Twenty years after the emergence of America's great "Big Four" thrash metal bands, Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer, it's interesting when you stop and consider how each of those bands are doing today. Metallica is a mere shadow of its former self, doomed to never match their classic first four albums. Megadeth, after years of numerous lineup changes, and a debilitating hand injury to Dave Mustaine, is no more. Anthrax have carried on, but have yet to equal their output from the late Eighties. Then there's Slayer. Remarkably, they've proven to be one of the most resilient metal bands in history; after a period of modest success, they rode out the metal backlash in the early '90s, soldiering on without altering their sound, and emerged in 2001 with their strongest album in ages. Talk to any serious metal fan today, and you'll more than likely hear them speak about Metallica's current incarnation with vehement derision, and Slayer with pure, unabashed awe. Today, Slayer are metal gods, fully deserving of being named in the same breath as Black Sabbath, Motörhead, Iron Maiden, and Judas Priest. And they just keep churning away, never losing a step.
Slayer might have stayed true to their thrash metal roots over the years, but they've always managed to progress with each album. Starting out in 1983, they lifted their sound from the progressive arrangements of early Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, the brutal black metal of Venom (on their first two albums, you can hear a bit of Venom howler Cronos in Tom Araya's voice), and the macabre Euro-metal sophistication of the great Mercyful Fate. However, as album after album came out, the band developed a distinctive sound they could call their own. It was that of blinding speed, ferocious, tightly-executed, staccato riffs, and lyrical subject matter that was darker than anything anyone in heavy metal had dared to do before. It's a style so inimitable, so unique in the genre, it merely takes a few seconds to identify a Slayer song.
The band commemorated their 10th anniversary with the double live album Decade of Aggression, so on their 20th, of course, it was time to go the box set route. Soundtrack to the Apocalypse is the result; beautifully packaged, comprising of three CDs, one DVD, and a terrific booklet, on the surface, it looks awesome. However, like any other CD box set that has come out in recent years, the band seems torn about who to appeal to, longtime fans, or newcomers. What we're left with is a bit of a mixed bag, guaranteed to have Slayer fans wondering if it's worth shelling out 60 bucks for.
First of all, the set is not the definitive Slayer anthology. Half of the set is devoted to Slayer's best studio tracks, but the band's Metal Blade releases from 1983 to 1985 are not included, which is a huge disappointment. Studio versions of classics as "Black Magic", "Die By the Sword", "Chemical Warfare", "Hell Awaits", and "Necrophiliac" are no-shows; granted, we still are treated to live versions of several of those early tracks, but it still sounds annoyingly incomplete.
That said, the first two discs are phenomenal, chronicling the band's progression from 1986 to 2001, featuring a total of 32 album tracks. Disc One is especially great, as it captures Slayer at the peak of their career, starting with the classic 1986 album Reign in Blood. There's no better song to kick things off than the masterful "Angel of Death", one of the most monumental songs in metal history, where guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman deliver their intricate riffs, drummer Dave Lombardo performs some of the most powerful drumming ever recorded, and bassist/vocalist Tom Araya screams and snarls his tale of Nazi war criminal Joseph Mengele. Then there's the stunning pair of songs, "Postmortem" and "Raining Blood", the latter of which possessing some powerful progressive metal imagery ("Fall into me, the sky's crimson tears / Abolish the rules made of stone"). We're also treated to a remix of "Criminally Insane", featuring a midtempo beat by Lombardo instead of the speed metal of the original version, as well as the re-recorded version of the early song "Aggressive Perfector", originally included on the Reign in Blood reissue.
If Reign in Blood is the band's unequivocal classic, then 1988's South of Heaven is their most underrated, and on this set, its five selections show how highly the band thinks of the record. The pace is slowed down considerably on such tracks as "Spill the Blood" and the (dare I say it) grooving "South of Heaven", as producer Rick Rubin shoves Lombardo's drumming right up front in the mix. It's a very unique sound, but also serves as a showcase for just how great a drummer Lombardo is; when he kicks in with those double-bass drum beats, you feel it as well as hear it. 1990's Seasons in the Abyss was the band's biggest commercial breakthrough, as close as they'd ever come to the mainstream, represented here by five cuts, the best being the politically charged "War Ensemble", the horrific strains of "Dead Skin Mask", and the brooding, melodic, epic title track. Three songs have been selected from the live Decade of Aggression album, and the band wisely uses the chance to add three tracks from their Metal Blade years, namely the classics "Hell Awaits", "The Antichrist", and the perennial live favorite "Chemical Warfare".
