Slayer: Albums from Worst to Best
Should there be a silver lining to the ongoing coronavirus situation, it is that each of us can look inward and tend to our personal interests. One of the things I have been up to, during the pandemic, is listening to Slayer.
A fitting soundtrack to the Apocalypse but let’s hope this isn’t it.
For the longest time, I didn’t get Slayer. I discovered Metallica at fourteen, got into Iron Maiden at sixteen. Megadeth followed soon after. Anthrax didn’t do anything for me and I’m still on the fence in that regard. And Slayer? I gave Reign in Blood a spin and was unimpressed. Too punky, too monotonous, too raw, not melodic enough. Too Slayer, basically.
I wasn’t ready.
I veered off the straight and narrow metal path over the years, delving into proto-metal along the lines of Deep Purple, Rainbow and Uriah Heep; the seventies rock ’n’ roll of Led Zeppelin and Whitesnake, and various other music ranging from N.W.A. to Leonard Cohen, Daft Punk to Prince.
In recent years I found myself gravitating towards heavy metal again. I reacquainted myself with ‘Tallica and Maiden, and found myself getting into Judas Priest and Motörhead, even developing a taste for relative newcomers Mastadon and Trivium. And then…
I gave Slayer a second chance.
It started with Disciple making it onto my workout playlist — there’s nothing like pumping iron to Tom Araya shouting “GOD HATES US ALL!!!” Very convincingly for a practicing Roman Catholic. Then Bloodline, from the same album, seemed like a pretty good tune. From there it was the Unholy Trinity of Reign in Blood, South of Heaven, and Seasons in the Abyss.
And something just clicked. I finally got it. I got into Slayer.
Having gotten my personal Slayer journey, such as it is, out of the way, let us get down to business. A complete ranking of Slayer’s studio discography, from the worst to the best. I’m excluding the EP Haunting the Chapel (1984) and covers album Undisputed Attitude (1996).
So crank the volume. Pour yourself a cup of your poison of choice. Put your feet up. Read on. Agree or disagree. Agree to disagree. Carry on washing those hands. Keep calm, stay safe. It’s f***in’ Slayer!!!
At the bottom end of the spectrum there are the two album which, while adequate and respectable albums, feel less-than-Slayer.
11. Repentless (2015)
By no means a bad album, Slayers last salvo finds the band without original drummer Dave Lombardo and, more importantly, axe-master Jeff Hanneman who passed away in 2013. Even with Slayer veteran Paul Bostaph on drums and more than competent Exodus guitarist Gary Holt filling in, there is something missing.
At times, the songwriting seems uninspired and one dimensional, likely due to Hanneman’s absence. There are good songs but no greats. The lyrics are frequently awkward and on occasion Tom Araya delivery seems a bit lacking, like he is just going through the motion — this is particularly evident on Implode. On the upside, the leads are blistering and the album has a solid sound.
Not the grand finale the Slaytanic Hordes deserved but a respectable swan song nonetheless. Slayer could retire with their heads high.
Standout song: Cast the First Stone
Standout riff: Pride in Prejudice (chorus)
Body hangs, piano wire plays
The music will relieve you
So delicate and lifeless now
Is innocence victorious?
10. Show No Mercy (1983)
Seeing Slayer’s debut album so low on the list may come as a surprise but hear me out. And wait until you see where I put Diabolus in Musica before you blow your top.
This is the one album in the band’s discography where the band sounds positively derivative. There is Iron Maiden, there is Venom, Judas Priest and Mercyful Fate but the band doesn’t bring much of its own identity to mix. There are clumsy riffs and corny lyrics. There is but a hint of the tremendous beast which we came to know as Slayer.
The album is still an endearing first go by a band finding its feet and shaping its identity. You can hear the hunger and spunk in the performance and it is not without its bona fide diamonds, albeit in the rough: Die By the Sword, Black Magic and the title cut. There is also the foreshadowing of greatness on nearly every track and this, along with the band’s unbridled enthusiasm, is what pushes the album up above Repentless.
Standout song: Die by the Sword
Standout riff: Black Magic (intro, after fade-in)
I am the Antichrist
It’s what I was meant to be
Your God left me behind
And set my soul to be free
Meat and Potatoes
Moving up the list, here are a couple of Slayer album which provide the Slayer fix, one standard unit, but little more. This is not to say that these are not good albums. On the contrary, they are very solid, they’d have to be to give said fix of Slayer. They just do not have that elusive oomph which would push them from solidness to greatness.
