This article originally appeared in Metal Hammer #231.
It was towards the end of the sessions for Reign In Blood when the nickel finally dropped for Tom Araya that he and his bandmates were sitting on something unique. Slayer’s singer and bassist was sitting in the control of Hollywood’s Hit City West Studio with Andy Wallace, the engineer on their third album and the man charged with capturing a band who had reached terminal velocity in every respect.
They had just finished mixing Raining Blood, the perfectly compressed epic that closed the album in a deluge of torment and viscera, when Tom glanced up at the monitor on the wall. The 10 songs that made up the album were listed on the screen, as was a time: 28. He wasn’t sure what the number represented. Twenty-eight seconds, maybe? But that didn’t make sense. Perplexed, he turned to Andy.
“Andy, is that 28 minutes?” he said.
“Yeah,” came the engineer’s reply.
“Is that for all the songs?” said Tom.
Andy looked up from his desk to the monitor on the wall and back down to the screen on his console. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s 28 minutes.”
Unsure of whether 10 songs that ran to 28 minutes – or 28 minutes and 58 seconds, to be exact – actually constituted an album, or whether they’d have to come up with more music, they decided to take their concerns to Rick Rubin, the album’s producer. The bearlike Rick had steered the band through the sessions with a mix of fanboy enthusiasm and Zen master calm, and the answer lay with him. If he said yes, everything would be fine. If he said no, this perfectly balanced fusion of speed, aggression and provocation could be ruined.
More than a quarter of a century on, you can hear the admiration in the frontman’s voice when he recalls Rick’s answer. “His only reply,” says Tom, “was that it had 10 songs, verses, choruses and leads and that’s what constituted an album. He didn’t have any issue with it.”
Rick’s judgment sealed not only Reign In Blood’s fate as one of the crown jewels of thrash metal’s Golden Age, but also ensured its status as one of the great albums of all time. What Tom and his bandmates didn’t know then, but what they certainly know now, is in 28 minutes and 58 seconds, they had changed the game forever.
Few musicians sound as comfortable in their own skin as Kerry King and Tom Araya, but few have had the luxury of making an out-of-the-park classic so early in their careers. Reign In Blood tapped into a reservoir of confidence so vast that even the very serious tribulations of the past two years couldn’t shake them off course.
In 2010, the band were forced to cancel several shows when Tom required urgent back surgery. A year later, in 2011, guitarist Jeff Hanneman nearly died after contracting the flesh-eating disease necrotizing fasciitis, after being bitten by a spider in his jacuzzi.
“He’s playing again, but we’re letting him go at his pace,” says Tom.
Right now, the band are prepping for their 12th album. They have nine songs written (“All the stuff I wrote, it seems like it’s more on the thrash side,” says Kerry. “I gotta pull myself back and make up some heavy stuff”). The plan is to enter the studio with producer Greg Philbin in August, though drummer Dave Lombardo suggests there might be a stop-gap EP before the album emerges.
Of course, the 800lb gorilla in the corner of the room is the fact that any Slayer album, no matter how good, will always exist in the shadow of Reign In Blood. The mere fact that it’s the only album they choose to play live in its entirety speaks volumes. Kerry King is characteristically blunt about the matter.
“Have we made an album that’s as good as Reign In Blood?” says the guitarist. “Definitely not.”
When Slayer released their second album, Hell Awaits, in September 1985, thrash metal had left puberty behind and was entering adolescence. The youthful noise of Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer themselves had given way to something more focused, yet even more savage (Megadeth arrived late to the party, albeit more fully formed).
Hell Awaits cemented Slayer’s status as thrash’s bastard princes. The souped-up trad metal of their debut album, Show No Mercy, had been superseded by a hellish noise that sounded like it had been recorded in the seventh circle of hell. Tom’s barked-out occult hymns in clipped, 100-words-per-minute tones foreshadowed what he’d do on Reign In Blood. Incredibly, given both its sound and subject matter, major labels were circling.
“You’d have thought Slayer would have been a tough sell,” says Brian Slagel, who had signed the band to his label, Metal Blade, and produced their first two albums. “But these were the days when all the majors were getting involved with metal and all the labels were over them, trying to work something out. The band had so much momentum – they were the biggest band who weren’t involved with a major at the time.”
