By Alex Johnson
I love music. Who doesn’t? I’m always looking for something new, even if it’s only new to me. Sometimes it’s hard to move out of my comfort zone with music though. I want to use this feature to explore artists, genres and albums I’ve never given a chance. I want to step out of my comfort zone, check the blind spots, and see what I’ve been missing.
I’ve never been super into metal. That’s not to say I dislike metal, it just seems that most of the metal I like (Motorhead, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, etc.) tends to get classified as “classic rock”. I’m not opposed to more modern, “heavier” thrash/death metal either, it’s just not my go-to and it doesn’t hold my attention as long. I’ll throw on some Lamb of God if I’m in a bad enough mood, but I have a hard time listening to the genre at length.
My main issue with metal, especially modern metal, is the emphasis on shock and ego. The shock factor generally comes off as more cringy than shocking to me. Maybe singing (growling?) about Satan in the 70s got people clutching their rosaries, but these days it comes off as trying too hard. And one of the main aspects of metal guitar playing, shredding, seems to be more about showing off technical skills than making something musically appealing.
I landed on Slayer’s Reign in Blood, released in 1986, for this review for a few reasons. Slayer is a well-known name in thrash metal and often cited as an influence for many metal guitar players and bands. Reign in Blood is considered Slayer’s breakout album since it was the first time the band reached the Billboard 200. Plus, reading there was a hardcore punk influence, I thought I’d be more likely to find something I like about it.
I went into Reign in Blood with an open mind. Like most of my dabbling in the metal genre though, I found some stuff I enjoyed but a lot I could have done without. Let’s get the criticisms out of the way.
First and foremost, I found this album (like a lot of metal, especially thrash metal, albums) fairly repetitive. Even after four or five listens I was having trouble differentiating many of the tracks. That’s not to say there were no standout songs, just fewer than I’d hope for in an album that has so much prestige in the metal community.
I also found a lot of the lyrics more silly than shocking; most seem to just be shouting grotesque sounding words. The one exception was the opening track, Angel of Death, that details Josef Mengele’s human experiments at Auschwitz. The issue that I had with this one, personally, is there wasn’t a strong condemnation of the actions, just a description of them. Although Slayer has long defended themselves as not being Nazi sympathizers (the bare minimum for being a decent person), I still feel like this song comes across as tone deaf at best. I realize that in 1986 this song may not have been as polarizing as it would be if it were released today (why are there still Nazis and why are they relevant again?), but it did still cause people at the time to question it’s meaning. I, personally, feel like if your actions, or in this case lyrics, make people question if you’re a Nazi-sympathizer, you should reflect on what you’re saying.
Instrumentally, this is a metal album; lots of chunky, heavy, down-tuned guitar; lots of double bass; fast and feelingless solos; and a distinct lack of bass guitar. This album is fast too, the 12 songs are done in just under 35 minutes. As I alluded to before, there wasn’t a ton of variety in those 35 minutes though. I feel like there was variety in song intros, yes, but once the vocals start it goes right to the same driving progression with occasional sweeping-arpeggio fills.
And why does metal as a genre seem to ignore the bass guitar? I assumed with frontman Tom Araya also being a bass player that Slayer would give the instrument a little more love, but no. I listened to Reign in Blood on my phone, in my car, through studio headphones and through noise-cancelling earbuds and I still couldn’t hear much bass. I realize with the guitars being downtuned in metal that bass will have a harder time standing out, but in some of the songs I question if it was even there at all.
So, what did I like? The (kind of) title track, Raining in Blood, has a great intro. After hearing the opening riff played over and over again in Guitar Center it was nice to know there’s more to the song. The way the song builds off the intro, adding more and more layers, makes it stand out from the other tracks as well.
Piece by Piece was one of the few tracks where I felt the punk influence, which made it stand out more than some of the other tracks. Again, the lyrics don’t do anything for me, but at least the call-back line “the only way to exit, is going piece by piece” is pretty good, even if the rest feel kind of lazy.
I feel like metal is a genre I sometimes want to be in a relationship with, but we’re better off as friends. I get really into it but it quickly starts feeling stale. I’ll defiantly keep this album in my rotation, but after listening to it several times on repeat, I think Slayer and I are going to be going on a little break.