9. Divine Intervention (1994)
Starting with Paul Bostaph’s admittedly impressive drum intro, Divine Intervention seems to have one overriding mission: Proving that Slayer can be Slayer without Dave Lombardo manning the kit. To my ears the band succeeds at this but the album does little else.
The sound is unhelpfully rather lifeless, even by Slayer standards, and somehow flat. There is a lack of dynamics which undercuts the power and emotion of the music. The outcome is a rather flat sounding album.
The music itself is adequate Slayer but at best provides nothing new, at worst rehashes ideas from the preceding trio of albums. Dittohead, while a decent enough song, feels like an intentional stab at the ferocity of a Reign in Blood number and 213 sounds Frankensteined from leftovers from South of Heaven and Seasons in the Abyss.
Standout song: Divine Intervention
Standout riff: Serenity in Murder (2nd intro riff)
In a web like Hell
How did I reach this place
Why are they haunting me
I cannot look at God’s face
8. Christ Illusion (2006)
Christ Illusion marked the return of drummer Dave Lombardo for his final stint with the band, making this the first album since 1990’s Seasons in the Abyss to feature the original Slayer lineup. Whatever the reason, it did not seem to revitalize the group.
There isn’t much to say about Christ Illusion. It’s a good Slayer album, it pushes all the right buttons, ticks all the boxes. Two clear standouts are opener Flesh Storm and Jihad , the latter of which tells the story of 9/11 from the perspective of the terrorists. The rest is your standard Slayer fare, no complaints but little in the way of highlights.
Standout song: Flesh Storm
Standout riff: Black Serenade (verse)
I will see you burned alive
Screaming for your God
I will hunt you down again for Him
The Variety Show
Only to the uninitiated do all Slayer albums and songs sound the same. Much like AC/DC, Motörhead, and Iron Maiden, Slayer nevertheless has a very clearly defined musical format. Within that format, the albums in spots 7 through 4 are as varied as Slayer gets and span almost a quarter century.
7. Diabolus in Musica (1998)
I did warn you. Now go ahead and blow your top.
Usually with lists such as this one, Diabolus in Musica is to be found in or very near the bottom spot. It seems to be the accepted doctrine: Diabolus is nü metal and nü metal sucks; ergo, Diabolus sucks. Logic.
Sure, Slayer dabbles in nü metal here, with down tuned guitars, looser riffs, syncopated grooves and all the trimmings. However, the band completely retains it identity. You cannot argue with the thrash of Bitter Peace, the double-bass volleys of Perversions of Pain, and the heavy riffing on In The Name of God. Lyrically it is all death, religion, blood, guts and gore. This is still most definitely Slayer, uncompromising, extreme and ferocious, incorporating new styles and influences.
As an amalgam of Slayer’s established sound and the happening music of the day, Diabolus in Musica is entirely successful. It is like they took a look at the new kids’ toys and decided to show dem young-uns how things are done.
Look at it like this: Diabolus in Musica may be the best nü metal album ever.
Naturally, this will not do for purists. For many, Diabolus does not provide the required fix and surely few will put this particular album on when they are craving Slayer. Nonetheless, a worthy album.
Standout song: Overt Enemy
Standout riff: Stain of Mind (opening groove)
You’ll meet your end
Find death alone
No grave to mark
The seeds you’ve sown
6. Hell Awaits (1985)
The band’s sophomore effort finds Slayer on the cusp of their greatness. Hell Awaits is leaps and bounds from their debut but still quite a ways from the gory glory of Reign in Blood and the two subsequent albums.
The influence of Mercyful Fate and Venom still looms large but unlike that of Show No Mercy, the music here is not derivative. The band is coming into its own in a big way, the beast is born and it’s awake and ferocious. In a way, this is the first true Slayer record, of great importance for the band and the metal genre.
Despite the overall strength of the songwriting, there are a handful of lacklustre, almost pedestrian riffs and some of the songs drag on a bit without good reason. The lyrics are hit and miss and Tom Araya has not found his identity as singer, although he is closer than on Show No Mercy. And the record’s sound doesn’t help things along in the slightest.
An important album but not on par with Slayer’s best(est) work.
Standout song: Kill Again
Standout riff: Kill Again (verse)
Running and hunting and slashing
and crushing and searching
and seeing and stabbing and shooting
and thrashing and smashing
and burning destroying and killing
and bleeding and pleading then Death
(Praise of Death)
5. God Hates Us All (2001)
Ah, yes. My personal gateway album. Mind you, I didn’t care much for it except for Disciple and Bloodline at first. Then it grew on me.