One very interested party was producer Rick Rubin. The 22-year-old New York University graduate had recently set up his own record label, Def Jam, and had bagged a distribution deal with CBS Records. Rick was immersed in the Big Apple’s burgeoning hip hop scene, producing the likes of LL Cool J, Run DMC and the Beastie Boys, but he was a rock fan at heart – he grew up on Black Sabbath and AC/DC, and had played in a punk band, Hose. After a friend told him about the buzz surrounding Slayer, Rick decided to check the band out.
“I first met them at their show at The Ritz in NYC [in September 1985],” Rick tells Metal Hammer. “I knew nothing about them before the show and they blew me away.”
It was an unlikely collision of worlds, not least for the members of Slayer. “Somebody goes, ‘Hey, I want you to meet Rick Rubin. He’s the guy from Def Jam. He’s a big fan’,” says Tom. “We were, like… Def Jam? [Sounding baffled] Uh, OK…’ So he came to the show, we met him, and he really liked the band. He said he wanted to work with us.”
Any reservations about a potential culture clash were over-ridden by common sense and business sense. Rick’s drive to sign the band suggested they’d be a top priority. As Kerry points out, Slayer would have been fools to turn him down.
“Here’s a guy who does a hip hop label, who is so into a metal band that he signed that band on his label,” says the guitarist. “It was a slam dunk for me.”
Ask Kerry today if there was any rivalry between thrash metal’s pacesetters in the 80s, and his reply is an emphatic “No.” But then, as now, Slayer offered something different: darker, edgier and purer than their peers. They may have all been in it together, but subconsciously, Slayer were determined to set themselves apart.
“There was constant competition between all of those bands,” says Brian Slagel, countering Kerry’s assertion. “Who was the fastest band? They took that very seriously, and that’s one thing that led to the speed of Reign In Blood.”
The songs that Kerry and Jeff were writing for their fourth album back up that notion. Even early on, the band’s intentions were clear. “Everybody else was doing something slow,” says Tom “Kerry and Jeff said that they didn’t want to do a slow record – they wanted to do something fast. We were young. We were hungry. And we wanted to be faster than everybody else.”
In the cross-cultural melting pot of mid-80s LA, it was inevitable that other influences were going to seep in. Jeff, for one, was a fan of fist-in-the-face Los Angeles punk bands such as D.I. and Verbal Abuse, and had even formed his own hardcore outfit, Pap Smear. Punk’s terse, violent approach could be heard in the new songs.
“He was going into these speciality shops where they played nothing but underground music,” recalls Tom. “He’d show up with these punk discs. Then Dave got into it, and so did I, because it was different. The last one on the wagon was Kerry – he was a metalhead, he didn’t understand it at first. But eventually he started to like it.”
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Slayer may have bagged themselves a major label deal, but they still weren’t rich enough to afford a proper crew beyond Tom’s brother, John. When they decamped to Hit City West, a small, store-front studio on the edges of Hollywood, in the summer of 1986, they set their gear up themselves.
“We’d rehearsed it and practised enough,” says Tom. “We went in and Rick said, ‘Let’s just record it.’ We just played it until Rick was satisfied with the performances. You’re young, you can do this forever.”
Rick was a key figure in the studio. The producer set up a sofa, where he’d sit and listen to the music with his eyes closed, dispensing his thoughts like a bearded guru. He told them that they didn’t need any reverb on the guitars or vocals. The result was a sound that was as dry as a bone and heavy as granite; it instantly set Slayer apart from the other kids on the thrash metal block.
Today, Rick is modest as to his input. ”It really is a testament to how great a band Slayer is,” he says. “It’s very close to being a live album, very well recorded in a studio. Slayer didn’t sound like anyone else, that’s why the album sounds different than other metal albums. They really were creating their own genre.”
“There wasn’t anything hard about it,” says Tom. “The only thing was that we told Dave to speed it up: ‘C’mon, let’s pick it up a bit!” And with that one simple instruction, Reign In Blood was trimmed from an already compact 34 minutes to an unfathomably terse 28 minutes and 58 seconds.
“I don’t think that I even realised it until I got the record and I listened to it, and I went, ‘That’s a little short’,” says Brian Slagel. “But it’s one of those records that’s so good – 28 minutes of sheer brilliance is better than something that’s longer and not as good.
If there were any doubts as to their intentions, it was all laid out in the first few seconds of Angel Of Death. The gold-standard for album openers, it was also Slayer’s grand statement of intent. Seventeen seconds of relentlessly grating guitars are punctuated by bursts of precision tooled-rhythm, before Tom launches into the greatest scream in the history of metal (“It took two takes,” laughs the frontman.)
