and guitarists, Kerry King and the late Jeff Hanemann.
But there’s not a weak link on the album. Necrophobic is under two minutes and rivals the UK grindcore acts emerging at the time for speed. Altar of Sacrifice is three minutes of perfect momentum, not a second to take a breath, just a constant rockfall of noise, perfectly controlled then grinding to a halt in the final seconds. It also features singer Tom Araya at his shoutiest, part of an undercurrent of hardcore and anarcho-crust-punk rage that always simmers beneath the metallic surfaces in Slayer. Epidemic is the closest to classic Brit metal, but it’s done with such confidence that they’re owning the sound rather than paying homage to Maiden. And on it goes. Rick Rubin’s production and the band’s incredible ear for structure means that, aside from all the theatre, lyrical dumb-assery and athletic virtuosity, it can – even now – be appreciated on an immediate, unconscious level as a pure sonic rush.
The three to check out next
Seasons in the Abyss (1990)
Slayer were not the heaviest, the fastest nor the most revolting extreme metal band. They were quickly outflanked in the gruesomeness race by Death, Carcass and Cannibal Corpse, and in speed terms by Napalm Death, Electro Hippies and Extreme Noise Terror. But nobody else hit that sweet spot between metal histrionics and pure grunting bestial racket as precisely as Slayer. While they tried to diversify and even mellow on South of Heaven, Seasons in the Abyss is the sound of them realising that they’re at their swaggering best going all-out. There is still some subdued grind here, but it’s the proper rippers, such as War Ensemble and Hollowed Point, that make it. It’s also got some of Slayer’s most fun sonics: the way lead guitar notes leap out of the surge of churning riff like spurts of lava from a boiling hellscape demonstrates their key skill of making extreme musicianship come off as audacity rather than onanism.
God Hates Us All (2001)
Appropriately for a band who take metal to the nth degree, Slayer’s career has been turbulent – from Lombardo’s multiple splits from the band to Hanneman’s troubles with arthritis, necrotising fasciitis, and the alcoholism that eventually killed him. But, despite all this, their output has been remarkably consistent. Their only real fallow patch was the second half of the 90s, when they released only the decent enough punk covers album, Undisputed Attitude, and the sadly nu-metal-influenced Diabolus in Musica. But with God Hates Us All they returned to form spectacularly. Apart from religious psychosis replacing the slasher imagery, it’s vintage Slayer. Lombardo’s stand-in, Paul Bostaph, is especially keen to prove his worth. The sheer inhuman barrage of blastbeats on Disciple is one of the most adrenalising sounds in their catalogue, and even a slow track such as Seven Faces takes a terrifying pummelling. From here on, they kept delivering, with 2009’s World Painted Blood – reconstituting the original lineup – an especially tight collection. Even their 2015 swansong, Repentless, though derided by metal critics as unadventurous at the time, still stands up as a top-drawer thrash record.
Live Undead (1984)
If ever there was a record that delivered the stink and bruises of the moshpit, this is it. Though the debut album Show No Mercy, and Hell Awaits which followed in 1985 both show Slayer pushing at the boundaries of what metal could achieve, it’s clear that their live shows was where they truly cut loose: this is the lightning that they would finally successfully bottle on Reign in Blood. The total meshing of guitar maelstrom, Lombardo’s machine-like kickdrum rolls, and Araya’s Rob Halford scream at the climax of Antichrist must have been staggering to experience in the flesh, and it’s no wonder the roar of the crowd, audible throughout, is so deranged.
One for the heads
South of Heaven (1988)
While many bands insist that their latest album is their best, King has admitted, with an impressive lack of ego, that he was fine with the idea they might never top Reign in Blood. Nonetheless, it took them a while to get past its brilliance. With all eyes on them – thanks not only to Reign’s success but to the meteoric rise of Rick Rubin and Def Jam – they chose not to replicate the previous glory but to slow things down. Oddly, it kind of sounds like Slayer making a Metallica album. It rarely takes flight like their best, but it is a fantastic record. It is more trad metal than Reign, but it still has the swaggering confidence to the playing – and it might even be a good point of introduction for the timid.
The primer playlist
For Spotify users, listen below or click on the Spotify icon in the top right of the playlist; for Apple Music users, click here.
In Tribute: The Complete, Untold Story of Slayer’s Jeff Hanneman, by Jeff Kitts (2015)
This memorial piece, published in Guitar World a year after Hanneman’s death, is a perfect intro to Slayer’s dysfunctional world, and to Hanneman’s sweetly domesticated off stage life as well as his tragic decline. Contains the perfectly metal phrase: “Jeff pretty much only went to war museums, as you can imagine.”
Slayer 66 2/3: The Jeff & Dave Years. A Metal Band Biography: Post-Repentless Remastered Edition, by DX Ferris (2018)
Three hundred and fifty pages of precisely the sort of exhaustive detail that metal fans demand about “37 years in the Abyss”, this is the most complete and up to date Slayer text. Even includes Hanneman’s stick-figure concept drawings for the Live Undead picture disc.
The Bloody Reign of Slayer, by Joel McIver (2010)
Joel McIver is the rock biographer of our times, with books on Black Sabbath, Metallica and Queens of the Stone Age (and Ice Cube!) under his belt, all beloved because he writes for fans as an unabashed fan. His Slayer history is very much in this vein, and is so treasured you’ll be lucky to pick a copy up for less than £60. (It’s on Kindle, though).