Slayer - _World Painted Blood_
(American Recordings, 2009)
by: Jeremy Ulrey (
It's become almost a sort of running joke that every new Slayer album is "the band's best since _Reign in Blood_". No doubt this has primarily been self-hype by the band members, but there has decidedly been some complicity in the media as well, probably spurred on by the anticipation brought about by lengthy gaps between records. It's also strange that their two slowest albums -- _South of Heaven_ and _Seasons in the Abyss_ -- are universally hailed as among their best, although every time the band have let off the gas since 1990 they suffer a backlash from fans clamoring for more brutal material (probably because their post-_Seasons_ attempts at Sabbath-paced material has tended to produce total non-hits like "Gemini" and "Bloodline").And yet, it seems every time a new record comes out it is dutifully given a respectable though not stellar review by the critics and picked apart mercilessly by the fans. The reviews would tend to indicate that more often than not the band is at least on the right track, and it's hard not to listen to the last three records -- including this one -- without coming to the conclusion that Slayer have been rebuilding on their old strengths, and getting closer and closer to the peak potential exhibited on their '80s classics in the process... so what do they have to do to get a little respect these days?The answer may be that there is very little they -can- do at this point. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar posits a theory that there is an upper limit to the number of people we can maintain intimate, personal relationships with and still think of them as individuals rather than receding into the faceless mass of (in)humanity (for a less clinical, tongue-in-cheek overview of the concept, Google David Wong's article for "Cracked" magazine, "What Is the Monkeysphere?"). The gist is that not only are there temporal limitations in the sense that there's only so much time in the day one can spend on social interaction (what Dunbar calls "grooming"), but even beyond that there are cognitive limitations to the number of individuals one can maintain cohesive, stable personal relationships with.So what if we apply that same concept to music? After all, the theory is built on inherent cognitive limitations within the brain, so why shouldn't it hold true for anything we feel an intimate connection with? It's entirely possible that as any given band's catalog becomes more robust that we hit a wall at some point and have a hard time reconciling new material into the existing canon. I'm no scientist and don't pretend to be capable of anything more than raising the question, but as anecdotal evidence compare the number of people who respect / name check cult artists with enormous discographies like Frank Zappa, John Zorn or Merzbow to the percentage of those that seem to have an intimate and enthusiastic relationship with the full discography. In most cases the average fan of those artists either has a few choice favorites and is largely ignorant of the rest of the ouevre, or else they possess a clinical, mostly aesthetic appreciation for the whole shebang without any overt emotional connection to any of it (hipsters have fashioned an entire lifestyle out of the latter approach).Consider the converse of those artists: bands like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, who are among the most revered and listened to artists of the rock era, and who were (coincidence?) extant for a decade or less apiece, leaving an easily digestible chunk of consistently great music to absorb. In between you have a band like the Stones, who are highly revered for roughly the first decade of their existence, and have since had a hard time getting people to fall in love with their new shit even when they put out a well received record (_Steel Wheels_, _A Bigger Bang_, either of which is probably praised more often than actually listened to). Slayer would be the Stones in that analogy. In both cases, right around the time the band was at risk of oversaturating their pool of classic material, they made it easy on the fans and starting churning out listless, largely forgettable material. They would later bounce back, but in the meantime the fans were ignoring the new stuff and further lionizing the classic material through repeated listening. So when you've had two decades plus of wearing out copies of _Reign in Blood_ and _Seasons in the Abyss_, is it even possible to approach new material without it suffering in comparison to the old stuff? _World Painted Blood_ didn't get you through high school, _South of Heaven_ did. Where's the emotional connection? How much time are we going to invest in trying to establish a connection with the new songs when we already have a comfortable intimacy with their ancestors?And what about the hardcore fans? The ones who faithfully purchase ever new record and listen to it ad nauseam? I would argue that not only are they the exception, but that by necessity that type of fan also has the most limited scope of musical preferences; because those cognitive limitations listed above are not specific to and replenishable for each and every band out there, they are a collective shackle for musical appreciation as a whole, and furthermore encompass the full spectrum of interests / hobbies, all of which require not only the evolution of personal connections (intimacy) but also the constant upkeep of those intimacies as well. Even if those cognitive limitations were lifted somehow (possibly through technology but preferably through hard drugs, wink wink) you'd still run into the inescapable time barrier.The hardcore fan that only has a few dozen or so bands that they follow but listen to religiously, attend every local gig and are constantly on the lookout for news concerning are able to make those personal connections in a way that fans with broader tastes are not, simply because they are spending the time that the more curious fan uses up searching for new bands getting better acquainted with their existing stable of favorites. It's an important distinction because I think there's a tendency for the listener