Where Hell Awaits was ornate and occult-themed, its successor tones down both the complexity and the Satanic shtick. Necrophobic, Jesus Saves and Reborn are concentrated blasts of noise that wear the influence of Jeff’s beloved hardcore punk, while only Altar Of Sacrifice descends into hackneyed ‘Hail Satan!’ territory (tellingly, that song dated from the sessions for Hell Awaits. The resulting album was bleak, relentless and inhuman, a Hieronymus Bosch painting brought to life for 28 writhing, screaming minutes. It sounded like nothing that had come before.
“It’s as if they were speaking a different musical language than the rest of the world,” says Rick Rubin.
Inevitably, it was a language that not everybody understood. The recently founded music watchdog the Parents Music Resource Center had fostered a poisonous culture of censorship in America. Soon after they finished recording the album, Slayer received some news that threatened to upend the whole project. CBS, who distributed Def Jam albums, had refused to handle Reign In Blood despite the fact that it was already paid for. Their issues were down to two things: the cover and Angel Of Death.
The provocative sleeve had been painted by US artist Larry Carroll, and featured a hellish vista of a demonic Pope behind carried aloft by four figures, at least two of which were sporting enormous erections. But the real flashpoint was Angel Of Death. Their clinically graphic retelling of the horrors of Auschwitz was too much, for a label whose president, Walter Yetnikoff, was Jewish (although Rick Rubin, who was also Jewish, had no problem with it).
“All of a sudden, the record company doesn’t want to release the album because of this song,” says Tom. “When Jeff brought in the song, we thought, ‘Wow, that’s really cool – this was the guy [Nazi physician Josef Mengele] that did all those crazy, terrible things.’ Then all of a sudden we discovered that people had a problem with that. We were, like, ‘Fuuuuck…’”
CBS demanded that they remove the song. There were big bucks riding on the album, and on paper, it looked like a tough choice for Slayer. In reality, there was no choice at all…
“We were never, ever tempted to do that,” says Tom. “We felt we hadn’t done anything wrong. They said: ‘Take that song off the album.’ Rick said: ‘No.’ And he went and found someone else to release it.”
That ‘someone else’ was Geffen, a fast-rising label founded a few years earlier by music industry whizz kid David Geffen. For Geffen, controversy took second place to one thing: money.
Kerry admits that they never spoke to anyone from CBS about the issue, nor did they ask for an explanation. “I wasn’t the Kerry King the world knows today,” he says. “Looking back, I thought what I think now. I just wasn’t as vocal about it.”
Of course, the guitarist isn’t a stupid man. He can see what all the fuss was about.
“Absolutely,” he says. “Nazis, hard cocks, Popes. Those were weird times.”
Released in October 1986, right in the middle of a remarkable 12-month period that saw landmark albums from each of thrash’s newly christened Big Four, Reign In Blood gave Slayer something they’d never had before: credibility. There were bumps in the road: Dave Lombardo quit in the middle of the US tour in support of the album, only to return a couple of months later, and the outcry over Angel Of Death refused to die, not least in Germany.
But nothing could derail this juggernaut. It cracked the US Top 100, eventually selling more than 500,000 in America alone – an astonishing figure for such an extreme album.
The men who made it are aware of their achievement. Ask Kerry King if he prefers Reign In Blood or Master Of Puppets, and his reply is instant: “Reign In Blood, because I did it.” Ask Tom Araya to rank thrash’s Big Four Albums – Reign In Blood, Master Of Puppets, Peace Sells and Among The Living – and he laughs: “In that order! That’s perfect!”
The subsequent years have found Slayer plotting a steady, if sometimes wayward course – “I don’t like much of what we did in the 90s,” admits Kerry with typical frankness – but even when they’ve drifted, they’ve always had Reign In Blood to act as their North Star to bring them back to what they do best.
Today, Reign In Blood has only grown in stature. But why is it so celebrated?
“I can’t answer that,” says Tom Araya.
“Maybe it was because Rick Rubin produced it and it came out on a rap label. Maybe it was the controversy. Maybe it was because it was only 28 minutes. I don’t know.”
Brian Slagel explains: “It was a pivotal record at a pivotal time. When you have a record that’s that good, it brings people in – punk fans loved it, metal fans loved it. It transcends the whole metal thing.”
“It’s so extreme and non-musical,” says Rick Rubin, the man who helped breathe life into this monster. “It’s like an assault. I can’t think of another album that does what this album does.”