An artist’s youth is arguably his most fertile creative period. It is here, past the struggles of adolescence but not yet at the point of complete maturity, where he develops experience without yet abandoning his instinctual methodology, often creating his most beloved works in the process. In heavy metal, it is far from uncommon to find the majority of a band’s fans worshipping at the feet of their older albums, many going so far as to deride the band’s later works in order to create a sharper contrast between them and the favored albums of old. But while age comes with decreased ability, physical weakness, blurry vision, obsolescence, and a host of other debilitations, the benefits of maturity can be just as far-reaching. And if this experience is reconnected with the fervor of youth, even an old dog can learn a few very impressive new tricks and remind the pups that he ain’t a hound to be fucked with.
With that, we reach World Painted Blood, Slayer’s tenth studio album. This one managed to sneak up on me quite unlike their last album, Christ Illusion, whose development I followed fervently from first announcement to opening day purchase. That album had “comeback” hype branded on it from day one, leaving us fans to nervously cross our fingers until we were (mostly) satisfied with the results. World Painted Blood did not have this hype; after all, once you’re ‘back,’ expectant fans need you to merely keep up the good work. Apparently hype and immediate gratification must be directly proportional, because World Painted Blood didn’t have that going for it either when I finally got my paws on a physical copy. Where Christ Illusion wasted no time demonstrating the renewed vigor of the aging band, World Painted Blood takes time to warm up: its title track, though traditionally in either the opening or closing role on a Slayer album, serves as a less-than-ideal opening cut when compared to some of the album’s other tracks and further exacerbates the patience of those hopeful listeners geared up for the spine-tearing thrash-fest that eventually ensues. But patience is a virtue, as they say, and the virtuous will find that what Slayer has done here is not merely recapture the furiously controlled chaos and vintage riffs of their better days, but the subtlety and unnerving atmosphere of those days as well, all without the throwback vibe that so frequently soils new thrash albums, from young bands and old alike.
The first intimation of Slayer doing things how they used to is also the most obvious. Slayer once performed the tightest, most genuinely enjoyable thrash metal on the face of the earth, and on at least half of World Painted Blood’s tracks, they seek to do this once again. “Snuff,” “Psychopathy Red,” “Unit 731” and their brood are direct descendents of the sort of thrash that Slayer used to command in the 80’s, most overtly on Reign in Blood. Not every song has the raging thrash hard-on that these songs have, but most of the rest have abundant fast passages of varying degrees of importance in their respective structures. But more on those later: right now, let us bask in the glow of Slayer’s glorious fucking riffs. If there’s one thing this band has never ceased to execute masterfully, it’s no-nonsense thrash. At first, it’s easy to get the impression that’s it’s simply “new” Slayer playing “old” Slayer, what with some of the lower tuned guitars still making the occasional appearance, but hey, it beats “new” Slayer playing “new” Slayer, right? The impression dulls as the album continues, eventually disappearing completely in wake of the fury of the particularly potent “Psychopathy Red,” which is as fearsome a track as they’ve ever written. The people who'd dislike this stuff are probably the same people that haven’t liked anything since Reign.
One nice thing about these faster tracks is that they break Christ Illusion’s annoying habit of going to hell when the tempo drops. You know the feeling: you’re nicely thrashing along when all of a sudden an unsavory groovy bit hits you hard, reminding you of the GHUA days a bit too distinctly. Here slow passages are handled like they used to be handled, as fucking devastating contrast to the main riffage. There’s one such break in “Public Display of Dismemberment,” which plummets to a Hell Awaits-era crawl before racing back into the tempo proper. There also a nonlinear feel to the songs that recalls the old days. Verse riffs will mutate as the songs progress, 4’s will be liberally swapped with 3’s in the meter and arrangements, and there’s just a generally unpredictability to these songs without losing fluidity. These sorts of things happen frequently and the moral seems to be that the band is just doing things the way they should be, the way they used to.
Need more proof? A quick breeze through the liner notes reveals that the songs are once again balanced between Hanneman and King compositions, where the last two albums were heavily King-composed and Diabolus was mostly Hanneman’s blunders. Lyrically we have a return to the plainspoken violence of the old days, with lots of Araya serial-killer literature resurfacing and only a few isolated “Kerry King hates religion” dead horse beatings. Now the actual quality of the lyrics is pretty low, as there’s a scrappy, unfocused quality to them that is nowhere near the legitimacy of their old stuff (not to mention the titles….Slayer have apparently entered a crappy song title competition, and I bet any money that they’re winning…) but the effort is there, and I feel like its honest. And that’s what fucking counts. Certainly someone will slag “Snuff” for opening with a guitar solo and someone else will slag “Human Strain” for not having one, and I know someone will shit on Tom Araya’s hectic screeching at the end of “Psychopathy Red” because he doesn’t sound as good as he did, but it’s all in the name of giving a damn, and there’s plenty of young bands you really can’t say the same thing about. Take “Public Display,” with its notorious blast beats (Dave Lombardo, more than his bandmates, is at the top of his game on this album from beginning to almost end. He doesn’t use triggers either, as far as I can tell) and death-metal inspired riffing. Slayer haven’t been at the forefront of extremity for something like a quarter of a decade, but does that bother them? Apparently not; they’re playing whatever the fuck they want.