Two thirds of the second disc is devoted to the band's last four albums. The intensity of 1994's Divine Intervention is jarring, even for Slayer, proven here by the morbid "Sex. Murder. Art.", another political song in "Dittohead", and the creepy "213", about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, the lyrics of which filled with bluntly grotesque imagery ("Absorbingly masticating a part of you"). Undisputed Attitude, from 1996, easily the weakest album in the Slayer catalogue, is a tribute to the band's punk influences, as they combine covers of bands like Minor Threat and D.R.I. with straight-ahead hardcore punk compositions of their own. "Can't Stand You" and "DDAMM" (Drunk Drivers Against Mad Mothers), included here, are mere novelties, but the tuned-down sludge of "Gemini" is great, signaling the direction Slayer would be heading in on their next release.
1998's Diabolus in Musica is a unique record, as Slayer adopts many of the characteristics of the burgeoning nu-metal scene (tuned down guitars, murky chord structures, churning beats), and incorporating it with their trademark sound. It's as if they're stepping in to show the young bands how to do it right, as songs like "Bitter Peace", "Death's Head", and the terrific "Stain of Mind" blow away anything that young pretenders like Slipknot have put out. Slayer's most recent album, God Hates Us All, is their strongest since 1990, a brutal, blunt, vitriolic masterpiece that has the band eschewing the usual subject matter of Satan and serial killers. Instead, songs like "Disciple", "God Send Death", and "New Faith" attack organized religion, yielding the most powerful, controversial lyrics they have ever written. Only Slayer would dare to pull off a line like, "I keep the Bible in a pool of blood so none of its lies can affect me."
The latter third of the second disc is comprised of eight rare tracks that should appease fans. The infamous cover of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida", from the 1987 soundtrack to the film Less Than Zero is a key addition, as is their 1992 collaboration with Ice T on "Disorder", from the Judgement Night soundtrack. Also included are several bonus tracks from the Japanese pressings of Undisputed Attitude, Diabolus in Musica, and God Hates Us All (the 2001 outtakes "Addict" and "Scarstruck" are especially good).
The rest of Soundtrack to the Apocalypse is the stuff diehard fans have been most curious about. Disc Three, titled "Shit You've Never Heard", is surprisingly hit-and-miss. Three 1983 recordings are cool to hear; "Ice Titan", the earliest known Slayer recording, and rehearsals of "The Antichrist" and "Fight Till Death" (which appear on Show No Mercy all sound a bit murky, but it's fun to hear this legendary band in its infancy. The 1985 live recording of "Necrophiliac" is sloppy (only one guitar can be heard), and the only reason for its inclusion being Araya's lengthy, disgustingly funny tribute to The Mentors frontman El Duce. The Reign in Blood era recordings are great, including a studio outtake of "Piece By Piece", and searing live performances of "Raining Blood" and "Angel of Death". Two of Jeff Hanneman's home recordings offer fascinating insight into how "Raining Blood" and "South of Heaven" came to be, while "No Remorse (I Wanna Die)", the duet with Atari Teenage Riot, is a bit out of place, because it is shit we've heard before, on the 1997 Spawn soundtrack. The rest of the live recordings, from 1991 to 2002, are dicey, often lacking the intensity you'd expect from a Slayer performance, the two exceptions being the astonishing performances of "Dittohead" and "Sex. Murder. Art.", from 1994.
The DVD, entitled "Shit You've Never Seen" is the highlight of the set. A mishmash of amateur recordings and professionally taped performances, it's somewhat similar to Metallica's 1988 video Cliff 'Em All, which followed the same format. Ranging from some great footage like early clips from 1983-85, an insane 1986 performance in New York, several clips from the 1991 Clash of the Titans tour, an electronic press kit for their Diabolus in Musica album, an ESPN television performance of "Bloodline", and a powerful July 2003 performance in France, it's what fans have been craving for years. Unfortunately, as fun as it is, the DVD is only 70 minutes long, which seems incredibly short for a box set like this. A nice addition would have been the band's small number of promotional videos.
Soundtrack to the Apocalypse is very nicely packaged, in a swanky fold-out digipak with a clear plastic slipcase. The 72-page accompanying booklet is outstanding, with extensive liner notes, loads of photos, and many memories from the band members. It's clear that the band spent a lot of time putting this set together for their fans, and it's a pretty good addition to any Slayer fan's collection. The music is all great (after all, it's Slayer we're talking about here), but that said, it's not essential Slayer, and any fan who is thinking of buying this, or the special five disc edition (featuring an extra live CD, a poster, a replica backstage pass, and larger "ammo box" packaging, all for a whopping 30 dollars more), should know exactly what's on this set before buying. As for anyone looking to get into Slayer for the first time, they'd be better off buying Reign in Blood, South of Heaven, Seasons in the Abyss, and God Hates Us All for the same amount of money. It's hard to dislike this fine box set, but you can't help but wish that the band committed themselves fully to appeasing either longtime fans or new listeners, instead of trying to please everyone. Slayer was never one to play it safe, but they did so just a little too much here.