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”