Well, I didn’t have to think too hard about adding the first thrash metal song to this series of classic rock n’ roll tunes. I’ve been listening to a custom-built 1-minute edit of this track for the last four months as I prepare for my shot at the 2010 U.S. Air Guitar National title.
The most bone-crushing song on the best thrash metal album ever recorded, “Angel of Death” is Slayer‘s unrivaled masterpiece. It’s the first song on 1986′s “Reign in Blood,” a record that scared the living crap out of me when I was 15.
If you’re going to tap into the aggressive, dark side of music, you can’t be singing about sunshine and flowers, so the lyrics of “Angel of Death,” written by guitarist Jeff Hanneman, detail experimental surgeries performed without anesthesia, bodies being sewn together, blood transfusions between twins, sex-change operations, organ and limb removal, and other disgusting things carried out by infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.
Taken as one, they are pretty ridiculous. Weirdly, however, when spit out by vocalist/bassist Tom Araya, they have a certain elegance. The words go with the music: quick and to the point, choppy, shouted, snarled–evil!
Silly? Easy to laugh at? Yes. But with Dave Lombardo‘s impossibly fast double-time drum beat and some of the coolest most neck-breaking riffs around, all that crazy violent shit is just the kind of stuff you want to scream along to. Yes, the song created controversy, but it wouldn’t be a good metal tune if it hadn’t!
The highlights: Araya’s blood-curdling scream at :20. One of the all-time great metal screams ever.
1:38 – The most badass half-time riff change up ever? It may be. It was so badass that it was sampled by Public Enemy as the basis for their song “She Watch Channel Zero” from their breakthrough (and equally angry) record “It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.” Combined with James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” it makes one hell of a backing track.
2:07 - Back to regular time for a two bridges (I guess they’re bridges?) with some of the most straightforward headbanging riffing of the song, culminating in the half-time riff played straight now.
3:35 - Dueling guitar solos at unheard-of speeds from Hanneman and Kerry King that will melt your brain.
4:24 – Best drum break ever (see “The Precision” below).
4:46 – Second best metal scream ever, next to the one above at :20.
The Production: Clean, bright, perfect production from Rick Rubin. You can hear every little note of the whammy bar, every “chung-chung,” and every lightning-fast bass drum hit.
The Precision: It always seems like the song will careen off into nothingness, but it’s played with a sickening tightness that will be envied forever.
Trust me, this entry is coming not only from a big fan of “Reign In Blood,” but also someone who has listened to at least one minute of this track over 500 times in four short months. This is an epic achievement in recording, and “Angel of Death” deserves a place right alongside George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” as the best of a genre.
The Great Songs Series so far: