It seems impossible, but at the beginning of 2018, Slayer announced they would be embarking on their farewell tour. They had released what now appears to be their final studio album, Repentless, in 2015, after a tumultuous period that saw not only the second departure of their founding drummer, Dave Lombardo, but also the tragic passing of their founding guitarist and central songwriting figure, Jeff Hanneman.
It’s been almost 40 years since Slayer first emerged onto the scene, lasting a hell of a lot longer than any band of scraggly avant-garde punk and metal enthusiasts really could have expected. In that time, their sound, a mixture of the theatrical Satanic prog-flecked heavy metal of Mercyful Fate and Judas Priest, the stiff-armed thrash of Metallica, and a heavy dose of straight-up hardcore punk, managed to crest far beyond the shores of the underground, seeing them partnered with Rick Rubin as they set out to become one of the most legendary and influential metal bands of all time.
Like any band of consummate age and productivity, narratives have formed around Slayer’s albums, and especially in the light of the closure of the band’s studio work, it’s a fine time to reevaluate the material on its own merits. After all, we now apparently have the complete set and can view records not merely as better or worse than the holiest of thrash holies but also determine how each fits within the arc of the band’s career as a whole. Slayer demand this kind of respect from the world of metal; for decades of work, for near-endless influence on bands large and small, and for some truly exceptional heavy metal albums, including a couple that easily rank among the greatest of all time.
12. Diabolus in Musica (1998)
Slayer always were the heaviest of the Big 4 of thrash metal. So, with the ’90s in full swing and thrash all but entirely commercially dead, it’s not shocking that they would turn for a heavier sound compared to the hard rock Metallica and Megadeth were putting out at the time. Anthrax swung heavier, too; but where Anthrax seemed inspired by the post-thrash sonic invention of groove metal, nabbing some of Pantera’s tight rhythmic swagger and trading in an operatic vocalist for a gruff and more percussive one, Slayer turned to nu-metal. Nu-metal is going through a bit of a cultural and critical renaissance right now, and this isn’t meant to steal from that, but Slayer and nu-metal simply don’t mix well.
On tracks such as “Death’s Head” and “Stain of Mind”, it feels like Slayer lost technical acumen and replaced it with nothing at all, turning in poor pastiches of System of a Down and Limp Bizkit, respectively. It’s easy to understand, after over a decade and several legendary records, a desire to stretch out and experiment. It’s likewise easy to understand, after losing a figure as pivotal to the evolution of metal as drummer Dave Lombardo, the band would want to not just recover but mark a brand-new sonic era. It’s laudable that this, their third record with drummer Paul Bostaph, is also their third different-sounding record. The group has a running joke about them that, like Motorhead or AC/DC, they never change, but that hasn’t necessarily been the case.
And while there are some interesting experiments here that are a fascinating attempt by a foundational extreme metal band attempting to bridge the gap between their era and nu-metal and draw connections that sometimes get written off by critics and fans who imagine themselves above that more urban sub-genre, the vast swath of this record proves that their experiments, by and large, were not successful. A shame, too. When the better tracks off this record get going, you feel 15 again, leather jackets and weekends of shenanigans scored to thrash metal from a Walkman.
Best Tracks: “Scrum”, “In the Name of God”, and “Point”
11. Repentless (2015)
What now appears to be Slayer’s final album didn’t exactly do a great service to the band’s legacy. After their guitarist and founding member Jeff Hanneman died, there was a lot of concern about if and how the band would continue. Hanneman was one of the chief songwriters and creative directors of the group; there’d been albums where fellow guitarist Kerry King had written the majority of the tracks, but typically the process of deciding which songs made it on a record was a communal one, one where Hanneman’s ear served the group even when it wasn’t his tracks making the cut that time around. With Exodus guitarist Gary Holt aboard, even before Hanneman’s death, the band already had a worthy replacement in its lineup.
