In the 1980s, Slayer was one of the “Big 4” of thrash metal, alongside Anthrax, Metallica, and Megadeth. Taking a more extreme approach to the genre, Slayer was the subject of constant controversy and criticism for their gruesome art work and disturbing lyrics, which discussed topics ranging from serial killers to Satanism. The band thrived with the negative publicity, reaching a larger audience with the release of their quintessential album, 1986’s Reign In Blood. Slayer has been embraced by both underground and mainstream metal fans, and this list reflects the pivotal moments of the band’s career.
Slayer’s third album is constantly ranked by fans and critics alike as one of the best thrash metal albums of all time. Reign In Blood’s influence on not only thrash, but death and black metal is enormous. After the ambitious Hell Awaits, Slayer honed in their sound and shortened the song lengths, while turning the intensity way up. The band is in top form, and the production, done by Rick Rubin, has the right punch to it. “Angel Of Death” and “Raining Blood” are the recognizable tracks, but the one-two punch of “Altar Of Sacrifice” and “Jesus Saves” is the underrated gem of Reign In Blood.
Combining the brutal riffing of Reign In Blood and the slower melodies of South Of Heaven, Seasons In The Abyss is the last great Slayer album, before drummer Dave Lombardo departed and the '90s hit them like a skillet to the face. The band puts in their best collective performance, with tight drum work and frantic guitar work from Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman. The title track harkens back to the days of Hell Awaits, and “War Ensemble” is a live favorite to this day.
After the violent destruction Reign In Blood left behind, Slayer added some melodic elements to South Of Heaven. Vocalist Tom Araya cleanly sung on a few tracks, acoustic guitars were implemented on closer “Spill The Blood,” and the band was more calculating in their sonic onslaught. Slayer kept the intensity high, with the stand-out tracks being the title track, “Mandatory Suicide” and “Ghosts Of War.” It was a different approach for the band, one that got them mixed reviews from fans. Over time, most warmed up to the album, and South Of Heaven is now considered an underrated classic.
Slayer’s flirtation with a more progressive sound, Hell Awaits suffered from poor production, but the songwriting is arguably their strongest to date. Even when the songs slipped into the six-minute mark, the band kept things interesting with time changes, epic solos, and a brilliant performance by Lombardo. The album is brushed aside by most Slayer fans, which is an absolute travesty, considering how songs like “At Dawn They Sleep,” “Kill Again,” and “Crypts Of Eternity” rank as some of their finest moments to date.
Show No Mercy was Slayer on a NWOBHM trip, with a little Venom added in for good measure. Even in its early stages, Slayer was a force to be reckoned with. The most notable aspect of their debut album was the clean-sounding soloing by King and Hanneman, with none of the added effects and whammy effects that would dominate their guitar work in later years. Anthems like “The Anti-Christ” and “Die By The Sword” captivated audiences worldwide, while multifaceted tracks “Black Magic” and “Metal Storm/Face The Slayer” gave listeners a small hint of what was to come on Hell Awaits.