30 Years and Still Reigning: a Tribute to Slayer's Enduring Masterpiece, 'Reign in Blood'


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30 Years and Still Reigning: a Tribute to Slayer's Enduring Masterpiece, 'Reign in Blood'

The iconic 1986 album is all killer, no filler, and unquestionably remains one of heavy metal's greatest triumphs.

Slayer is the best metal band of all time. Reign in Blood is their best album. It turns 30 this Friday, October 7. Bow down. Recognize. Worship it. Slaughter a fatted calf or eat a big Kuma's burger. Blare it. Rock it. Tell your friends. Reign totally kills. Still. Metalheads shout it out like older longhairs yell "Freebird!": "FUCKIN' SLAYER." They're the best thrash metal band ever. Metallica was once a great metal band. They were Slayer's peers, back in early-1980s Los Angeles. The groups were neck-and-neck for awhile, along with Megadeth and Anthrax. (Collectively the groups were known as The Big Four.) But Metallica slowed down, chilled out, and became history's biggest rock band, period. It's good work if you can get it. But Slayer? They're as brutal and nasty as ever.


The wonder of Slayer's career is this: The group has remained closer to its peak intent and intensity for an unprecedented time — unlike, say, Metallica, the Rolling Stones, U2… the whole damned field. AC/DC, Motörhead, Iron Maiden, the Ramones… they all do (or did) their thing, very well, for a long, respectable, remarkable time. But Slayer? Live shows are still a full-contact experience. After 35 years, they're released 11 original studio albums — their worst not too far from their best.

And Reign is their best. How? It doesn't take a sweaty hesher to appreciate the unlikely team that helped spit-shine the record and fling it out into the world.

The album was produced by Rick Rubin. At the time, he was strictly known as a rising rap producer. It was his first rock record in a career that would eventually include the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash, the Dixie Chicks, Metallica, and — so far — around 10 percent of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's inductee groups. Reign was engineered by Andy Wallace, who mixed Nirvana's Nevermind and Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy, in addition to producing Jeff Buckley's ethereal marvel Grace. It was also released on the greatest rap label in history, Def Jam (Rubin's former home base), at the height of its first golden phase.

That's the amazingly diverse, classically American team who pulled together to make the best thrash album. Reign is, as us rock writers love to say, all killer, no filler.


Compared to the rest of seminal thrash and — and, hell, all of metal — Slayer's Reign in Blood has the best…


Reign in Blood's cover is a mixed-media painting/illustration by Larry Carroll, an artist who worked primarily in the political  arena. Blending styles, he creates a visceral, horrific effect. It's one of the few metal album covers that wouldn't look ridiculous in a museum next to a Blake watercolor, a Stefan Lochner devotional polyptych, Giovanni Di Paolo's John the Baptist series, or a Dürer woodwork.

Run Time:

The Big Four all released classic albums in 1986-87, and Reign is the shortest of the vintage. With ten full songs, it barely runs 29 minutes — in contrast to Master of Puppets' more epic, sonically diverse 8 songs in 54 minutes. Slayer are always better when they're faster, and their last decade — which they've spent in mid-tempo Judas Priest mode — while respectable, has not been influential or acclaimed, despite their recent career-high chart successes.


The album's best songs were written by Jeff Hanneman, the late co-lead guitarist, who had the band's most writing credits through most of its career. Hanneman detested clichéd metal lyrics, and took pride in tapping the thesaurus — which he sometimes used well, and sometimes awkwardly. But it helped him pepper the poetic lyric sheet with SAT-prep words like "disapprobation," "modulistic," and "amnesty."



The drummer from Slayer's classic-lineup drummer is Dave Lombardo, the best percussionist in the history of metal. Often bone-simple, frequently complex, and always speedy, Lombardo crushes, kills, and destroys through the entire album, with barely a moment of respite. His most famous break isn't even a break. At the climax of "Angel of Death," Lombardo double-footedly changes the future of metal drumming with a double-bass solo. The outburst lasts a mere two seconds, but Lombardo connects 28 times in 2 seconds, which is literally faster than an uzi. (That's a theoretical 840 beats a minute for a brutal moment.) Lombardo was thereafter recognized as the best musician in the group, which likely contributed to the bad vibes that suddenly manifested on the tour and forever shattered the classic lineup.


Hanneman was a military-history buff and enthusiastic reader. The other classic Big Four albums had vague sociological, military, and mystical narratives. But "Angel of Death," one of the record's two signature tracks, was a tale of true-life horror about Nazi surgeon Josef Mengele and his atrocities at the World War II death camp Auschwitz.

Lyrics by Guitarists:

Two decades later, singer Tom Araya would write lyrics for the band's two Grammy-winning songs. But Reign in Blood's music and lyrics were written entirely by Hanneman and Kerry King, who was the band's co-lead guitarist, quality-control executive, and overall team captain. Working together, the axemen spun cinematic narratives about war, witchcraft, vivisection, violence, serial killers, and supernatural warfare.



Anthrax's Joey Belladonna is a classic-model frontman. Metallica's James Hetfield and Megadeth's Dave Mustaine are accomplished vocalists, but are seldom accused of singing. Araya, more than his Big Four rivals, fought beyond the restrictions and limitations of traditional vocals. On Reign, he sings faster and higher between steady salvos of barks, grunts, and growls. The album fully announces itself through his all-time-great, eardrum-shattering scream at the beginning of "Angel of Death."


In 2003-4, before playing entire albums was a major subsidiary of the live-concert industry, Slayer played the entire LP live. The group kept a lid on the news with admirable restraint. Their concerts ended, as is their custom, with "Angel of Death," which opens the album. Then the band returned and played the entire album, track by track, piece by piece, as an encore. The unforgettable nights ended with the best…


It topped a Decibel Magazine poll of the Greatest Extreme Metal Riffs of All Time​ and according to Rolling Stone's Kory Grow, "The opening riff… is undeniably the most monumental moment in extreme music's history."​​ Played on a piano or harpsichord, the elementally charged three-note progression wouldn't sound out of place in the middle of a classical composition. Hanneman created, discovered, or willed into existence a tune that encompasses as much of the genre as a single song possibly can. Over 30 years later, it's still a highlight of their shows.

"Whenever 'Raining Blood' comes in the set, it just electrifies the whole crowd," King once told me. "People just shit when you hit the first few notes."

As they should. As they should.

D.X. Ferris is an award-winning journalist who wrote two books about Slayer​ andrants about stuff on Twitter; his book account is more focused on the metal.