The 20 greatest Slayer songs – ranked
When Slayer called it a day at the Los Angeles Forum on November 30, 2019, they left behind a legacy unlike any other. Faster, angrier and far more evil than even their most esteemed contemporaries, the Huntington Park quartet might’ve been influenced by the NWOBHM and hardcore punk scenes that had been running riot at the start of the 1980s, but they didn’t take long in blazing a new trail that would change everything.
Courting themes as agitative and unspeakable as Satanism, serial killers, torture, hate crime, genocide, terrorism, human experimentation, war, prison squalor and Nazism, they could’ve come off as cheap provocateurs. Instead, they conjured a brand of extremity that seemed to have been forged in the very depths of hell.
Bassist Tom Arya and guitarist Kerry King were the long-standing faces of the metal institution, but fellow six-stringer Jeff Hanneman (who passed away in 2013) and drummer Dave Lombardo were perhaps even more integral parts in establishing their diabolical formula, while stand-in sticksman Paul Bostaph and erstwhile Exodus axe-man Gary Holt both gouged their mark. There were ups and downs with those changing personalities over the years, and by their final phase some claimed that the band had become almost self-parodical. Yet even their staunchest doubters couldn’t deny that enduring serrated edge and sense of danger at live shows stoked by a manic, almost cult-like fanbase.
In compiling a Top 20, there’s always the temptation to list 1986’s seminal third LP Reign In Blood in full, with a few choice cuts from the pairs of classic albums on either side, but that would be a disservice to the true 38-year reign that saw Slayer continue to push boundaries and bust taboos, ensuring that arena-worthy metal could never become boring – or stray in too far from the fringes. As such, there are some stone-cold classics we’ve had to leave out. We look forward to you embracing the rage in the comments…
20. Evil Has No Boundaries (Show No Mercy, 1983)
The first cut off Slayer’s debut LP proves that – right from the starting line – they weren’t fucking about. Listening now, the thin percussion gives the song something of an archaic, from-the-crypt quality, but the combination of 100mph thrash riffage, runaway lead guitar and gleefully Mephistophelean lyrics meant that it felt like a no-holds-barred game-changer at the time. The pitch black absurdity of the pivotal chant-along – ‘Evil! / My words defy / Evil! / Has no disguise’ – takes it to another level of Hell…
19. Repentless (Repentless, 2015)
One of the first tracks released following the death of the great Jeff Hanneman – and the titular lead single to their final album – Repentless had a lot to prove. It sure as hell didn’t hold back. Going for the jugular and cleaving on through the arterial spray, there’s sod-all subtlety on show, with guitars set to destroy and relatively simplistic lyrics seething with angry old man energy. ‘Arrogance, violence, world in disarray,’ Tom screams. ‘Dealing with insanity every fuckin’ day / I hate the life, hate the fame, hate the fuckin’ scene / Pissing match of egos, fuck their vanity!’ The gore-drenched, behind-bars music video initially feels like a tongue-in-cheek riposte to Metallica’s bloodless St. Anger cut but proceeds to go so far over the top it feels like a landmark in and of itself.
18. Skeletons Of Society (Seasons In The Abyss, 1990)
Slayer might be masters of unlocking the power in pessimism across their catalogue, but the seventh track from Seasons In The Abyss stands skull and scapula above. Arriving on a deceptively springy riff, the song quickly transports us to a post-apocalyptic hellscape. ‘Minutes seem like days / Since fire ruled the sky / The rich became the beggars / And the fools became the wise / Memories linger in my brain / Of burning from the acid rain…’ In one sense, it’s a powerful lament of societal corruption, the decline of civilisation and eventual Armageddon. In another, it’s a wild-eyed, nihilistic invitation to embrace the inevitable end.
