Skip to main content

Buyer's Guide: Slayer

Black Sabbath are the original heavy metal band, Metallica the biggest, but Slayer are surely the heaviest.

There are faster bands than Slayer – Napalm Death, to name just one. There are crazier bands – look no further than the church-burning Nazi-Satanist murderers of Norway’s black metal scene. And most certainly there are sicker bands – Cannibal Corpse’s signature song, Entrails Ripped From A Virgin’s Cunt, says it all. But no other band, who came along before or since, has matched the fearsome power, deadly precision and crushing intensity of Slayer at their peak.

Formed in the LA suburb of Huntington Park in 1981 by guitarists Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King, bassist/vocalist Tom Araya and drummer Dave Lombardo, Slayer started out as a regulation early-80s metal band, heavily influenced by Judas Priest. But Hanneman, a fan of US hardcore punk, pushed Slayer to play faster. And, inspired by British Devil- worshippers Venom, the archetypal black metal band, Slayer set out to create the most evil and brutal music known to man.

Slayer’s debut album, Show No Mercy, released in 1983, just five months after Metallica’s Kill ’Em All, placed them at the vanguard of a new movement that was to revolutionise metal music: thrash. Subsequently, Slayer lined up alongside Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax in the so-called Big Four of thrash metal.

And in 1986, having been signed to pioneering hip-hop label Def Jam, Slayer eclipsed their peers with the greatest of all thrash albums: Reign In Blood. Still widely regarded as the heaviest album ever made, it set the benchmark for subsequent generations of extreme metal bands, and has cast a long shadow over everything Slayer have done since.

Certainly Slayer have had their ups and downs. When Lombardo, the best drummer of the thrash era, quit the band for a full decade, Slayer lost their way; they even incorporated elements of nu metal on their 1998 album Diabolus In Musica. But Lombardo’s reinstatement in 2002 put them firmly back on track.

Summing up Slayer’s career, the drummer says simply: “No sell-out – that whole philosophy has maintained Slayer. Just staying true to our roots.

“And you can’t fucking argue with that!”

ESSENTIAL Reign In Blood American, 1986

Slayer’s masterpiece, Reign In Blood, is one of the classic heavy metal albums, right up there with Paranoid, The Number Of The Beast and Master Of Puppets.

So controversial was its opening track, Angel Of Death, that major-label distributor Columbia refused to release the album. But when it was eventually issued via Geffen (US) and London Records (UK), it was immediately hailed as the ultimate thrash metal record.

Slayer ripped through its 10 tracks in just 29 minutes, combining breakneck speed with ruthless control. Unrelentingly violent, Reign In Blood is truly an assault on the senses. The heaviest album ever? No contest.

ESSENTIAL Hell Awaits Metal Blade, 1985

With this, the precursor to Reign In Blood, Slayer battered a previously hostile rock press into submission. And nowhere was this change in perception more evident than in a review by eminent British critic Geoff Barton, who proclaimed Slayer “the most threatening, subversive band on the planet”, and described Hell Awaits as, variously, “horrifying”, “disturbing”, “deranged” and, of course, “evil”.

From the satanic title track to the apocalyptic closer Hardening Of The Arteries, Hell Awaits was a merciless thrash metal attack with a palpably malevolent aura. Barton still hasn’t fully recovered.

SUPERIOR South Of Heaven America, 1988

Following the mighty, epochal Reign In Blood was never going to be easy, but Slayer played it very smart with South Of Heaven. As Tom Araya says: “We went out of our way to make sure we didn’t do another Reign In Blood.”

This much was immediately apparent in the album’s opening song, the title track, a slow- building epic that leads into the frenzied thrash of Silent Scream.

By mixing slower, Sabbath- style grind with all-out thrash, Slayer achieved a powerful and dramatic effect. And, surprisingly, it’s the slower songs that stand tallest, such as South Of Heaven, Mandatory Suicide and eerie climax Spill The Blood.

SUPERIOR Show No Mercy Metal Blade, 1983

“Pure, unadulterated junk” said one review of Slayer’s first album. Even Dave Lombardo now describes it as “primitive and naïve”. But for numerous extreme metal bands that followed, Show No Mercy is one of the most powerful and influential albums of the 80s.

