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Live - Decade of Agression - * * * *

The pendulum it shaves the blade, The strafing air blood raid
infiltration push reserves, Encircle the front lines
Supreme art of strategy, Playing on the minds
Bombard till submission, Take all to their graves
Indication of triumph, The number that are dead
Sport the war, war support
The sport is war, total war
When victory's a massacre
The final swing is not a drill
It's how many people I can kill

- War Ensemble

The Decade Of Agression disc proves two assumptions which I have held to be true for a long time. 1 - Seasons In The Abyss and Reign In Blood were the absolute pinnacle of everything Slayer had to offer. 2 - Slayer's guitar solos in general are really annoying and can kill a quality song. I've never seen Slayer live, so I really can't comment on their show which has gained legendary status in heavy music. From what I've heard here, it has its good points and its bad. The sheer magnitude of the songs on this disc makes it worth getting a copy. Their best work is featured here from the good albums alongside some interesting cover material and relatively obscure songs.

Slayer bridges the gap between speed metal and hardcore really well in some places, but fails to live up to their reputation in others. The songs from Seasons In The Abyss are the high points here by far. The title track is probably the second best song Slayer ever wrote. Dead Skin Mask, their super classy tribute to serial killer Ed Gein demonstrates very well Slayer's morbid fascination with serial killers and vice versa. I read somewhere that over half the serial killers of the last 15 years have named Slayer as their favorite band. The song is really fucking twisted. War Ensemble is played with ferocity and speed that eclipses even the legendary album version of that song. The drum passages between hyperspeed bursts of guitar really show off Dave Lombardo's raw talent for the fraction of a second that he is heard.

Lombardo in fact proves himself easily to be the most musically proficient member of Slayer, leaving me to contemplate why in the hell they fired him. He has a firm grasp on both rhythm and speed which makes this band coherent despite their tendency to play random and atonal guitar patterns above the noise. This tendency whether intentional or not, was the defining influence on a generation of grindcore and death metal bands with much less talented drummers. Lombardo makes all the difference here, keeping the song structure together while the rest of the band just fucking unleashes all over the place. The intro and verse to Reign In Blood could well be some of the best drumming ever done in metal, and for 1986 that shit was fucking brutal.

The lyrics here, when they are slowed down enough to be understood, cover the gauntlet of Slayer's song topics. Their favorite subjects are death, war, hypocricy, and blatant satanism. Some of their observations are actually quite intelligent, especially when pointing out the hypocritical nature of government and church moralizing (Mandatory Suicide, South Of Heaven). As a band, Slayer rips shit up compared to most of their contemporaries. I am not a big fan of 80's speed metal acts like Overkill, Testament, and others, but Slayer was really ahead of their time. Their absolute extremism in every aspect of music whether it be speed, brutality, or lyrical content, is admirable for the revolution it generated.

Slayer is often deified by fans of heavy music as the gods of their genre. They are also frequently assaulted by others for being overrated and essentially worthless musically. Listening to this, I find that they don't really deserve either. Slayer is a quality band in some places but not the best. I mentioned the guitar solos before. They are probably the reason that so much 80's speed metal blows. There's a lot of quality material on this disc which suffers because of misplaced, twangy high pitch guitar solos. There's nothing wrong with solos in general for metal bands when they are done right and have something to do with the song. Here they are just thrown in randomly and amped over the top of everything. Many devoted Slayer fans love this chaotic aspect of the band, so I won't fault them too much for it, but listening to it 15 years later it's obvious that this is their main weakness as a group. To make matters worse, they don't even sound remotely like the song being played. I get the feeling that they were thrown in for the sake of having a guitar solo in every song. Given, this was a prerequisite for 80s speed metal but it still fucking sucks. If Slayer concentrated more on groove (which they do execute rather well), and less on showing off the dexterity of their gutiarists, they would be more listenable.

As it stands, there aren't really a lot of bad things I can say about Slayer. Their extremism and devotion to their musical vision is respectable. The live show demonstrates both their power and their shortcomings as a band. In the end their strengths win out, and this disc is easily four stars just because it showcases Slayer's best songs in their natural setting. Unless you have pentagrams tattooed on your arms and your neighbors' skulls buried in your basement, you won't be listening to this every day. But definitely pick up a copy of this album. For true fans, this disc is reason to keep living. For the rest of us it is a solid performance from a legendary band. And if you really want to scare your neighbors make sure you pick up Reign In Blood, Seasons In The Abyss, and South Of Heaven, and play that shit really loud at 3 a.m. All fucking hail satan.

* * * *

Reviewed: July, 1999

For all the hardcore Slayer fans, here's a picture of Slayer in their makeup back in '84.
(Pantera would be jealous)

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