n some level, it must be incredibly easy to be in Slayer. All you have to do is play the same ten songs each show, and your fans will love you. On the other hand, if you don't play those same ten songs each show, your fans will hate you. Any musician with "hits" faces this, but the problem is particularly acute for Slayer, responsible for some of metal's most timeless anthems, such as "Angel of Death," "Raining Blood," and "Dead Skin Mask." Slayer fans are notorious for chanting "Slayer" during other bands' sets and showing a general willingness to scar themselves, through tattoo or otherwise, in Slayer's name. Thus, any fan paying $30 for a show better damn well hear "War Ensemble." But Slayer's last classic album was 1990's Seasons in the Abyss.
To understand Slayer, back up to the early '80s. Dave Lombardo, Kerry King, Jeff Hanneman, and Tom Araya got together to cover Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, but gravitated towards a faster, darker, then-emerging sound: thrash metal. Metal Blade Records signed the band for its early outings, two EP's and two full-lengths. The sound was raw and muddy, but the ingredients were there: Lombardo's whip-cracking drums, King and Hanneman's speedy riffs and atonal solos, and Araya's expressive screams. Producer Rick Rubin stripped away the reverb and focused these elements for 1986's Reign in Blood. The album was a perfect half hour, the epitome of "all killer, no filler." Realizing it couldn't top Reign in Blood in speed, the band slowed down slightly for South of Heaven. Seasons in the Abyss rounded out Slayer's unstoppable late '80s run; almost all the band's hits (and live set) come from these three albums.
Slayer's output since has been solid, if unspectacular. Divine Intervention, Diabolus in Musica, and God Hates Us All follow the same pattern: a few stellar songs per album, with a lot of filler. Slayer's filler would be other bands' gold, as the band consistently delivers aggressive performances. However, the songwriting has been hit-or-miss, with few songs that hold up like the classics ("Disciple" from God Hates Us All is a notable exception). Rubin helmed the somewhat flat Diabolus in Musica, so obviously he didn't have all the answers. Lombardo left after Seasons in the Abyss—maybe that had something to do with it. Maybe it was because Slayer had nothing left to prove; it had made its mark, and metal had moved on from thrash to other trends, like death and black metal.
The question with Christ Illusion, as with any post-Seasons album, is simple: could these songs make it into Slayer's live set? The answer is yes, and more than the usual one or two. "Eyes of the Insane" is a dark, midpaced exploration of a soldier's psyche. It's memorable and would be a good breather between the usual barnburners (if you've seen Slayer live, you know the onslaught is almost too much without some slower songs). "Jihad" smoothly mixes up tempos, with a catchy angular riff that brings to mind the legendary "Angel of Death" breakdown. "Flesh Storm" melds "War Ensemble" with "Dead Skin Mask," and should tear up moshpits. Even clunkers like "Catatonic" flow much better than songs on Slayer's recent albums. Much of this album recalls the band's glory days (possibly a function of Lombardo returning to the band?), and that's a good thing.
Lyrically, the band stays true to form with lines like "Jesus is pain / Jesus is gore / Jesus is the blood / That's spilled in war." Araya doesn't write most of the lyrics he sings. That’s the guitarists’ job. Hanneman's songs are musically and lyrically more sophisticated, often about war, while King, as Slayer's id, writes along the lines of "I hate you, especially if you are Christian." It's odd that Araya doesn't have more say in what he sings, since he's often handed lines like "Your pain excites and it tests me / Excitation / The empty stare emitting from your eyes." But Araya makes lemonade from lemons, constantly smoothing awkward enjambments with well-timed vocal inflections. King seems to have grown up some, too: "I need to redefine / How I see the world today / Seems that all the war / Didn't even up the score" and "The war on terror just drags along / My war with God is growing strong / His propaganda sells despair / And spreads the violence everywhere." Not bad for a band that not long ago had T-shirts proclaiming "Payback's a bitch" over American flag colors. "Progressive" is too strong a word for it, but at least Slayer's still progressing.