Infamously released on September 11 2001, God Hates Us All is far and away the best album of the Bostaph era and truly one of Slayer’s greatest. Disciple is the soaring highlight of the record but the songwriting is solid throughout, even if the lyrics falter a bit here and there. God Send Death, New Faith, Bloodline and War Zone, are all prime Slayer cuts. In true Slayer fashion, the production is bone dry.
The band tones down the nü metal elements and takes the first few steps back to its roots (a journey completed on Christ Illusion). The down tuned guitars remain, even adding seven string axes, and there are a few syncopated grooves reminiscent of Diabolus. However, the melding of styles is more successful here; it is nü metal tinged thrash, not the other way around.
A further note on Disciple: What a song. What a chorus. “GOD HATES US ALL! GOD HATES US ALL!!” It’s all that is Slayer in well under four minutes; thrash, groove, fury, menace, heresy, gore… it’s all there. While not necessarily the quintessential Slayer tune, it is the perfect introduction to the band and its style.
Standout song: Disciple
Standout riff: New Faith (pre-chorus)
I hate everyone equally
You can’t tear that out of me
No segregation, separation
Just me in my world of enemies
4. World Painted Blood (2009)
On this one, Slayer is the most Slayer since Seasons in the Abyss. And while it delivers shouted stories of war, religion and serial killers over the a familiar guitar and drum cacophony, there is a spark here which elevates the proceedings.
It’s an impressively intense set of songs from a band just two years away from filling three decades. The frenzied riffing heard on Unit 731 Public Display of Dismemberment and Psychopathy Red takes you back to the glories of Reign in Blood. It is also, in my opinion, the best sounding Slayer album, with a punchy low-end and crisp vocals.
The album has a few lyrics on the weaker side, courtesy of Kerry King: Hate Worldwide, Public Display of Dismemberment, and, in particular, Americon. Overall, however, these do not detract from the experience and saving the day is Tom Araya, barking the words with venom and utter conviction despite everything.
A special shout-out is in order for Playing with Dolls, probably the best post-Seasons Slayer number along with the aforementioned Disciple. And quite possibly the scariest ever. Incomprehensibly, Loudwire singled it out “easily the worst track in Slayer’s entire catalogue”.
Apparently about a child witnessing a serial killer at work, Dolls recalls Dead Skin Mask but takes things to a new level. The chilling half-spoken lyrics and eerie guitar motif paint a truly frightening picture, with the drums and the bass coming in for a crescendo to the bloodcurdling shout of “DIE IN FRONT OF ME!” Only Slayer could make that a song’s hook and make it so catchy. Then the thrashy bits really sounds like someone getting rather gruesomely killed. By murder. To death. Really hard. Araya sounds positively out of his mind throughout and delivers the “GOD CAN’T HELP YOU NOW!” and “YOU’LL WISH YOU WERE IN HELL!” with total abandon. I would go as far as saying that this is the best vocal performance of his career. A brilliant track, Loudwire be damned.
Standout song: Playing with Dolls
Standout riff: Psychopathy Red (intro)
Burning in your own hell, which now binds you to me infinitely
Spirits of angels don’t weep for you enticing me
(Beauty Through Order)
The Unholy Trinity
No surprises on which albums are in the top three. The order, however, may seem unorthodox.
3. Reign in Blood (1986)
Is that a raised eyebrow? Even a frown? Thought this would be number one, did ya? Cannot blame you, ’tis the gospel after all. Call me a heretic but afore you burn me at the stake, try to see my point.
Reign in Blood is a glorious album, a milestone of thrash metal and heavy metal in general. And perhaps the greatest collection of unadulterated thrash metal ever recorded. As a pure thrash metal album, I would place it above Metallica’s Master of Puppets without hesitation. However, it does one thing, and one thing only: Pummeling, blindingly fast, uncompromising thrash metal. Yes, it does this one thing spectacularly well but still, it only does that one thing. This is the record’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness.
Its strength because it is a barely controlled explosion of fury from beginning to end, perfect for what it is and flawlessly executed.
Its weakness because unlike, say, Master of Puppets, to which it is often compared, or the by now obvious top two albums on this list, Reign offers no sense of journey and little in the way of dynamics. It’s a 29 minutes long musical and narrative climax and this, perhaps counterintuitively, is what makes it ever so slightly inferior to follow-ups South of Heaven and Seasons in the Abyss.
