Review Summary: Class of 1986: Valedictorian
1986 was a fantastic year for heavy metal. Thrash metal was at an all time high, with iconic releases coming out left and right. Thrash heroes Slayer were three albums in at this point. Also had one EP and a live album. They were starting to master their songwriting skills, and began to mesh as a cohesive group of musicians. "Hell Awaits" is Slayer's shining moment, but to devalue the monolithic importance of "Reign In Blood" would be asinine. This is their most popular work, and their most respected amongst fans and non fans alike. Is it their best? No. But it's damn good.
Whereas "Hell Awaits" was longer and more developed, "Reign In Blood" is shorter and more chaotic. The hardcore influence is clear here, as the songs are short, to the point, and move along quickly. It has been said numerous times that producer Rick Rubin told them to "cut the fat", and indeed they did that. No song here is over four minutes, and after the opener "Angel of Death", they rarely go past the two minute mark. This is a huge departure from their previous work, and overall leaves a bloody taste of quick paced assault left in the mouth of the listener. It works, but the crafting and cohesiveness seen on "Hell Awaits" is gone, and replaced with ferocity and intensity rather than musicianship.
Lyrically, "Reign In Blood" subdues a bit of the Satanic themes and ideas seen on previous albums, and replaces them with more street level ideas of murder, war, and other assorted topics. "Angel of Death" is infamously written about Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who performed experiments on prisoners in the Auschwitz death camp. "Piece by Piece" is a twisted tale of a murderous deviant, and this theme in particular would be explored in more detail in later releases. There are still obvious odes to The Fallen One, but it's not as inclusive as their previous work. The cover of a throned demon and hanging imps and ghouls would tell you differently, but the lyrics on this album are slowly shifted from their Satanic themes, and this would be continue on into later releases.
Overall, "Reign In Blood" is widely and almost wholly accepted as a landmark metal album, one that has surpassed the idles of time and become a must listen to anyone who ever applied the term headbanger to themselves. Sure, "Raining Blood" and "Angel of Death", or even lesser lauded tracks such as "Reborn" or "Epidemic" are hugely influential and all around incredible songs. But pound for pound, the lack of crafting and replacement of sheer speed for songwriting makes this album ever so slightly less incredible as "Show No Mercy" or "Hell Awaits".
To many, Slayer ended their reign in blood of the metal world in 1990, but "Reign In Blood" itself is a testament to the band at their seething prime. "Reign In Blood" is as fast, abrasive, and destructive as an album can be, and wholly deserves the acclaim it. So put on track one and get head banging. You have some blood to reign in.