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”