Slayer’s own influences were clearly evident: Evil Has No Boundaries had the fury and spooky, satanic vibes of early Venom; in The Antichrist’s multiple riffs there were echoes Iron Maiden and Mercyful Fate.

Even in its infancy, Slayer’s music had a visceral power and an air of menace that set it apart. From here it would get lot uglier.

SUPERIOR Haunting The Chapel Metal Blade, 1984

Originally released as a three- track vinyl EP, Haunting The Chapel was the bridge between the crude, Venom-imitating Show No Mercy and the full-bore thrash of Hell Awaits.

Chemical Warfare in particular represented a huge leap forward both for Slayer and metal music as a whole. It was the fastest thrash metal song yet recorded.

Later editions added a re-recording of Aggressive Perfector, the first Slayer song ever released (on the Metal Massacre II compilation). The whole EP is now included on a two-for-one CD with Slayer’s 1984 mini-album Live Undead.

SUPERIOR Seasons In The Abyss American, 1990

Slayer’s fifth studio album prompted the immortal magazine headline: ‘We Had Joy, We Had Fun, We Had Seasons In The Abyss!’ But on the album itself there was no such levity.

Warfare is a recurring theme in Slayer songs, and Hallowed Point, Expendable Youth and the opening blitzkrieg War Ensemble all resonated powerfully at a time when US forces were engaged in the first Gulf War.

Equally morbid were Dead Skin Mask and the title track, although the latter had some diehard fans crying ‘sell-out’. Not that anyone would have said that to Kerry Kings’ face.

GOOD Decade Of Aggression American, 1991

If Slayer’s first live release, Live Undead, was too short, their second, the two-disc Decade Of Aggression was overlong.

All the best action comes on disc one, recorded in 1991 and featuring most of the band’s defining songs, from Hell Awaits and The Antichrist to South Of Heaven and the inevitable, devastating finale Angel Of Death. After that, disc two is a disappointment. Comprising 10 tracks recorded in 1990 and ’91, it boasts only two stone-cold Slayer classics: Postmortem and Chemical Warfare.

Edited down to one disc, Decade would be one of the greatest live metal albums of all time.

GOOD Christ illusion Warner Brothers, 2006

In the early 90s Slayer entered a long lean period. Marginalised by the rise of nu metal, they recorded a series of uninspired albums: Divine Intervention (1994), Diabolus In Musica (1998), _God Hates Us All _(2001) plus the misguided punk covers set Undisputed Attitude (1996).

Christ Illusion stopped the rot. Kerry King declared it “the best thing we’ve done since Reign In Blood”. In fact South Of Heaven was better, but Christ Illusion was certainly the heaviest Slayer album in 20 years.

With Dave Lombardo returning after 10 years away, Slayer got back to doing what Slayer do better than anyone: classic thrash metal.

GOOD _World Painted Blood _Columbia, 2009

Coming 23 years after Reign In Blood, this album, has a sound and a title that echoes down the years. World Painted Blood is vintage Slayer. As Kerry King says: “We stick to our guns, like AC/DC.”

Overall it isn’t quite as speed- driven as the preceding Christ Illusion. But it’s the faster songs that hit hardest, such as the title track and the brilliantly named Public Display Of Dismemberment. Unit 731, named after Japan’s WWII covert biological warfare research department, is another gruesome account of obscene war crimes. This song proved that Slayer still went where others feared to tread.

AVOID Undisputed Attitude Columbia, 1996

A covers album is usually a sign that a band has lost the plot, and Undisputed Attitude is every bit as lame as its trying-too-hard title suggests.

Initially, Slayer planned a set of hard rock standards; previously, they’d covered Judas Priest’s Dissident Aggressor and Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. But Jeff Hanneman insisted covering punk and hardcore songs – a terrible idea.

Slayer doing Minor Threat, DRI and the Stooges was as unconvincing as Guns N’ Roses doing the UK Subs. When Undisputed Attitude bombed, Tom Araya conceded: “It did what I expected it to do: not a lot!”

This was first published in Classic Rock issue 143