05. Seasons in the Abyss (1990)
Ask any given Slayer fan to order their first five records in terms of quality, and, save for a fairly consistent number 1 pick, you’ll get a different answer for every metalhead you ask and sometimes a different one depending on the day you ask it. That’s because, when you look at these first five records the group produced, a few things become immediately evident.
First, they are undeniably hungry on these records, producing a consistent charisma in their performances that can veer from tight and acrobatic to loose and visceral. Second, they were easily the most raw group of the larger metal acts of the day, providing the most tangible link from pop metal to the extreme fringes of the underground, riding a line of accessibility so incredibly thin that they never felt devoid of a sense of danger when they appeared on radio the way that Metallica and Megadeth sometimes could. Third, they all offered a new musical idiom compared to the previous, expressing aesthetic growth record to record rather than mining the same sound song after song and record after record.
It is also precisely on this point that Seasons in the Abyss falls a bit behind its peers. The songs themselves are unimpeachable and fine contributions to the legacy of Slayer, but when the overall project of a record is to at long last synthesize the ideas of the four records that preceded it rather than distinctly add a brand-new idea, it’s hard to feel it surpasses any of the places where the ideas are plucked. Satanic and raw NWOBHM make their appearance here, as does hardcore-inspired borderline death/black metal thrash riffing and more complex progressive arrangements for a few of the songs. They show, for arguably the last time in their career, a complete comfort switching from slower groove sections to breakneck manic D-beat thrashers in seconds. This is rightly considered one of the best metal records of all time. But it’s not their best. Not by a long shot.
Best Tracks: “Seasons in the Abyss”, “War Ensemble”, and “Dead Skin Mask”
04. Show No Mercy (1983)
Show No Mercy is Slayer’s debut record and, like a lot of debuts from great metal bands, has seemingly little sonic connection to their main body of work. This record came before the experimentations with more adventurous song structures that would immediately follow it and likewise before the terminal injection of hardcore that fused to their bones and made Slayer the band we know them as today. Instead, what is present is a particularly Satanic blend of NWOBHM, drawing fairly clearly from Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Mercyful Fate, and Venom. The playing is often amateurish and the recording quality often raw and unpolished, riffs emerging like sword-wielding purple shadow apparitions emerging from vermilion clouds, but it is precisely from these areas that the record gets a lot of its charm.
Charismatically, the group is a force on this record, feeling like they are absolutely bristling with energy, and in terms of melodic writing, they are better here than they would be anywhere else in their career arguably, given the large abandonment of overly melodic motifs as their career continued. It’s not hard, when listening to this record, to see what the young players who would go on to create death and black metal as we know it heard in Slayer, taking Venom’s raw NWOBHM and appending a Metallica-inspired thrash component to it, making something both approachable in its punkishness but also feral and angular in a way that only metal could offer. What’s more, the band even at this early stage in their career had a fine grasp on the shape of a record, one that would elude them as their career progressed. The pacing of the album is immaculate, the 35 minutes of Satanic proto-thrash ebbing and flowing, fade-ins and hard stops used to create a sense of breath to an otherwise assaulting record.
Slayer’s evolution only took them further and further from these sounds, which renders this record sometimes feeling unnecessary to comprehend the grander scheme of the group. This is the greatest barrier to considering it higher when ranking the canon against itself. But, at the end of the day, these are great songs played well and with tremendous charismatic force, and in heavy metal, there’s little better than that. Plus, harmonized twin leads ripped from the Judas Priest/Iron Maiden playbook and given a raw, Satanic twist? How could a self-respecting metalhead ever say no?
Best Tracks: “Evil Has No Boundaries”, “Metal Storm / Face the Slayer”, and “Black Magic”
03. Hell Awaits (1985)
If Show No Mercy’s contributions to the band’s sound was the firm foundation of the rougher end of NWOBHM spruced up with Satanic elements and the tense, feral proto-thrash of early Metallica, then Hell Awaits was founded on introducing more progressive arrangements and finer playing to the mix. It functions, along with its predecessor, as a sort of alternate evolutionary path, one Slayer chose not to follow. But despite the fruits of this record only recurring in later albums in abstruse manners, it still winds up being a fine record in its own right, and a clear improvement on Show No Mercy in almost every manner.
