31 Years Ago: Slayer Redefine Thrash With ‘Reign in Blood’

Def Jam
Def Jam

Slayer‘s first two full albums, 1983’s Show No Mercy and 1985’s Hell Awaits, were landmarks in thrash metal. They were more brutal, sinister and explosive than albums released around the same time by Metallica or Anthrax and they pushed the envelope with bloodcurdling growls and Satanic lyrics that paved the way for both death and black metal. Still, it was Slayer’s third album, Reign in Blood, which came out Oct. 7, 1986, that took the band to a new artistic and commercial plateau, and became a benchmark for thrash metal.

Other thrash bands at the time were releasing epic, 50-plus minute albums full of abrupt rhythm and tempo changes and semi-clean vocals and Slayer saw a gap. They were already the heaviest, most extreme thrash band, now they had to opportunity to win the speed war, prove they were as talented as they were fast, and exit the exhibition of precision carnage less than 30 minutes after they began.

“We wanted to blow the lid off of everything we and everyone else had already released,” guitarist Kerry King told me in 1997. “It was like we were saying, ‘Oh, you think that’s heavy? Well, check this out.’ A lot of times when I’m working on something the only think I’m thinking about is how crazy the crowd is gonna get when they hear it live. People start chanting and then the pit starts up. If I was in the crowd, I know that’s what I’d be doing, so I just picture 500 people doing that.”

Before Slayer began recording Reign in Blood, Metal Blade owner Brian Slagel, who realized he didn’t possess the resources or distribution to enable Slayer to blow up, started negotiating with other labels to release the album. The one that seemed the most promising was Def Jam Recordings, which was founded by hip-hop pioneers Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin. The team helped make stars out of Run-DMC and LL Cool J and Rubin convinced Slayer they would be the priority rock band at the label and Rubin himself would produce the album.

Sold by Rubin’s enthusiasm Slayer wrote a batch of rapid, hardcore-influenced tunes brimming with tight riffs and fierce metallic crunch. Rubin told Slayer they had complete creative freedom for the record so they stretched their boundaries and wrote their most direct, scathing and violent lyrics to date. They attacked religion (“Jesus Saves”), sang about sadistic murder (“Piece By Piece”) biological warfare (“Epidemic”) and the occult (“Altar of Sacrifice,”“Raining Blood”)

“We’ve always been the bad guys,” King said. “Lyrically, we write about s— no one else will write about. We branded ourselves the bad guys ages ago. I don’t mind that. It’s better than singing about posies. That’s who I see in a movie. I’m always rooting for the bad guys.”

Guitarist Jeff Hanneman wrote one song for Reign in Blood that was musically unimpeachable but lyrically the most controversial song in Slayer’s catalog –“Angel of Death.” The song recounts the horrific experiments of Nazi physician Josef Mengele in morbid detail. And while it doesn’t endorse Mengele’s exploits, the aggressive lyrical delivery by vocalist Tom Araya was widely misinterpreted.

“We got accused of all kinds of s–t,” Araya said. “We were called being neo-Nazis because of that song. But if you look at the lyrics they just tell a story based on history. It doesn’t glorify anything. Anyone who thinks we’re Nazis isn’t paying close attention because I’m originally from Chile, so I’m a minority, and that would have to mean I hate myself.”

“Angel of Death” caused such a stir at Def Jam’s distributor, Columbia Records, that the company’s president refused to have his label involved in promoting the album. So Rubin negotiated a deal with Geffen Records, which agreed to distribute Reign in Blood. The process delayed the album’s release for several months, but when it finally came out the album quickly earned the respect and praise of the thrash community.

Without any airplay, Reign in Blood debuted at No. 127 on the Billboard 200 Album Chart and six weeks after release peaked at No. 94. The album received positive press from most metal outlets and King and Hanneman were lauded by guitar magazines for their tight rhythms and unhinged solos.

“It’s really funny because for the first couple records I’d make up leads that were appropriate to the riffs that we played,” King says. “But for Reign in Blood I got lazy and just made up stuff that sometimes didn’t make any sense and I was still turning up on guitar polls as one of the best metal guitarists.”

Reign in Blood was certified gold by the RIAA on Nov. 20, 1992. In 1998 the album was re-released with two bonus tracks, “Aggressive Perfector” and a remix of “Criminally Insane.” In 2004 Slayer played Reign in Blood front-to-back on its “Still Reigning” tour. The band released a DVD recorded July 11, 2004 at the Augusta Civic Center in Augusta, Maine. For the finale, “Raining Blood” the band was doused in fake blood that showered from the rafters. Slayer have since played Reign in Blood in its entirety at select shows.

Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the co-author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, as well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, and Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book My Riot! Grit, Guts and Glory.

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