An organic progression from Hell Awaits, Slayer has now shed most of its musical influences and has become its very own unique monster. The songwriting is excellent throughout and even if each song is a high velocity rager, there is enough variety to keep things from ever getting even within shouting distance of stale, let alone boring. Blistering opener Angel of Death and anthemic closer Raining Blood are the two towering giants but each song holds its own, with the frantic Piece by Piece meriting a special mention.
Standout song: Raining Blood
Standout riff: Raining Blood (intro)
My rage will be unleashed again
Burning the next morn
Death means nothing, there is no end
I will be reborn
2. South of Heaven (1988)
Coming off of Reign in Blood, the opening title song of South of Heaven says it loud: This one is different. And it is.
Probably aware that it was impossible to take the breakneck thrash of Reign any farther, Slayer consciously slowed things down and went for a moodier darker approach. This allows for more drama and dynamics, something that the band takes full advantage of on tracks like Mandatory Suicide and closer Spill the Blood.
The title cut, the album’s grand masterpiece, is a more mature and intricate composition than anything the band had written thus far. Note the build-up of the intro and the variation on the ominous main riff, the tempo changes, and the teasing of the pre-chorus before going back to the main riff for a new build up, prolonging the tension for the explosive shout-along chorus and screeching solo.
This is not to say that Slayer compromises its music or sound in any way. No one in their right mind could maintain that the band is anything but utterly true to themselves. South of Heaven, while a deliberate departure, is not a compromise but Slayer branching out to fulfill its potential.
And there is plenty of thrash on the record. Behold Silent Scream, Ghosts of War and Cleanse the Soul. The fury is more focused than before, almost calculated, and juxtaposed with comparatively subdued passages for greater impact. While never working itself into the blood frenzy of Reign, Slayer delivers the goods.
As an aside, while it does have some stiff competition, South of Heaven’s album cover must be the coolest, most impressive of all in Slayer’s catalogue.
Standout song: South of Heaven
Standout riff: South of Heaven (intro/main riff)
An unforeseen future nestled somewhere in time
Unsuspecting victims, no warnings, no signs
Judgment day, the second coming arrives
Before you see the light, you must die
(South of Heaven)
1. Seasons in the Abyss (1990)
Seasons in the Abyss builds on the groundwork laid on the two preceding albums. As a whole it sounds closer to Heaven and cements the elements it introduced into the Slayer canon while adding some new flourishes.
Kicking off the album is War Ensemble, one of the band’s greatest thrashers. It’s a barrage of mean riffs and mad drumming, quite possibly Dave Lombardo’s finest hour. The drummer extraordinaire somehow manages to maintain a groove and an almost jazzy feel at 206 beats per minute, throwing in tasteful, fluid fills and making it all sound effortless. While not the thrashiest of Slayer’s thrashers, it is certainly the most impressive.
Blood Red, a riffy metal boogie, is next with Spirit in Black picking up the tempo a bit before the doom of Expendable Youth. It is another highlight, tackling the subject of gang violence over an irresistible groove. And then it is on to Dead Skin Mask. A gourmet Slayer serial killer number, relating the horrid story of Ed Gein who inspired Leatherface, Buffalo Bill and Norman Bates. After Playing with Dolls, this is Slayer at their creepiest.
The second half, or side two, of the album is not quite as potent but more than adequately holds its own, building up to the explosion of Born of Fire which then gives way to album closer Seasons in the Abyss. The title song is reminiscent of South of Heaven, a grand fest of riffs and moody beats. It takes things one step further, an even more intricate composition and more epic in scope. Personally, I prefer South of Heaven‘s title track but the greatness of Seasons cannot be denied.
Seasons in the Abyss as an album stands above Reign in Blood and South of Heaven due not only to its great songs and performances, which the other two possess in spades, but its superior sense of journey and ebb-and-flow dynamics. The album takes you on a twisted voyage of death, darkness and deviancy, painting a full musical landscape of valleys and peaks in crunchy riffs, ear-splitting guitar leads, earth-shattering beats and forlorn howls. It is the culmination of everything the band had done since its inception. This is the apex, the absolute pinnacle, of Slayer.
Standout song: War Ensamble
Standout riff: Dead Skin Mask (intro/chorus)
Close your eyes
Look deep in your soul
Step outside yourself
And let your mind go
(Seasons in the Abyss)
Being a relative newcomer to Slayer, this ranking may well and likely will change over time. In particular, I expect the top three spots to shift amongst themselves: As it is, Reign is clawing at the back of Heaven, which is breathing down Season’s neck. Farther down, World Painted Blood only beat God Hates Us All by a hair’s breadth. We shall see.
Until then: Stay safe, keep calm and listen to f***in’ Slayer.