The bar for greatness is set pretty high for a band like Slayer. Over the course of the 30-plus-year career they have delivered classic records such as Hell Awaits, Reign in Blood, South of Heaven and Seasons in the Abyss. Along with their colleagues Metallica, Anthrax and Megadeth in the Big 4, Slayer essentially created the thrash-metal genre. However, even the mightiest champions diminish over time, they slow down, loose a few steps here and there, and eventually retire allowing a new young lion to take their place.
Though Slayer have been active and releasing solid metal albums since, 2001's God Hates Us All is, in my opinion, their last great album. Repentless, World Painted Blood and Christ Illusion are fine record, but they don't deliver like God Saves Us All. Maybe it was in response to fan and critic hostility towards their 1998 record Diabolus in Musica, but Slayer mounted an especially vitriolic and brutal counterattack with the release of God Hates Us All.
Despite the disdain that many fans had for Diabolus in Musica, I think it's a pretty solid record. Some may claim that it's their "nu-metal" record — as if that, in and of itself, is a criticism — but even were that true, Diabolus is way less so than, say, Sepultura's Roots, a record that is generally celebrated. I prefer to think of it as their "experimental record," and one that actually set the stage for the greatness of God Hates Us All. Though many critics and fans viewed that record as a return to form, I see the LP, instead, as a step forward from the vector established on Diabolus in Musica. The slower tempos, lower tunings and burly grooves are still there, but this time around with a heavier dose of vitriol and bad intentions.
God Hates Us All was Slayer's first record without long-time producer Rick Rubin, and it saw Kerry King take a more central role in writing lyrics, which may have led to the more brutal nature of the material. Gone was the Satanic imagery, serial killer references and the more fanciful and/or historical elements. The lyrics had a more realistic, contemporary voice and dealt with topics such as disillusionment with religion, cruelty and mass destruction. Check out the lyrics from "Cast Down" for a good idea of King's mindset at the time: "Despair, emptiness/See the hatred wasted on yourself/Face down taste the dust/It's getting harder everyday/Just to find a reason not to end it all yourself."
Coming off of the heels of the intro track "Darkness of Christ," "Disciple" is the first Slayer song since Diabolus closer "Point" underwhelmed fans back in 1998. In that context, the track rages like classic Slayer. Indeed, the opening riff would fit in nicely on Reign in Blood. It also has some of the heaviest lyrics on the album: "Strive for Peace with acts of war/The beauty of death we all adore/I have no faith distracting me/I know why your prayers will never be answered/God hates us all! God hates us all!"
In retrospect, God Hates Us All took on a particularly savage relevance due to the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The record literally hit the stores on the same day that those horrific events took place. Being a New Yorker, I remember vividly the realization that the illusion of invulnerability that the U.S. had been living with had been decimated and that the world was chaos. God Hates Us All was a fitting soundtrack to the doom and paranoia.
Which isn't to say that it doesn't have its faults. "Warzone" is pretty much a throwaway song. It's uninspiring and lacks dynamics, and could have easily been left off of the record. "Here Comes the Pain" is pretty much a down-tuned rehash of "Expendable Youth" at a slower tempo, but I'm willing to let that slide.
What made God Hates Us All Slayer's last truly great album is that it was an attempt to move forward while still retaining their signature sound. They refined the work they controversially started on Diabolus. Subsequent albums were good records with some essential songs, but they felt more like "product" that would give Slayer a reason to go on tour; God Hates Us All feels like a real artistic statement and, at the time, a reinstatement of the band's merciless thrash supremacy.
Of course, the die has been cast and the end is in sight for Slayer, one of extreme music's most important bands. After a long career a great music, it's all drawing to an end. God Hates Us All stands as a testament to their impact, a modern classic that lives up to their finest offerings and that we will all be listening to long after the band's final curtain call.