Review Summary: An album that should have been classic.
As I sit here typing this review, there lies an eerie breeze and foggy weather outside my window. The storm just passed, and now the skies are gray and darkened above me. Everything looks miserable and gloomy, and the clouds are looming over my house as I write. Now, what does this have to do with anything? Well unfortunately, the description is an accurate metaphor for the thrash "classic" Reign in Blood by Slayer.
Back in 1983, thrash metal was growing as a genre. Venom had laid the tracks out for subsequent bands like Metallica, Anthrax, and of course Slayer. At this time, metal bands had more simplistic musical directions and most artists in thrash didn't go for complex styles like they later would. Slayer belonged to this pack, releasing a relatively primitive yet excellently performed thrash release by the name of "Show No Mercy" in 1983. The album laid the groundwork for future albums, as well as taking a cue from some of the NWOBHM bands around at that time. Then came 1985's Hell Awaits; the album was soon praised for its atmosphere and progressive direction, being quite advanced for its time. The production was a tad muddy, but that was actually one of its special assets and it helped enhance that atmosphere.
The description in the first paragraph, again, describes perfectly what would come after this. Essentially, Show No Mercy was the precursor to the immense storm that was gathering. Hell Awaits just happened to be the blizzard of a storm, crushing all that stood before it and blasting all nonbelievers. The whole experience raped everyone's senses and destroyed any negative perceptions people might have had of the band after Show No Mercy. Then Reign in Blood is the next storm to gather... but then it becomes a bevy of false alarms and misfortune.
Let's look back to the time when this was released... thrash was at an all-time highpoint, with legendary releases from big name artists such as Metallica and Megadeth, among others. Expectations were extremely high for any metal band around this year because of those extremely strong releases making their appearance. Reign in Blood happened to be one of those albums in the same crowd, with many holding it as the "Holy Grail" of thrash music. Well, let's just explore further.
The album has 10 songs, most of which are under 3 minutes, so it makes for an extremely quick and short affair. Only two songs make it past the 4-minute mark, and those very songs bookend the album. Between those tracks are 8 lightning-fast pieces of thrash metal mayhem, and BOY are they fast. It's been said that the majority of the songs go over 230 BPM (Beats per minute), only slowing down for a few exceptions. The style of this album can be generally considered a punk-meets-thrash combo, with many nods to crossover acts such as Suicidal Tendencies and Stormtroopers of Death, but way faster and more evil. Adding to this is the production of Slayer-newcomer Rick Rubin, who brings a shiny polish to the gritty production that was used on previous albums.
The album starts out promisingly enough, with the near-5-minute "Angel of Death" leading the pack. This song is filled to the brim with memorable riffs, great lyrics and of course the (in)famous scream from bassist/singer Tom Araya. Dave Lombardo is blasting away at his drumset, quickly but tastefully. Meanwhile, Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King are firing away at their frets with frightening precision and power. The lyrics of the song talk of Joseph Mengele (Nazi physician) and describes, in pretty shocking detail, the experiments and horrors of the concentration camps in WWII. After a particularly memorable slow groove in the middle, the band speed up for the insane solo at the end. The drums are banging faster than before, and the fretboards are SCORCHING. Overall, this is a great song, and one that could've fit into previous albums.
Unfortunately, the album pretty much falls apart from there. The next 8 songs are those short lightning-fast thrash-fests I mentioned. While at first glance they seem really cool, they don't have any real coherency or flow to them. Take "Necrophobic" for example. The whole song sounds more like a sort of "I can play faster than you!" speed contest than a real fully-developed song. In fact, that very song is short enough to be an interlude for many bands (it only clocks in at a whooping 1:40). The other songs follow suit, unfortunately; "Alter of Sacrifice" being loaded with too many unnecessary solos for its own good, "Piece by Piece" never taking time to really take hold of the listener before it ends, and so on. While many say that the running time and odd flow of the songs is supposed to be the point, it just sounds awkward and half-baked in the long run.
The solos don't help matters either. To say that the guitarists are "wanking" would be a massive understatement. It's not so much wanking as it is pure laziness on their part, with fingers running up and down the frets without any rhyme or reason. It doesn't help either that the solos are awkwardly placed in many locations. For instance, "Jesus Saves" decides to throw in a random shred-fest in an area where the second chorus should have been. I really brings a damper on the songwriting aspect of the music, and the solos honestly could have been cut WAY down in the album.
Fortunately, there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel, as "Postmortem" and "Raining Blood" pick up the slack at the end. "Postmortem" isn't amazing, but it's certainly a step up from most of the disappointments pervading the album. It begins with a mid-tempo groove (very tasteful, I have to say) and retains this speed until the huge roaring climax at the very end, which segues into "Raining Blood." The lyrics are pretty effective in conveying the atmosphere in this track, opting for a darker, more Hell Awaits-oriented style here. After the speedy riff at the end (which is thankfully devoid of solos), we reach the closer, "Raining Blood." It begins with the sound of rainfall and tribal drums, along with ambient noises in the background to give it a special feel and effectiveness. After the world-famous guitar intro, the song eventually picks up the speed until reaching another huge speed assault. Tom Araya's vocals are especially strong here, this time going for a mix between his angry shouts and a somewhat eerie, almost mocking sort of voice. Eventually, everything leads to the fastest solo on the whole album. Maybe I'm missing something here, but is there a point to this solo at all? Yes, it leads to the rainfall at the end, but it's a weak cop-out for what could be a fantastic climax. Overall, the ending of the song was really disappointing, as again it didn't really have a rhyme or reason to be there.
Overall, this album was quite a disappointment in the long run. There are some solid moments, but when compared to the ridiculous placement/wankery of the grating solos and the inconsistent and downright weak songwriting, there's little to offer. Needless to say, the songs that bookend the album bring out the albums strengths, but the rotten middle kills the whole experience.