Mike Shinoda should probably know Slayer’s 1986 thrash masterpiece Reign In Blood by now. For one, the 41-year-old musician shares his Los Angeles hometown with the metal icons and came of age shortly after their third album came out. On top of that, several of his band Linkin Park’s albums, including their Diamond-certified debut Hybrid Theory, were mixed by Reign In Blood engineer Andy Wallace (who also owned the West Hollywood studio Hit City West where Slayer recorded it). Plus, for three studio albums Linkin Park worked with legendary producer Rick Rubin who, you guessed it, also produced Reign In Blood.
It gets even crazier when you consider the hip-hop Shinoda grew up with. There’s Slayer’s Def Jam (yes, they were on Def Jam) labelmates like Public Enemy, who sampled “Angel of Death” on their It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back standout “She Watch Channel Zero,” and Beastie Boys, who recruited Slayer guitarist Kerry King to solo on “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.” Hell, he might be the one of only artists to play Ozzfest who wasn’t somewhat influenced by the four-piece’s brutal and blistering energy. The chances for Shinoda to dive into Slayer have stacked up for much of his entire life, let alone his career.
Despite all the opportunities, Shinoda told Noisey that he’d never listened to Reign In Blood all the way through. “I've played on festivals with Slayer,” he said. “That's one thing that's really weird is that I'm loosely familiar with their stuff, but I don't know it very well. I remember watching them and thinking that's the reason they're so respected. Like look at that fucking band! They just kill it onstage. They're so tight and so aggressive. I remember being super impressed.”
Shinoda recently stopped by Chicago’s House of Blues in support of his heart wrenching 2018 solo debut Post Traumatic. We caught up with him before the gig, and played him Reign In Blood for the first time.
He was nervous about his pick: “My reservation about listening to this album was that there will be things about it that I really like and there will inevitably be things about it that I think are ridiculous, like the name of the record.” He said, “I thought, ‘if I choose Reign In Blood, I'm going to piss off lots and lots of Slayer fans.’”
1. "Angel of Death”
Mike Shinoda: Have you ever seen an angry Slayer fan? They’re crazy.
Noisey: Yeah, you’re very brave for putting yourself out there like this.
So this is a short record. Are we going to gain some momentum and then lose that momentum?
Not at all. This is a thrash record so it's going to keep it going for the entire runtime.
I will admit that I've probably heard most of the record at some point in my life, but it's been so long. I don't even remember and I don't know anything about it except for the stuff I looked up before this interview.
I brought the vinyl in case you like it.
Oh wow, the lyrics are in here too. Reading this first one, man, what a way to start an album.
The lyrics are bonkers. I have a feeling we’ll definitely be talking about them as this goes on.
I like that I thought that opening scream was a guitar.
The first time I heard it I thought it was a trumpet. It’s such a bonkers way to kick things off.
Reading the lyrics here I got to bring something up. I read a couple things coming into this. I didn't research it or whatever but I did peek at a couple of things just to know what we're dealing with. And the thing that I read, which may or may not be true overall, but I saw a piece where they were talking about the Nazi content in the first song and it felt like they were really backing off from saying it’s about Nazism.
I didn’t read that one but it’s 100 percent about Josef Mengele and the Holocaust.
It was almost like a cop out. They were like, “well it's not glorifying Nazism.” But I'm reading the lyrics and my first impression is like, yes it 100 percent is. I’m not a fan of that at all.
Those accusations of followed them throughout their whole career. They’ve consistently denied that they glorified neo-Nazis but in my opinion the fascist imagery definitely sucks. It shocked their then-distributor Columbia who refused to put out the record until Geffen stepped in to release. Even some of my favorite artists like David Bowie flirted with Nazi imagery and it doesn’t excuse it.
Here’s the thing though. I love how the music came in and I love the way the record starts.
I know you recognize this part right here.
Public Enemy! Right away when you said that my mind was already there. Is that “She Watch Channel Zero?”
I knew it was something off It Takes A Nation… This solo is gnarly.
2. "Piece by Piece”
So was this record the first to sound like this?