And on World Painted Blood, sometimes what they want is to play a little slower. Though Slayer’s most high-profile relationship was their disastrous affair with groove/mallcore trademarks for Diabolus and GHUA, they’ve always been a band that has openly courted controversy. As such, there were bound to be a few tracks on here that would prove controversial due to the latent numskullery of a certain portion of their fanbase. And it’s when the band kicks the tempo back a bit that this is most likely to happen. For instance, the title track has a lengthy buildup before climaxing into a riffset that’s a few bpm’s less than one might expect, particularly for an opening track on a fucking Slayer album (more like an old Exodus tempo). But it works, and the middle part is as memorable as any they’ve ever crafted. Getting into the meat of the album, the listener will find Slayer willing to go slower still. “Human Strain,” “Playing with Dolls,” and especially “Beauty Though Order” find the emphasis shifting away from speed, immediately calling to mind their unfortunate turn of the millennium experiments. The actual result is a reemergence of the atmospheric emphasis that they introduced on South of Heaven, developed on Seasons in the Abyss, and refined on Divine Intervention. “Beauty Through Order” doesn’t seem too out of the ordinary (though it appears to be about Elizabeth Bathory, which is cool), that is until the bridge suddenly lurks from out of the shadows and strikes the same chord of menace so often utilized by this band (see: “Behind the Crooked Cross,” “Dead Skin Mask,” “Divine Intervention,’ among dozens of others). “Human Strain” has a similar effect, the riffs suddenly evaporate leaving one strange chilling sequence, heightened by Tom’s vocal melody (yes, he uses those again, further reinforcing the Seasons/South of Heaven influence). It is the creepy, disturbing variety of Slayer riffage that has not been properly employed since the old days, and I tell ya, I didn’t even realize that I missed it until this album so eloquently reminded me how well it can be done.
It is three of the last four tracks on the album that somehow prove most controversial and, aside from the overall lyrical weakness, are the only detrimental bits on World Painted Blood. “Playing with Dolls” is one of the experimental ones, featuring a “new” Slayer riffset that takes the idea of the intro riff from “Jihad” and expands it into a whole song. It’s not a highlight (Tom’s clean vocals are not as chilling as they were on say, “Serenity in Murder”) but it has some interesting melodic interaction that fits with their resurrected atmospheric intentions. “Not of This God” has Kerry and Jeff dusting off their 7-strings for another go and the results are also mixed. The fast parts are passable; the bridge can’t help but remind you of Disturbed or something. Only one track deserves not to be here, and that’s “Americon.” Not only are the lyrics noticeably worse than anywhere else, its clunky groove riffs stake out a middle ground between the enjoyable thrash and atmospheric bits showcased earlier without being thrash, atmospheric, or enjoyable. Arguably one of the most tedious songs they’ve ever written, up there with “Overt Enemy,” “Wicked,” and the ones they did with Ice T and Atari Teenage Riot.
As a final aside, those interested in picking up the album will notice that there are two different versions floating around: the regular and the special edition. The difference? The special edition costs more and features a DVD with a 20-minute “animated graphic novel” based off the music of the album. I’m pretty ridiculous about having all of Slayer’s extra shit (for instance, I’m one of those saps that bought the Christ Illusion rerelease as well as the original) and even I’m glad I didn’t fall for this shit. The “film” is poorly produced and amateurish, not to mention entirely predictable. After about three minutes in, you know exactly how the other 17 minutes are going to go. It also has very little to do with the album’s music, merely featuring little snippets here and there (including one non-album track which probably rules, if you could hear more of it that is). In short, it’s lame as hell, so get the regular edition if any at all. Anyone needing proof can find the video on Youtube anyway.
Those wanting a full return to Reign in Blood aren’t going to get it. Neither are those wanting a return to South of Heaven or Christ Illusion or any other one of their albums. But while it isn’t exactly the new Slayer album you might have wanted, it’s the new Slayer album that you need. World Painted Blood is the sound of an aging band once again operating at the peak potential for where they’re at. Perhaps not as transcendental as the sound of youth, but the sound of age comes with self-assurance in the quality of your material, regardless of whether or not it’s fitting trends or if the fans will dig it. The result here is the most fluid compositions and legitimate intensity we’ve seen from Slayer in a long time. It’s a grower, for certain, but the payoff is more than satisfying.
Highlights: “Beauty Through Order,” “Psychopathy Red,” “Public Display of Dismemberment”