17. Jesus Saves (Reign In Blood, 1986)
Two minutes and 54 seconds of unstoppable sonic escalation, the final track on the first side of Reign In Blood is a full-throttle Slayer benchmark even before we scratch the surface. Its wry, anti-Christian message, however, was even more of a key milestone in their thematic evolution. ‘You go to the church, you kiss the cross,’ Tom challenges the dogma. ‘You will be saved at any cost / You have your own reality / Christianity!’ At first challenging the prioritisation of repentance over good deeds before reaching a hopeless conclusion that the belief in any kind of afterlife is, ultimately, absurd, this might just be Slayer at their most pointedly philosophical.
16. Jihad (Christ Illusion, 2006)
Dropping just before the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Jihad was proof that Slayer could still ruffle a few feathers well into their late-career. Taking the viewpoint of a Jihadi who took part in the aforementioned attacks and concluding with a spoken-word passage taken directly from the writings of plotter Mohamed Atta, it trod similar taboo-busting ground to 1986 landmark Angel Of Death and was met with uncertainty and outrage by a mainstream media drawn like moths to the sheer burning provocation but unable to actually handle it. ‘Strike as champions at the heart of the nonbelievers / Strike above the neck and at all extremities,’ goes the nightmarish stream-of-consciousness. ‘When you reach ground zero you will have killed the enemy / The great Satan!’ No fucks given.
15. At Dawn They Sleep (Hell Awaits, 1985)
Although the production isn’t quite as cutting-edge as that on the following year’s Reign In Blood, At Dawn They Sleep feels like a showcase of the virtuoso foundations on which Slayer would build their devilish reputation. The song takes its inspiration from the bloodthirsty tale of Dracula (‘Taste the sins of Hell / The blood that I so crave’) but it’s the combination of incredible main riff, duelling guitar solos, Dave Lombardo’s peerless percussion, and a rare spotlight on Tom’s bass-work – set at the front of the mix – that has seen this underrated classic haunt so many metalheads’ dreams. Thrash with indisputable bite.
14. Black Magic (Show No Mercy, 1983)
Echoes of the epic gallop of the NWOBHM ring throughout much of Slayer’s earliest output, but it was Black Magic that saw them tap into the more frantic, vicious sound that would become their signature. With its buzzsaw riff fading in like a fast-approaching swarm of killer bees before exploding in an eruption of punkish energy and bloodshot rage, you can practically hear the standards being set for every thrash band to follow, while the serrated execution is pure Slayer. ‘Spells surround me day and night,’ declares Tom in a deep, cod-demonic tone, ‘Stricken by the force of evil light.’ It’s a pretty accurate appraisal of where they were at, all right.
13. World Painted Blood (World Painted Blood, 2009)
Expectations for Slayer’s 11th LP were high after the rabble-rousing return to form that was 2006’s Christ Illusion. Although World Painted Blood didn’t quite match up as a collection, its nightmarish title-track and third single felt like a return to the apocalyptic brilliance with which the band had made their name. A final world-class statement from the classic line-up featuring Jeff Hanneman (the instrumental mastermind here) and Dave Lombardo, it emerges from a purgatorial churn with real purpose and venom, depicting a planet on the slide as Tom prophecies: ‘Disease spreading death / Entire population dies / Dead before you’re born / Massive suicide…’ Bleak, but brilliant.
12. Postmortem (Reign In Blood, 1986)
Clocking in at under 29 minutes, Reign In Blood is an unstoppable speed metal masterclass that set the standard for every thrash album to follow through its sheer force of momentum. Postmortem stands apart somewhat: a largely mid-paced banger with a monumental opening riff and chugging attack that felt like their black-blooded version of a formula Metallica had perfected with classics like Ride The Lightning and Creeping Death. When they do hit full throttle as those closing 45 seconds career into Raining Blood it feels all the more powerful for it.