Compared to some of the other “Big Four” bands Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax, who all released albums that year (Metallica’s Master Of Puppets and Megadeth’s Peace Sells), Reign In Blood was the heaviest and hardest hitting. It pretty much served as the blueprint for death metal and, in my opinion, it’s the defining thrash LP.
Master of Puppets might be my favorite Metallica record and I think the sound of this, even though we're listening to it on a portable speaker, might be on par with it. It may be even better. The recording of this is really good and because I cheated I know that it’s Rick Rubin, right?
Yeah, everything on the record sounds dry and in-your-face. It rules.
It's so fucking weird that this came out on Def Jam. That's the weirdest thing. Give me some more facts about the record.
It came out in 1986. It was their third record and they recorded it at Hit City West, a studio in Los Angeles.
Was this a big jump for them? Because this sounds incredible. Did the previous records sound like this?
The older records had more reverb. They weren't as direct and unvarnished as Reign In Blood. It sounded more like Mercyful Fate or Venom. Rick Rubin strips everything back here. In terms of success, it wasn't the biggest jump. It only hit 94 on the Billboard albums chart and didn't go Gold until 1992. The other Big Four bands sold more records and achieved Gold status faster for their albums around that time than Reign In Blood did.
There's also these weird little decisions that they, and also Metallica and all those bands, started making was to take off all the reverb and really punch up the clickiness of the kick drum. I feel like there's not of bass in the mix. It might just be the speaker. OK, what else?
The two lead guitars are definitely the most immediate thing. The guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman traded songwriting and lyric duties throughout. Lead singer and bassist Tom Araya didn’t write any lyrics.
On all the songs? Dude, that part just now was great. I love the music a lot.
What do you think of his voice?
If we’re just talking about this era and this scene, I’d say I like it just as much as James Hetfield’s at the time. Hetfield to me is the voice of that style and to me, this is equally as good. It’s nice that I’m hearing this now because I wouldn’t have expected Tom Araya to sound like this. I expected him to have more of that high-pitched scream that was popular. What was happening in metal at the time?
In the early 80s thrash started as a reaction to glam. It incorporated elements punk and hardcore into metal, adding speed and a ferocious energy without the goofy outfits and artifice of those glam bands.
I remember a lot of bands from before that thrash-era having screamy, high-pitched voices.
It's really hard when you're immersed in a movement of music in certain time where you can step away from it enough to notice that these little subtle elements of it, the performance or the recording, will be embarrassing later. It's hard to notice those things in the moment and remove them to make your art more timeless. But Slayer do here and they do it really consistently on this record. And that's crazy! I'm pretty sure most of those bands were doing stuff that we'd view as goofy.
Looking at Slayer's entire catalog, they've been extremely consistent in so many ways.
I remember when like Alice In Chains put out their second record and they dried up the mix, they tightened up the drums, and it sounded like a band in a room. Also lyrically it just got so fucking dark. I think that move is such a bold move when bands do that and there's an element of that going on in this record.
It’s funny. We’re on a song called “Necrophobic” now and on their last album Slayer had a song called “Necrophiliac.” They have something for everyone.
Is it weird that they wrote a song called “Necrophobic” but they are so obviously obsessed with death? This whole record is about death. This whole band is about death!
You’re right. I can think of more Slayer songs about fucking corpses than I can Slayer songs about love, if there are any.
4. "Altar of Sacrifice”
Oh my God, these lyrics! Can you imagine walking into the studio with your bandmates and being like, “Guys! I got it! Here are the lyrics: “Waiting the hour destined to die/Here on the table of hell”?
Not personally but I can see why people gravitate towards stuff like this. It’s dangerous and a lot of fun.
But there’s no wink! There’s nothing to let me know that they’re having fun with these lyrics. I know there’s a humor or lightness or satire to the genre. I came into this feeling like there should be a little bit of a wink like Gwar or something. When I listen to this or music like this, I listen to it through this lens of like, “Oh, this is kind of funny.” But then I remember that there are actual horrible people who listen to this and yelling “Fuck yeah, dude. Murder!” Like, what the fuck?
