Review Summary: A deceptively deep game-changer
Obligatory Slayer story: when I was a kid we found a local record store, and my aunt told me "you can get anything except Slayer[sic]. I heard they're a satanic nazi band." A few minutes later I came out with Reign in Blood. Thanks aunt Barbara.
This is probably the only album I've loved for over a decade that I'm still finding new things to appreciate about just about every time I hear it. Not because it's full of "neat" bells & whistles, not because it's just so meticulously arranged or produced, but because as limited as it seems in technique, there's something deeply lived-in about it. Someone who hears this for the first time and says every riff sounds like the Jaws theme sped up probably has a point, but as with the band's previous LP Hell Awaits, they find ways to let the album's uniform chromaticism & aggression breathe and take on a certain sprawling ambience: the labyrinthine song structures that intend to tell a story rather than "kick your ass," the way Tom tastes every other syllable with a subtly regal delight, the atonal whammy-bar abusing solos which trade virtuosity for naked hellish expressionism, and the generally mechanical (without getting too soulless like modern metal) anti-showmanship of the rhythm parts. It's a fantastic paradox: hardcore punk palm-muting thuggishness as clay to create a scene that looks like a Bosch painting.
Far from the shock-jocks they'd later see themselves as, here Slayer associate theological evil with real life atrocities in a way that always points to something "beyond," just out of sight. Admittedly, the lyrics sometimes seem like a stream of thesaurus-abusing pseudo-literary verbiage; even relatively simple words are put together in ways that just barely make sense ("indirect dependency / eternal attempt at amnesty"?). However, that haughty incompetence serves Slayer's inherent B movie charm, and there's simultaneously sort of a timelessness about it, as if these lyrics could have been written yesterday or a century ago. I appreciate a band like Bathory on a musical level, but when one of their songs jabbers about heaven burning, that's white noise to me. These Slayer lines, on the other hand, still manage to creep me out: "explain to me the feeling after sitting in the chair." "Just close your eyes / dream of the friends you'll see."
Like almost all great metal, there was something accidental about Slayer in their prime: they were all about cocaine and horror movies, not "art," and yet here they produced something that makes the recent crop of cerebral metaphysics-obsessed post-whatever bands seem like laughable pulp in comparison.