11. South Of Heaven (South Of Heaven, 1988)
A pivotal evolution from Postmortem’s controlled attack, the title-track to fourth album South Of Heaven saw Slayer dampen the pace further still, unlocking untold new depths of insidious menace with the promise that they could take their time while still stripping the flesh from our bones. Built from distortion-free guitars, vertiginous drum fills and stripped-back vocals, it felt like metal titans dropping the speed to appreciate their heat and weight. ‘The root of all evil is the heart of a black soul,’ Tom insists. ‘A force that has lived all eternity / A never ending search for a truth never told / The loss of all hope and your dignity.’ The aural equivalent of being lowered into a lake of fire.
10. Dead Skin Mask (Seasons In The Abyss, 1990)
An influence on cinematic horrors as varied and brilliant as Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence Of The Lambs, it feels almost inevitable that infamous Wisconsin grave-robber and murderer Ed Gein crops up somewhere in the Slayer discography. What wasn’t inevitable was the conversion of gleeful ghoulishness and stomach-churning luridity into one of their greatest ever tracks. From that iconically creepy riff through the woozy earworm chorus – ‘Dance with the dead in my dreams / Listen to their hallowed screams / The dead have taken my soul / Temptation’s lost all control’ – to that insertion of a child’s pleading towards the conclusion, it’s as unsettling a treatment as any on the silver screen.
9. Die By The Sword (Show No Mercy, 1983)
Show No Mercy’s standout track mightn’t have been the clearest signpost of the darkness and chaos that would follow, but it remains a vibrant snapshot of a heady moment in time. The influences at play are clear to see, from the scratchy darkness of Venom and swaggering theatrics of Judas Priest to the aggression and energy of Dead Kennedys and Black Flag. Still finding their feet, elements of the sound – Tom’s more melodic vocals, Dave’s jazzier percussion – feel thrillingly unfamiliar. And yet, the evil intent was so clearly at play: ‘Satan watches all of us / Smiles as some do his bidding / Try to escape the grasp of my hand / And your life will no longer exist!’ Damned good.
8. Chemical Warfare (Haunting The Chapel, 1983)
Six short months after they’d dropped Show No Mercy, Slayer upped the game with three-track EP Haunting The Chapel. Its central track, Chemical Warfare, found the band further nailing what would become central aspects of their sound (Dave Lombardo’s double-bass attack is loosed for the first time – reportedly performed on a bare concrete floor) while more directly addressing the real-world horrors which would provide such rich artistic returns. Although tracks like Expendable Youth, Mandatory Suicide and War Ensemble would significantly flesh-out their vision of the horrors of war, there remains a sickening undercurrent of helplessness and alarm here that was never really surpassed.
7. Hell Awaits (Hell Awaits, 1985)
The title-track to second album Hell Awaits was a game-changer, not just for thrash, but for the whole extreme metal underground that would open up in its wake. Opening with 60 seconds of backmasked demonic pleas to ‘Join us!’ before juddering into life with Luciferian intent, it was proof of just how evil music could be. ‘The Gates of Hell lie waiting as you see,’ Tom declares, breathlessly. ‘There’s no price to pay just follow me / I can take your lost soul from the grave / Jesus knows your soul can not be saved!’ If the sheer speed on display wasn’t enough to blow early listeners’ minds, the deployment of death growls – years before they would become an extremist standard – around the four-minute mark certainly did the trick.
6. Mandatory Suicide (South Of Heaven, 1988)
In a 1988 Kerrang! interview to coincide with the release of South Of Heaven, Jeff Hanneman would reveal that two of his brothers were drafted to serve in the Vietnam War: the United States’ great mid-20th century military folly that left almost 60,000 young men dead and a further 300,000 wounded. A mere 13 years after the fall of Saigon, Slayer would reflect on that recent history for what was perhaps their most razor-sharp socio-political commentary. The distended six-strings and Tom’s high-pitched cries (‘BUUUURN!’) add a sense of horror to what’s actually a pretty damn catchy composition. A provocative T‑shirt circulated at the time cut to the heart of the message: on the front a young man hanging dead; on the rear a letter confirming his acceptance into the ranks of a military academy.
