Slayer—Reign in Blood [Finely Tuned]
Slayer: the very name conjures the most livid imagery in one’s head, sending haunting chills down the spine. The moon sits helplessly in the night sky, watching unfathomable horrors unfold below. It gets blotted out by a funnel of clouds, as they close in on it like a lasso. Chest swelling with husky breathing, the silhouette of a towering figure appears in the distance. Metal of his shield so iridescent, it brings light to the stifling darkness. Tusks coming out from his mask like rapiers give off a clear message: Stay away.
It was a time when chart-topping musicians wore wigs reminiscent of skunks. They masked their facial features with make-up that would give even clowns nightmares, and could hit notes so high, even our ear drums would shatter. Something needed to be done about this atrocity that the world of music was coming to. Gone were the days of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest.
There still lived that community who turned to music as their only companion. Their saviour, when times got helplessly dark and no one was there to lend a hand. They were in desperate need of a hero, and that is precisely what the thrash metal movement was here for. With Metallica at the helm in the West and Anthrax in the East, these bands were taking America by storm with their firebrand style of music.
In thrash metal, there was only one rule: the faster, the better. But that wasn’t enough for the boys in Slayer. The fires of Hell raged within them, like a furnace that showed no signs of ever running out of energy. Morbidly fascinated by Satanism, they took to the stage wearing gauntlets with spikes so sharp you could grill an animal on them. For an audience full of teens unsure of their identity, and young adults with the weight of the world on their shoulders, they were a messiah.
Fast forward to 1986. Metallica had released Master of Puppets and by this point, had ascended to the ranks of Metal Royalty. Megadeth were following closely on their heels, with Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?. Determined not to be left behind by their peers in the Bay Area, Slayer set off to make a record that would have everyone quaking in their boots.
Dubbed Reign in Blood, it was nothing short of forty minutes of unrestrained hysteria captured on tape. A statutory warning would be to refrain from listening to this while driving—as one would find their foot slamming the accelerator the instant the opening track plays. One that would dominate Slayer’s set lists for the next three decades, Angel of Death.
A simultaneous thud and power chord ring out in unison. The riff gets picked faster, dripping with more menace as the thudding of kick drums comes in closer intervals now. Unable to restrain himself any longer, drummer Dave Lombardo joins in on the action, sweeping across his entire drum set in one swift flourish. From out of nowhere, a shriek tears through all the instrumental fracas going on. Seeming to last forever, it morphs into a growl in its dying moments—guitars and drums now reaching inhumane levels of momentum.
Tom Araya narrates a gruesome tale as the Angel of Death, presiding over Auschwitz concentration camps that resembled factories—churning out like commodities—the lives of poor, tormented souls for his taking. In come Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman for the kill.
Unsure of what guitar solo would befit such a terrifying song, they turned to producer Rick Rubin for guidance. He told them to wing it, and let their instincts take over. Casting aside everything they ever learned about guitar, they raised strings and bent whammy bars to create infernal bellows. Fingers ferociously grasping at the wooden fretboard like claws of a blood-thirsty beast, a magical moment was born amidst pandemonium.
In a bid to find their own sound, Slayer had perfected the art of balancing the tempo. This was what distinguished them from the farrago of metal bands so blinded by their quest to be the fastest out there that quality of music took a backseat.
In Piece by Piece, the guitars chug along to a sinister rhythm, like the engine of a bulldozer roaring to life. It was somewhere along this point that Slayer had grown notorious for using open-stringed riffs far too much. This came mostly from imperious guitarists, who prided themselves on being able to form insane patterns with their hands to make riffs.
What those who get a chuckle from seeing all the 0s on Slayer guitar tabs fail to realize is that, making music with open strings is a form of guitar mastery unlike any other. When fretting is no longer an option, the onus lies completely on the dexterity of your picking hand. You must use a variety of combinations, loosen your wrist muscles with infinite hours of practice, to construct a rhythm out of one note.
The next track, Necrophobic, is one that gave young Tom Araya an immense deal of wry amusement when introducing it onstage. Unable to wipe the smirk off his face, he tells the audience how he feels as if Slayer’s music has been going much too fast lately, so they decided to take it down a notch.
Introducing it as their slowest number yet, he launches into a fit of head-banging that makes it impossible to believe he once worked in the medical industry. Clocking in at 248 beats per minute, the band plays at nearly double the pace of a normal song. Lyrics completely incoherent, it is an astonishment that Tom’s mouth was even able to form the words. This song was merely Slayer’s way of flaunting just what blistering speeds they were capable of playing at, if they so chose.
Jesus Saves brings all the best moments on the album to the fore. Packing it in one fell swoop like a hatchet that is sure to leave you collapsed on your knees, this song effortlessly annihilates everything in its path. The onslaught begins with a tyrannic riff that brings visions of a pharaoh calling his troops to arms—as a barricade of guitars squeals in the background, responding to their master.
On the procession storms through the village, trudging footsteps echoing through the night. Their mere presence sends families scampering into their houses, barring all doors and windows. After the wealth has been looted, they mount their steeds and make off with their plunder, not a soul daring to stop them.
Nearing the end now, Slayer wants to make sure we aren’t left without being rattled to our very core. For ’90s children who played Guitar Hero, Raining Blood was ostensibly their first exposure to this brand of music. Ten-year-olds who disregarded the ‘Teen’ rating of the game were now suddenly aware why it was so, having experienced evil in its rawest form for the first time.
A crash of thunder augments the lurking of doom. Slayer stands atop a mountain with no fear of what is to come, welcoming the wrath of Mother Nature. Lombardo gently taps the cymbals, calming his own nerves, providing the assurance that we will brave whatever is to come. The eerie distortion emanating from the guitars, filling the vacuum all around us, tells otherwise.
Just then, the skies open up, but it is not the heavens that can be seen. No angel has come to take them to the beyond. Satan comes down in his full form, body made purely of crimson, black wings the width of oceans. A crown made of white-hot flames rests on his head as his minions, King and Hanneman, play the riff announcing his arrival.
The place we are in is not in the mortal world. Slayer are playing atop a plateau in Hell. Wasting no time in getting to the punishments he spent an eternity planning out, Satan snaps his gnarled fingers, commanding the band to let loose. Picking hands now a haze of meteoric movements, they race across the fretboards to strike power chords that send missiles blazing.
In the middle, there is a breakdown. The relentless downpour of blood ceases for the briefest of moments. A transparent window to Heaven opens, giving the residents of Hell a glimpse of what they missed out on because of their sinful deeds on Earth. They look upwards as a sneering voice pierces through the sulphurous air, “Awaiting the hour of reprisal, your time slips AWAY.” The short-lived hope that perhaps God would bestow His mercy upon them not withstanding, they consign themselves to an eternity of penance.
With the release of this album, Slayer had cemented their place amongst the most brutal bands ever to exist. So dominating is their live presence—that despite not having sold as many albums—they found themselves billed above multi-platinum selling peers Megadeth during the Big 4 of thrash metal festivals in 2010. However, music with their level of aggression can only be played for so long, before it takes its toll on the human body. These titans of thrash metal have decided to call it quits, with a farewell world tour set to last throughout 2018. It will be a heavy-hearted goodbye, but a night that will embed itself in our minds for a lifetime when they come to India.