The past few years have been good to thrash metal. Metallica and Megadeth released great (if slightly flawed) return-to-form long players, Testament put out their first in nearly ten years (and it's up to snuff, even!), and while it's not looking too promising at present, Anthrax is scheduled to release an album sometime this year (their first in six years). And now, here comes Slayer with their follow-up to 2006's Christ Illusion, their reunion album with original drummer Dave Lombardo. The thing is, Slayer never had the problems their thrash counterparts did. They never lost their edge (in fact Christ Illusion in particular seems a painstaking reminder of that, but more on that in a moment) like Megadeth or Metallica, and unlike Testament or Anthrax, their productivity never came to an almost complete hault, so it's not as though they've got something to prove. If anything, Slayer has been inhibited by only their staunch refusal to compromise their sound in any way. When this is the case for a band, especially for one well over twenty years old, it's overwhelmingly likely that a new effort will simply offer more of the same, which describes Christ Illusion to a T. Luckily, World Painted Blood, despite its typically Slayer-y title, offers far more pleasant surprises than its predecessor.
An interesting thing about Slayer is that you can more often than not tell whether Kerry King or Jeff Hanneman wrote the music. If there's healthy groove and numerous changeups in the tempo, chances are that Hanneman penned it; if it's unrelentingly brutal, it's likely to be a King composition. And with no disrespect to the man who wrote the poetic line "I'm the one who's gonna rip your fucking face off," the albums dominated with Hanneman tracks show more personality and dimension, an obvious example being their string of classics Reign in Blood, South of Heaven, and Seasons in the Abyss. So with that in mind, it's easy to see why the mostly King-written Christ Illusion was more of a practice in fierce thrashing metal, where as this album and its prevailing Hanneman songs provide more of a solid metal album.
The record begins with a slightly unsettling recording played backwards, a nod to both God Hates Us All and Hell Awaits, but unlike those two in which this is the entire intro, the opening title track dives right in with with a great, shredding riff, machine gun mimicking drums, and Tom Araya's venomous shouting still in tact, which is damned impressive for a guy pushing fifty. But what makes the aggression even better is how it's set up; Beauty Through Order, an oddly appropriate title, shows exactly how well a bit of structure pays off in a metal song. The build up and texture leading up to the intense zenith at the end make it all the more powerful, certainly more so than an outright barrage of brutality.
The thrashers are in unsurprisingly top form, and even offer great hooks - the frantic riffage of lead single Psychopathy Red as well as Unit 731 are immediately alluring. Even better is the slow and creeping Playing with Dolls, a great number with almost disturbing music befitting the lyrical content (a love song... sort of) in the tradition of classics like Dead Skin Mask.
While it's certainly not perfect, and the songwriting doesn't quite approach anything from their heyday, World Painted Blood might be their strongest album since Seasons (which is not necessarily to say it has the best songs). There is plenty of the breakneck speed and dark content they've become known for, but there is more diversity as well, which just about every latter day Slayer album has sorely lacked.