5. War Ensemble (Seasons In The Abyss, 1990)
Continuing the camo-clad themes of conflict and the ultimate futility of war, the opening track from fifth album Seasons In The Abyss comes on like a take-no-prisoners battle cry – one of the strongest opening tracks in the history of metal – while challenging the bloodthirsty status quo in western society. ‘The sport is war, total war,’ sings Tom, wryly. ‘When victory’s a massacre / The final swing is not a drill / It’s how many people I can kill!’ Rolling on with the incendiary power of a mortar blast and tank-track unstoppability, of course, it inevitably became a blissfully-ignorant mosh anthem for excitable fans – and was reportedly embraced as the soundtrack to many soldiers’ shipping out the following year as part of the Operation Desert Storm offensive in Iraq.
4. Disciple (God Hates Us All, 2001)
Having languished somewhat, through the ’90s, with the solid but unremarkable likes of 1994’s Divine Intervention, 1996’s Undisputed Attitude and 1998’s Diabolicus In Musica, 2001’s God Hates Us All saw Slayer arrive in the new millennium with zero nuance and all guns blazing for a truly diabolical mid-career masterpiece. Although tracks like New Faith and Bloodline deserve credit, it’s second track Disciple that sticks most prominently in the memory. All gnarled riffage and bludgeoning percussion, it’s a strong instrumental in itself, but the true glee is seeing Kerry King’s hilariously blasphemous lyrics spat by professed Catholic Tom Arya: ‘Hate heals, you should try it sometime / Strive for peace with acts of war / The beauty of death we all adore / I have no faith distracting me / I know why your prayers will never be answered / God hates us all!’
3. Seasons In The Abyss (Seasons In The Abyss, 1990)
Some argue that the title-track to Slayer’s astonishing fifth LP was their attempt to crack the mainstream. As a woozy experiment in jagged nightmare psychedelia built around a doom tempo and capped with perhaps their catchiest chorus (‘Close your eyes / Look deep in your soul / Step outside yourself / And let your mind go!’), it’s easy to see why, but retrospect has cast it in a less cynical light as a broadening of the very thrash dynamics they had helped mould in the first place. On top of that, the track’s message about embracing insanity is arguably the most positive in their whole twisted back-catalogue, while the oft-overlooked music video – shot at the Giza Plateau in Egypt – adds another level of esoteric intrigue.
2. Raining Blood (Reign In Blood, 1986)
The cacophonous closer to Reign In Blood is, simply put, one of the most iconic moments in all of heavy music. From that thunder strike and the sheets of crashing rain through the banshee shrieks of electric guitar into a riff that manages to feel like the most evil thing ever committed to record, while being simultaneously sophisticated enough to electrically echo elements of Camille Saint-Saëns’ classical masterwork Danse Macabre. That sophistication is soon washed away, however, in a deluge of neck-rending fury, squealing solos and hammering drums that breaks, suddenly, back into the ambient sounds of a passing storm. A fitting end to one of the greatest albums of all time, bettered only by the song that opens it…
1. Angel Of Death (Reign In Blood, 1986)
Even with the excellent material that had come before, fans experiencing Angel Of Death for the first time were knocked on their asses. Opening with 100 seconds of pedal-to-the-metal attack – punctuated by Tom Arya’s spine-shuddering scream – before it breaks out the buffet of hellish riffage and squalling solos, this was the boundary-line where extreme metal connected with the masses. Writing about the exploits of infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, Jeff Hanneman details a catalogue of unwavering experimental cruelty with an unwavering stare (‘Pumped with fluid, inside your brain / Pressure in your skull begins pushing through your eyes / Burning flesh, drips away / Test of heat burns your skin, your mind starts to boil’) while Tom attempts to channel the fear and anguish of the “patients” held at Auschwitz. Outrage predictably followed, but it has long since subsided whereas the song’s reputation as an untouchable masterpiece only grows with the inexorable passage of the years. FUCKIN’ SSSLLAAAAAYEEEUUURRGGHHH!
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