Every genre has messed up fans who take the wrong things away from the music.
But it doesn’t take a lot of effort to get there from these lyrics. Show these to anyone from any other walk of life and they’d be like, “Check please!”
I’m sure a lot of kids who bought this album had some awkward chats with their parents about it but I’m not sure I agree.
It’s also really hard to have a conversation on top of this music. It’s super hard to concentrate.
5. "Jesus Saves”
Is this already a new song?
Yeah, we’re on “Jesus Saves” now.
A transition from “Altar of Death” to “Jesus Saves.” I like the really short songs.
Slayer were based in L.A. and you grew up there too. What were you earliest impressions of the band when this album came out?
I just remember people playing them at skate parks. I listened to hip-hop, primarily. I think it was probably the pentagrams and shit that turned me off from Slayer. I listened to a little bit of Metallica and even Anthrax who went on tour with Public Enemy. I didn’t even like Anthrax too much. It might have been his voice. I just didn’t listen to a lot of rock music back then.
That’s really interesting considering you’re in one of the most popular rock bands of all time.
I just thought of something. So Cypress Hill’s first album had some ridiculous shit in the lyrics. Same with N.W.A. And both of those acts are clearly not running around with sawed-off shotguns, killing police officers, crashing cars, and raping women. Like, I’m sure Eazy-E didn’t actually “throw it in the gutter and go buy another.” When I listened to it, it was always obvious not. It was funny and fun to listen to. I don’t why it is my brain doesn’t do the same thing with this.
6. "Criminally Insane”
I’m actually really surprised the lyrics are taking you out of it like this.
Alright, here’s what it is. I figured it out. When I went to art school, there were kids in the illustration department who were just shock artists and they were super immature. There was a student who literally found a dead cat on the train tracks in Glendale and nailed it to a crucifix on the wall across from the school’s cafeteria. I remember my friend was like, “Dude! Homeboy did it again. You have to see this!” We looked at it and there were flies on it already and it was just disgusting. I don’t think anyone was like, “Cool bro. Rad piece!”
Are you saying that kid was a Slayer fan?
Maybe, but I'm saying shock art does that to me a lot of times. I feel like this has got a lot of shock art to it. It's funny because like the delivery of the lyrics and I like the sound of the music 100 percent.
I wonder how you would’ve reacted had we not given you the lyrics sleeve from the vinyl. But obviously with any song the lyrics are an important part. But I don’t know, in their defense, seeing interviews with them they seem like pretty normal metalhead dudes.
So how do they explain their own lyrics? What would they tell me as someone who’s never listened to this classic album?
I can’t speak for them but I don’t know, man. It’s escapism. It’s extreme. Why do people like watching horror movies? True crime podcasts even? There’s something inviting about taboo and darkness.
So they’re not committed to this?
They’re obviously fascinated by this stuff but that’s really about it.
I’m sure they’ve done a bajillion interviews about it. Anyway, what song are we on?
Wait, he’s singing as a witch here?
It appears so.
Oh my God. What I like about the placement of this song is that you really have to set a tone and you have to build a lot of rapport with the listener before you can reveal a song where you’re singing as a witch. I mean, assuming he’s singing the song as a female witch which might be wrong. Wait, wouldn’t he be a warlock then? Would it be more ridiculous for him to sing a song from the perspective of a warlock?
I don’t know. I have nothing to base this off of but I feel like metal bands are for witches and prog bands are for warlocks.
I feel like all these bands were drinking beer and partying all the time.
Alcohol has definitely been a factor in Slayer's story for a long time but surprisingly Reign In Blood was a sober studio environment.
So the back cover is more indicative of the lifestyle, not the actual recording? That makes sense actually because it sounds like a super focused record. There's nothing drunk and sloppy about it. So where was this recorded again?
At a studio called Hit City West, it was on the corner of Pico and La Cienega in West Hollywood. Motley Crüe, Sonic Youth, and Black Flag all recorded there.
Wait, really? It was like a storefront? I know that intersection. My God, this record just sounds amazing.
It doesn’t let up either.