Likewise, this was their first album to feature a returning Paul Bostaph after Dave Lombardo was once more (and quite acrimoniously) driven from the band when he went public with pay issues. Apparently, the sourness could not be overcome. What is delivered is undoubtedly a Slayer record, one that feels as comfortable with their traditional punky and violent thrash as with the mid-paced stomping groove from their Bostaph years. The issue is that there’s not quite enough life to the album. This is Slayer with the lights turned out. Perhaps it was the mood surrounding the record, for the band and fans alike, that hampered the disc.
Some of these songs are pretty good, and this same record released by another group would be an interesting and satisfying one. But Slayer set the bar high for themselves, and missteps between this album and the one that preceded it seemed to totally suck the energy from the room. Still: no cringe-worthy experiments, and that counts for something.
Best Tracks: “Piano Wire”, “Cast the First Stone”, and “Repentless”
10. Christ Illusion (2006)
This should have been a victory lap for the band. After all, their long-departed founding drummer Dave Lombardo was welcomed back into the fold, and, to many, the album was touted as a return to form following the haphazard experimentation and nu-metal of the Bostaph years. This would be good if this is what we got … the issue is that it’s nowhere close.
First off, the situations that led to the group re-enlisting Lombardo strike out the notion that this was a deliberate reunion meant to reset themselves after their wilderness years. Second, it actually undervalues not only the overall experimentation that band had been engaged in, but also deeply undervalued the record that immediately preceded this one, which ranks among Slayer’s best. Third, most damningly, most of the worst aspects of their experimentation, from lower tunings that seem to refuse the manic energy Slayer tends to embody in their riffs to a sluggish pace that’s less a mean groove and more a plodding thud persist here.
The band would eventually figure out how to return to their classic sound and to do so in a way that felt natural and sincere rather than other unnamed bands having very manufactured returns to form, but sadly that wouldn’t be here. Instead: the beginning stages of that road, with more energy in the camp than in the material. This record may have been received well on its release, but hindsight reveals it to be weaker than it was initially taken to be.
Best Tracks: “Flesh Storm”, “Catalyst”, and “Black Serenade”
09. Divine Intervention (1994)
For all the flak the Bostaph years receive, they produced more good material than bad and showcased, like the first Lombardo run, a different sonic direction for each record. Divine Intervention was the follow-up to Seasons in the Abyss, a record that for all intents and purposes acted as a summation of that first seminal period of the band. Having come off a capstone work like that, it freed up the band to pursue a follow-up without as great a burden as some of their previous records, which always seemed like they were designed to one-up the last.
As a result, despite the loss of Lombardo and addition of Bostaph, who makes his debut here, the group feels energized and, perhaps for the only time in their entire career, totally comfortable. They revisit the same span of sounds featured on their previous record but spruce the compositions up with experiments of production, effects, and arrangement. Not all of these experiments work, granted, and some directly led to the downtuned nu-metal riffing that would make for the worst of the remaining years of the band. But when it works, it works, and it’s easy to see why the band, at the time, sincerely believed this was the best they had made.
It isn’t quite that good, but it’s not hard to imagine this being the launching point of a totally different and significantly better second phase of the band’s career. It wrongly gets diminished because we since learned where these ideas would go, but on Divine Intervention, the ideas still work, and that means something.
Best Tracks: “213”, “Mind Control”, and “Divine Intervention”
08. Undisputed Attitude (1996)
Perhaps it may be viewed as a slight to put a cover album above studio records. This is fair in certain respects, but to think purely in those terms would be ignoring a few factors. First is that hardcore, at least since Reign in Blood, has been an intrinsic component of Slayer’s sound and was the last piece of the alchemical equation (after Judas Priest, Metallica, and Mercyful Fate) that helped establish the Slayer sound we know and love. Yet, while metal bands and even proto-metal, in the case of Iron Butterfly, had covers performed by Slayer from their inception and beyond, hardcore was often left unremarked upon, something fans knew was there but rarely had the same presence in sonic overtures like, say, Metallica with their willingness to cut a quick loving punk cover.