with the broader tastes to dismiss their counterparts as mindless fanboys, oblivious to the fact that there is a sliding scale trade off no matter which approach you choose, and the extent to which you dedicate yourself to that approach exclusively. That said, it would be useless to deny that mindless fanboys exist, or that you can talk yourself into liking damn near anything if you force yourself to listen to it often enough... I never claimed this was an easy topic with objective, provable answers, but it's worth examining since it doubtless informs our opinions, and our opinions are what make us human, not the mere absorption of rote facts.So where does this lead, if not the throwing up of hands and admission that our tastes are biased, tainted? I don't think it needs to come to that. I do think it's possible to go a long way toward achieving an objective, -sustainable- opinion just by keeping these limitations in mind and using your own knowledge of self to project how you perceive you will react to increased exposure over time. (What do I mean by sustainable opinions? For every legacy act like Slayer who gets a bad rap for having too much music on the table, there are dozens of gushing, effusive write ups of new bands that absolutely will not hold up to scrutiny in ten years' time. Those opinions are unsustainable.)All of this leads up to how _World Painted Blood_ rubs me. That shouldn't be much of a surprise. If I thought it deserved a middle of the road rating I probably would have saved the above analysis for a record that had been more unjustly maligned. I think it -is- the best record they've done since _Seasons in the Abyss_, although that in and of itself doesn't say much, since _Christ Illusion_ was also the best album since _Seasons_ and this one is clearly better. Actually, with the exception of _Diabolus in Musica_, -every- album they've done has been the best one since _Seasons_ at the time of release, so you could say Slayer are in the strange position of both living up to their hype time and again and also falling prey to it in equal measure.Essentially what that means is that _Divine Intervention_ was at the time a low point in the band's history, containing only a few worthwhile classics and a ton of filter, in spite of its brief running time. _Diabolus_ was a polarizing album, but even for those of us who liked it for what it was at the time, it hasn't dated well. _God Hates Us All_ was a reassuring comeback but still spotty and hedging its bets with a handful of songs similar to the _Diabolus_ material. Which made _Christ Illusion_ all the better received, since it stripped away the unsuccessful experiments and gave the world not only the return of Dave Lombardo's peerless drumming, but also the first relatively fat-free Slayer record in years. Nonetheless, after the initial flush of good will, the shine seemed to wear off of _Christ Illusion_ for a lot of fans, and like _God Hates Us All_ before it, it's debatable how many songs from that record will thrive in iPod playlists in the years to come.Which is where _World Painted Blood_ breaks the mold. The previous albums were merely a steady progression of slightly better material, but this one is less of a baby step forward and more of a leap into both the future and the past; the past because the band seem to have recognized their strengths, stripped away the weaknesses and made a conscious effort to get back at what they do best; the future because the qualitative progression over the past decade proves that the heights achieved here need not be a fluke or a one-off.On first spin it gives the impression of flying by in a frenzied, blink-and-you-miss-it rush a la _Reign in Blood_, but in actuality it falls into that same 40-ish minute formula that they've been mining since the days of vinyl, the limitations of which dictated 20 minutes a side as the ideal balance between quantity and recording quality. No, it's the energy that pushes these songs along at a relentless clip. Even the title track, at nearly six minutes, is a barnstormer and not the moody, atmospheric workout you might expect at that length. That would be "Playing With Dolls", which will unfairly be compared to the _Diabolus_ material but has more in common with "Dead Skin Mask" or "Divine Intervention". As far as their more atmospheric numbers go it may be second to only "Dead Skin Mask", and certainly one of the highlights of the current album.Highlights are largely what separate _World Painted Blood_ from the last couple albums. Each of those ostensibly had highlights, but more so in relation to surrounding tracks on those albums than in comparison to their best material. The lack of new classics has been rectified this time out in spades. On top of "Playing With Dolls", there is the by now familiar "Psychopathy Red" -- which arguable kicked off the "comeback" hype before the band even had a chance to -- and "Hate Worldwide", the latter a modern sounding number from Kerry King's pen, the former a mid-'80s throwback courtesy of Jeff Hanneman. Much has been made of Hanneman's contributions this time out after taking a back seat in the songwriting dept for the past several years, and that's not to say that King's material is inferior, but when you hear the diversity and focus that the two of them are able to achieve in tandem the presence of filler on the last few albums starts to make sense.I intimated earlier that one's opinions are more and more sustainable the greater the accuracy one is able to project the extent to which their connection to an album will warm or cool over time; stylistically _World Painted Blood_ has a familiarity to it that could lead one to believe they're hearing yet another _God Hates_ / _Christ Ilusion_ retread. I would caution against that sort of dismissive reaction. Not only is _World Painted Blood_ the culmination of what Slayer have been working toward since abandoning their doom approach after _Seasons in the Abyss_, but in its similarities with and improvement upon the preceding albums it acts as a sort of skeleton key which -- in the end -- may prompt a reassessment of the last two decades worth of work.
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