The success of thrash metal around the world in the ‘80s, even without the help of mainstream radio and MTV, had many of its purveyors feeling particularly emboldened. The biggest artists of that era were poised to make their grandest statements yet: Master of Puppets, Among The Living, Pleasure To Kill, Darkness Descends, Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?, etc. All albums marked by intense, fevered performances and intricate songwriting inspired by prog rock’s complexity and punk’s clenched fists.
Slayer’s Reign In Blood, released October 7th, 1986, lands smack in the middle of that decade like an axe hitting a bullseye. No other metal release that year or during that era felt quite as demanding and insurgent. It hit fast — clocking in under less than a half-hour in its original release — and hit hard, helping push a band that was already respected among their fans and peers toward new levels of success. A spot on the Billboard 200 chart. Gold-certified sales. Bigger concert dates. And a level of inter-band tension that wouldn’t settle down for the better part of 15 years.
A good chunk of the credit for the progress that Slayer achieved on that album and beyond needs to be meted out to producer Rick Rubin. The future impresario was already a fan by the time he saw them live at the CMJ New Music Seminar in 1985. But it was that performance at New York’s The Ritz that turned him into an out-and-out obsessive. In D.X. Ferris’s book Slayer 66 ⅔: The Jeff & Dave Years…, Rubin told the author, “I don’t recall much of anything that night before Slayer. They totally annihilated…I can’t imagine any other band in the world mattered that night.” As legend has it, the producer hounded the band after that, urging them to sign with Def Jam and let him behind the boards for their third full-length. Smelling blood and cash in the water, Slayer acquiesced and about six months later, they had recorded Reign In Blood.
Rubin’s influence was, in part, to quit messing around and aim straight for the jugular. The tempos for their songs were ratcheted up to near hardcore punk BPMs, pushing everyone to play right up to the edge of their abilities. It was a tightrope walk at times, but everyone stayed aloft, or, as was often the case with Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King’s guitar solos, soared through it all like a hawk soaring toward its prey. Rubin took a dominant hand in the producer’s chair, suggesting drum fills and helping whittle the material until it reached a sharp point. And he kept the studio free of alcohol and drugs. “I think he maybe made us a little more accessible to some people,” drummer Dave Lombardo admitted to Ferris, “to where maybe those people wouldn’t have given it a chance otherwise.”
Reign In Blood is bookended by its two longest songs: “Angel of Death” and “Raining Blood.” The former, written by Hanneman, is a pulverizing tune that speaks of the evil deeds of Josef Mengele, the Nazi scientist who performed experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz. It was custom built to court controversy, with charges of Nazi affiliation following the band for the next three decades. And it was the song that made Def Jam’s then-distributor Columbia balk at releasing the album, sending the label into the arms of Geffen. Composed by Hanneman and King, the latter was a blasphemous vision of an angel cast out of heaven, f–king shit up in purgatory. The music follows suit, pivoting from a double-time assault to a chugging stomp that feels like it’s cracking the earth’s crust. Recognizing their impact on audiences from the jump, both songs have been mainstays of Slayer’s live setlists ever since.
In between are eight tracks that offer only brief moments of reprieve, like the pinging buildup that kicks off “Piece by Piece,” or “Postmortem,” which settles into an early headbanging pace before a manic circle pit breaks out. Everything else in this meaty middle section of the album oozed with its titular crimson. And it put the rest of the metal world on notice: the whole scene was going to be different from here on out. Or as future Slayer drummer Paul Bostaph recalled to Decibel magazine about hearing Reign In Blood for the first time coming from Forbidden guitarist Craig Locicero’s boombox, “I stood in front of that box for the entire 20-some-odd minutes. I remember looking at Craig and going, ‘We’re fucked.’”
Beyond its immediate impact, the shockwaves of the album are still being felt as strongly as ever. Reign In Blood continues to be heaped with praise and somewhat meaningless accolades, like its induction into Decibel magazine’s Hall of Fame, the first record to be given such a treatment, and high placement on lists of the best metal releases of all time and the best albums of the ‘80s.
And it continues to find fans. If you’ve been lucky enough to see Slayer in concert, especially on this current run that is supposedly the band’s final tour, you’ve likely felt how the air in the room shifts when King and Gary Holt hit the opening riff of “Raining Blood.” It’s as if an electric charge has jolted everyone to attention, an army ready to charge into the breach without question. Few songs and fewer albums, metal or otherwise, can command that kind of response. Thirty-plus years later, Reign In Blood still has that power.