Are you telling me there’s not going to be a ballad? Awesome. I love it. I like how Metallica could get away with ballads but I can’t imagine what that it sound like if Slayer did one. Metallica’s ballads weren’t really ballads just slow songs. I credit Kirk Hammett. I love that there’s none here on this album though. Even so, there’s so much variety in this many songs at this tempo even. All the songs have their own identity. When I’ve worked with Rick Rubin, we’ve talked about to need to have variety on an album like Chuck D and Flava Flav. If it was an album of Chuck D the entire time, it wouldn’t be as interesting without the court jester there to balance it out.
It combines a lot of heavier music. Growing up in Southern California, do you see how hardcore and punk seeped in?
Oh yeah. Especially here. This is like a real hardcore part. I feel like I’ve heard hundreds of bands copy this. That’s something I haven’t thought of until you brought that up. Having so much context after the fact makes it harder to imagine all the new ground this album broke. There’s decades of music that’s been influenced by this album. Oh, just heard that witchery is back.
Like I said, Slayer are a very consistent band. Everything is in a similar atmosphere.
On my list of favorite films of all time, I’d put The Shining up there with The Godfather and 2001: A Space Odyssey. There’s something about how Kubrick does horror that I really respond to. And now that I’m listening to it more, I feel like there’s moments of that in here too. I’m coming around on the lyrics here too.
Good to hear. This album might be like getting over jump-scares as a horror fan.
So what I like about a movie like Se7en, which is also on my top ten, is it’s horrible ideas in the hands of a person, David Fincher, who doesn’t do them but makes a movie about them. You can see the craftsmanship of the execution. In Se7en, as the movie goes along, it starts with gory details but then he starts showing you less because your imagination starts filling everything in. That’s so effective. There’s something about enjoying the execution of how they present this stuff that I can respect.
10. "Raining Blood”
Last song on the album.
For instance, it took these guys until “Raining Blood,” which is the last song, to use sound effects. Most bands would’ve started their album with an intro like this. I think that would’ve obviously been the wrong move. It would've set the bar too high and it wouldn’t have prepared the listener for this level of badass-ness. Listen to this! It’s incredible. It’s fucking awesome.
Do you remember the first time you heard this one?
I definitely heard it when I was in high school. Funny story about this song though. When Linkin Park were playing Ozzfest, we were mid-to-early main stage. At the time, we had just put out our first album and we hadn’t played in front of many metal fans yet. We were on the bill with Crazy Town and Papa Roach who, Sharon Osbourne admitted in an interview before the tour even started that she put all those bands on the bill, including us, for girls. That was her statement, not mine. And we were like, "what the fuck Sharon? You screwed us!" We started the tour the first week and we played immediately after Crazy Town.
So the fans were booing unforgivably before we even got to the stage. So the beginning of our set was a like an understated electronic intro with Massive Attack. We thought that this would let the Ozzfest fans know that we weren't Crazy Town. But the metal fans didn't know the difference between Massive Attack and Crazy Town so they were booing from the start. We had a 40 minute set and it took most of it to win the fans back.
The next week, we were in Philly and our DJ Joe Hahn found this album in a record store and said, "Instead of our intro, I'm going to play "Raining Blood" at the beginning of our set." We thought that it couldn’t be any worse than what we’ve been dealing with. Why the fuck not? He played the first 60 seconds of that song and the crowd was booing before but when it started happening they went apeshit and cheered the whole set. It changed the whole tour. All we needed to do was extend an olive branch and say, “We get you.”
"I'm convinced. I think I came around. In the beginning, I liked it, but I think the starting the record with Auschwitz really sent me on the wrong path. Look at all the absurd shit that artists are doing to like get people's attention. Now it'd be too obvious. At the time, that was scary. People must’ve thought they were fucking nuts. What strikes me most about this is the consistency of the entire album. It’s ballsy to make a record this short. It’s ballsy to make a record that starts at an 11 and never lets up. From a production standpoint, in my head, you have to have a break from the speed and ferocity but they didn’t. They kept it insane the entire way."
Josh Terry is a writer based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.
Brittany Sowacke is a photographer based in Chicago. Follow her on Instagram.