Slayer was one of the most distinctive, influential, and extreme thrash metal bands of the 1980s. Their graphic lyrics deal with everything from death and dismemberment to war and the horrors of hell. Their full-throttle velocity, wildly chaotic guitar solos, and powerful musical chops paint an effectively chilling sonic background for their obsessive chronicling of the dark side; this correspondence has helped Slayer's music hold up arguably better than the remaining Big Three '80s thrash outfits (Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax). Naturally, Slayer has stirred up quite a bit of controversy over the years, with rumors flying about Satanism and Nazism that have only added to their mystique. Over the years, Slayer put out some high-quality albums, one undisputed classic (Reign in Blood), and saw the numbers of naysayers and detractors shrinking as their impact on the growing death metal movement was gradually and respectfully acknowledged. Slayer survived into the 1990s with arguably the most vitality and the least compromise of any pre-Nirvana metal band, and their intensity still inspires similar responses from their devoted fans.
Slayer was formed in 1982 in Huntington Beach, CA, by guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman; also recruited were bassist/vocalist Tom Araya and drummer Dave Lombardo. The band started out playing covers of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden songs, but quickly discovered that they could get attention (and fans) by exploiting threatening, Satanic imagery. The band was invited by Metal Blade's Brian Slagel to contribute a track to the Metal Massacre III compilation (a series which also saw the vinyl debuts of Metallica and Voivod); a contract and debut album, Show No Mercy, followed shortly thereafter. While Slayer's early approach was rather cartoonish, their breakneck speed and instrumental prowess were still highly evident. Two EPs, Haunting the Chapel and Live Undead, were released in 1984, but 1985's Hell Awaits refined their lyrical obsessions into a sort of concept album about damnation and torture and made an immediate sensation in heavy metal circles, winning Slayer a rabid cult following. Def Jam's co-founder Rick Rubin took a liking to the band, signed them to his label, and contributed the first clear-sounding production heard on any Slayer album for the stripped-down Reign in Blood. Due to the graphic nature of the material, CBS refused to distribute the album, which garnered a great deal of publicity for the band; eventually, Geffen Records stepped in. Combining Slayer's trademark speed metal with the tempos and song lengths (if not structures) of hardcore, along with the band's most disturbing lyrics yet, Reign in Blood was an instant classic, breaking the band through to a wider audience, and was hailed by some as the greatest speed metal album of all time.