On Hell Awaits, Slayer takes what before was a roughshod and raw Satanic take on NWOBHM and manages to achieve the kinds of compositional complexity of groups like Angel Witch, Mercyful Fate, and Diamond Head, giving multi-movement suites that marry a bevy of tempos and tonalities in their riffs. It is on Hell Awaits that the band zeroes in on what elements of groups like Judas Priest will be useful to them going forward, discarding elements that they were clearly fans of for ones that come more naturally to them as a group of players. The record is stronger for it, too; as endearing as it was to hear Slayer rip into major key harmonized guitar parts a la Iron Maiden, there is a reason the rest of their discography bears little resemblance to those early moments.
But where this record lacks in rawness, offering instead a much more polished and refined instrumental dexterity and production, it makes up for in execution, each riff and idea rolling naturally from one to the next. It’s an often-overlooked record in their catalog, even by long-time fans, passed over in favor of the three that followed it, but of that seminal early period of the group’s career before they injected hardcore into their veins and totally shifted both their own sound and the shape of heavy metal at large, this was their peak.
Best Tracks: “Hell Awaits”, “At Dawn They Sleep”, and “Necrophiliac”
02. South of Heaven (1988)
1986 was a groundbreaking year for thrash metal. Metallica released Master of Puppets, Megadeth released Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?, and Slayer dropped Reign in Blood. If Metallica’s 1983 debut, Kill ‘Em All, was the first serious push of thrash metal into the wider public consciousness, then 1986 was the explosive year that it made its mark as a seminal and permanent fixture in the rock and metal scene. The question rises, however: after such a momentous year, where do you go? For Slayer, the answer was in dialectic and reconciliation.
While it’s often framed that South of Heaven was meant to develop the band’s mid-tempo material as much as Reign in Blood had developed their high-speed and punky material, this misses the fact that they had already walked these roads before on Hell Awaits. A better way to think of South of Heaven is a return to the template of that earlier record, retaining the proggy and almost linear arrangements that they’d used for the past two albums but appending them to a sonic structure that was slower, more deliberate, and more willing to bask in menace. It is not entirely incidental that the titles of Hell Awaits and South of Heaven mirror each other, and not just because of the overarching iconography of the band; in many ways, they are parallel records, with South of Heaven acting as a redraft of those earlier compositions and arranging ideas with the lessons they learned after the success of Reign in Blood.
And it’s the better album for it, sporting nearly wall-to-wall Slayer classics, including their sole studio Judas Priest cover, their immaculately conceived “Dissident Aggressor”. It comes near the end of the record, seemingly signifying, in what would become obvious in every record going forward, that this was their sound, and no more searching was necessary. It is, pound for pound, not only one of the best thrash records ever made, but one of the best metal records, period.
Best Tracks: “South of Heaven”, “Mandatory Suicide”, and “Dissident Aggressor”
01. Reign in Blood (1986)
Reign in Blood is, to put it bluntly, a near-peerless record. In the world of thrash, only two records come close, those being the aforementioned Metallica classic Master of Puppets and Megadeth’s Rust in Peace. What all three have in common is that they are masterclasses in the style, each highlighting different components that nearly every band shared. While Master displays progressive songwriting chops and tricky time signatures married to anthemic heavy metal and Rust offers razor-sharp technicality, Reign offers unbridled, unparalleled levels of aggression and speed. The knotty arrangements from their previous album remain, but here they are truncated down to two-minute slices, and sometimes briefer, containing every contortion in the absolute bare minimum amount of time. Riffs barely repeat, passing perhaps twice in a song, but still they bury in your head.
This is not only Slayer at their most aggressive, but also Slayer at their absolute catchiest. Unlike any record before or after for them, every single song is a masterwork, instantly hummable the moment you finish it. More, because of the blistering speed, immaculate production on the part of a young Rick Rubin, and a mix which truncates the tracks with almost no room to breath, the entire record passes as though it is one sub-30 minute progressive epic. Each song slashes and whirls like a bladed dervish, one single extended scream, as fractured and furious as the surreal and deathly album art.
From the opening blood-curdling scream to the closing crash of thunder, Reign in Blood is a perfect record, a transfiguration of the light-speed advancing songwriting and playing by the group into the image of a hardcore band, marrying the intensity, imagery, and structure of heavy metal with the skin-shredding intensity of punk. In doing, they made a record that is still cited, over three decades later, as a seminal record for bands across the entire metal spectrum. It is a masterpiece, Slayer’s finest moment, the eruptive final push for the band to sound like absolutely no one save themselves.
Best Tracks: “Angel of Death”, “Piece by Piece”, and “Raining Blood”