Second, and perhaps most important of all, is just how vital Slayer sounds on this record. If you put out of mind that these are covers and just play the record, you’ll hear a Slayer that sounds more full of life than, well, they ever would again after this, consistently bounding from song to song with a rabid youthful energy and a willingness to destroy. This record feels like a psychic regression of the best possible sort, peeling back years of the write-record-tour-repeat grind to get back to that initial earnest impulse. Plus, it features some unreleased songs written by the hardcore side-project founded by Hanneman and Lombardo between Hell Awaits and Reign in Blood, which in many respects was the impetus to so drastically shift from proggy epics-in-minutes to sub-two-minute crossover thrash hybrids on their masterpiece.
You can feel both love and energy here. And, hey, aside from Slayer’s seemingly racist lyrical tweak at the end of a Minor Threat track — in which they changed the line “guilty of being white” to “guilty of being right”, even upsetting the original song’s writer, Ian MacKaye — the tunes are just good. Who doesn’t love hardcore punk?
Best Tracks: “Disintegration/Free Money”, “Can’t Stand You”, and “Richard Hung Himself”
07. World Painted Blood (2009)
World Painted Blood is, in nearly every way, the album we were told Christ Illusion was going to be. The band by and large abandoned downtuning their guitars, returned to the classic Seasons in the Abyss-era hybrid of mid-tempo and hardcore-influenced thrashers, and turned in a set of lyrics that was their least embarrassing in years (something that, for roughly a decade prior to this record’s release, had become a recurring problem). The result is a fine record, one that slots itself comfortably into the middle of their body. The only reason it ranks under the works it does is because it broke almost no new ground; almost all of the ideas here are well-executed, but none originate here, and it’s hard to recommend this record over those it pulled from.
Another issue with the album is the back half, which peters out where other records from the group tend to end strong. However, these effectively become minor issues when you hold in hand one of the first records to really sound like Slayer since Seasons in the Abyss almost 20 years prior. It’s frustrating knowing that, chronologically, this record sat between the transitional Christ Illusion and the lukewarm Repentless, showing the power of the band in top form that wouldn’t ever be captured again.
Bittersweet though this may be, World Painted Blood still stands as a fine document of the capabilities of the group even decades into their career and is not only one of the finest Slayer records, but also potentially the best album from any of the Big Four of thrash in the past decade or two.
Best Tracks: “World Painted Blood”, “Unit 731”, and “Public Display of Dismemberment”
06. God Hates Us All (2001)
It is satisfying, in some grander scheme, that at least one Bostaph record earns its place in the upper rankings of Slayer’s work. It’s easy to look back at those years as creatively fallow for both the group in specific and the broader metal world at large, but there were some necessary experiments that kept Slayer from merely cranking out identical record after identical record. This becomes tremendously ironic, then, when God Hates Us All, a record that was more a formal return-to-form than Christ Illusion, which followed it, surpasses its peers from its era. Granted: the album, which was eerily released on 9/11, does so not by denying those experiments, but by incorporating them more organically in the context of what we know Slayer to be.
Take “Disciple”, for example, the track from which the album takes its name. The song marries a downtuned nu-metal groove, something the band had unsuccessfully dabbled in for years by that point and would continue to mine to diminishing ends, but finally found the proper space for Araya to belt out one of his utterly demonic howls, as well as the final punishing thrust of thrash and hardcore. That captures the running theme of God Hates Us All: a band that learns at last not to fear its legacy and its strong points and has started to become more sparing with those experimental flourishes that derailed otherwise strong compositions before. Still, it’s hard to consider this record one of the group’s absolute best. This is largely because, while it feels redemptive of the overall aesthetic project of the Bostaph years and the experiments with nu-metal, it doesn’t feel strongly additive in any real way.
The strongest, most compelling moments of the record are still when Slayer let go and simply play from the gut the way we know Slayer can and, by this point in their career, had already shown us they could. As a means to close an era that was difficult for many of the big ’80s metal bands, it fares far better than most of its peers, but, like those records by other groups released around this time, it doesn’t quite live up to that initial magic.
Best Tracks: “Disciple”, “Payback”, and “Exile”
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”