OTR, Take 35: Slayer - Reign in Blood

There's a venue near where I live, in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh. It has a beautiful stage and was the place where the "old people" would go. When I was a kid, 60s and 70s cover bands would play regularly, Beatles, Stones, and Doors tribute bands would gather large crowds on a Friday or Saturday night. Sometimes I'd go to those shows, because I like that music too, and hang out with the old people.

Lately, I've noticed this venue having more and more shows that appeal to me. Toadies played there last year. Sister Hazel a few months ago ("Sister Hazel? Shit, yeah, I remember them. It's $20, might as well go...") Last night Audra and I went to see a 90s and 00s cover band and it dawned on me: I'm now "old people."

Or middle-aged, at least. The band opened with Dishwalla's Counting Blue Cars, Coldplay's Yellow, and Gin Blossom's Hey Jealousy and the crowd responded like the crowds did when I played in my grad school hair metal cover band, belting out shitty hits like Bon Jovi's Runaway or Youth Gone Wild by Skid Row. Massive singalongs from a crowd that dug out some flannel, their Doc Martens or All Stars, and jeans that likely should have stayed in the closet.

Nothing quite says Mericuh, fuck yeah! like two 50- to 55-year-old rich white women with perms and tattoos dancing together to Snoop's Drop It Like Its Hot between sets.

It was ridiculous. Glorious too, but mostly ridiculous.

Although... (there's always an although). I left wishing that the setlist wasn't comprised of so many one-hit-wonder songs: Absolutely (Story of a Girl), Teenage Dirtbag, Little Black Backpack, etc., and instead got into some more interesting bits of the 90s. Would love some Marcy Playground, Eels, Hum, or some non-singles from Nirvana, Oasis, the Verve, STP, or Radiohead. Just to see if anyone could pull it off, some My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, or Ride.

I know, I know: then go form your own band. I can't say it's not appealing, but I think I have enough projects....

Not my normal fare.

A week ago, my buddy Rob told me I was playing it easy. Generally, On the Record features albums that I own and that I feel like listening to, which self-selects into writing about albums and bands that I know a lot about and have deep experiences associated with. Rob and I have kicked music back and forth for nearly 25 years and know each other's taste very, very well – the Venn diagram of our taste might not be a single circle, but the overlapping portion is about as large as it is with anyone I know.

So when he told me he was going to send me a record to make my life harder this Saturday morning, I knew he was going to send me something tailor-made to get under my skin. Rob is the guy who once sent me the hat below:

Photo circa 2015?

Rudy's time over the barrel has come, and so has mine – in the form of Slayer's Reign in Blood.

Despite the fact that I played in a hair metal cover band, I don't like the music. I like thrash metal even less, and don't get be started on black metal. My roommate in grad school was a metalhead and I've listened to more than enough Burzum, Lamb of God, Testament, etc. to have a considered, rather than knee-jerk, opinion on this music.

I don't like it, with exceptions for Metallica, and some others, which are fine. I find it boring – both musically and lyrically. Juvenile, mostly vapid thoughts about Satan or some such putatively incendiary, but in fact vapid-to-the-point-of-silliness topic. But in this religion-obsessed country, saying anything about the devil warrants pyres, right? Christ, even John Lennon was able to raise the ire of churchgoing Americans by saying the Beatles were bigger than Jesus.

Popularity probably isn't the best metric to go on, but the Beatles have been more important to me than Jesus. Take that for what it's worth, and hit unsubscribe if you must.

Anyway, color me a little surprised when I dropped the needle on "Angel of Death," the opening track on Reign in Blood, to realize, after a listen or two, that the song was actually about something that was a little provocative. You don't often hear songs about Josef Mengele and his experiments at Auschwitz. This is almost certainly a good thing. Apparently, the band was surprised that they were criticized for not overtly disavowing Mengele in the song:

I know why people misinterpret it – it's because they get this knee-jerk reaction to it. When they read the lyrics, there's nothing I put in the lyrics that says necessarily that he was a bad man, because to me – well, isn't that obvious? I shouldn't have to tell you that.

Probably not, but then metalheads aren't always the most careful readers or thinkers (not all metalheads, I know, I know...).

The first thing that grabbed my attention about the record happened before I tore the plastic off: the album was put out by American Records and Def Jam. Neither of these groups generally associated with metal and, in 1986, when Slayer released Reign in Blood, Rick Rubin (American Records) and Def Jam (Rubin and Russell Simmons) were associated almost exclusively with hip hop.

Not pictured: Slayer's Sella Artois product placement.

What the hell was Slayer doing on the same label as Run DMC and LL Cool J?

Does. Not. Compute.

Except! Rick Rubin is one of those guys who, when he hears something he finds intriguing, he chases it down. He's one of those players in the world of music who absolutely fascinates me. His book, The Creative Act, is one of the finest explorations of creativity this side of Pressfield, Seth Godin, or Tony Albrecht. When Rubin decides to listen, interesting things happen.

Not everything he touches is gold – quite a lot of it is garbage – but he has a high enough hit rate, you pay attention. And he sought out Slayer, recruited them to Def Jam, even though the band was understandably reluctant. The result is one of the clearest and best sounding metal albums I've ever heard. It's not a mush of noise. Each instrument is clear, present, and purposeful.

Do I like the album? Let's just say it's unlikely I'll spin it very often. But it's interesting actually listening to and learning about an album, how it was created, the people involved. It's always the people that are the interesting thing, isn't it?

If I were to rate the album, Pitchfork style, I'd give it an 8.8 with a Rotten Tomato style audience (me) rating of 4.2.

And with that, I'm fucking done with Slayer. It remains the case that, if you send me a record, I will feature it. People who have sent me records have a 100% hit rate. Hit me up, people!

I'll be back next week with a new episode of Sonder Union and in two weeks with another dive into whatever's on my mind, set to the soundtrack of the week.

Thanks, as always, for reading!

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