posted: October 14, 2010
Heavy metal is seldom associated with the audiophile world. In general, metal records aren’t often afforded the quality of production granted to rock, pop, and jazz releases, a custom partially due to the music’s underground and independent nature. Still, it’s a shame given that, even before vinyl began its huge comeback, metal listeners were still supporting the format en masse, preferring the superior low end and complete experience that analog afforded.
Ever since signing to Rick Rubin’s Def American Records in 1986, Slayer has proven an exception to the unwritten rule that metal bands’ albums automatically sound inferior. While Metallica, Testament, and Megadeth—not to mention lesser-known thrash groups such as Nuclear Assault and Exodus—had to wait until later in their careers to get well-produced records, Rubin gave Slayer the treatment on 1986′s landmark Reign In Blood and never looked back. Ever since, the bearded producer has been involved on all but one Slayer album as producer or executive producer; whether planned, fortuitous, or both, the upshot of his participation has never loomed larger than it does on The Vinyl Conflict. Collecting nine Slayer studio efforts (spanning Reign In Blood through last year’s brutal World Painted Blood) well as 1991′s double live album Decade of Aggression, all made for American, The Vinyl Conflict takes its unique place as the hands-down best-sounding metal package ever produced.
Mastered from the original analog master tapes and pressed on 180g LP at RTI, these records are frighteningly good, possessing the kind of air, dimensions, dynamics, details, and imaging normally expected of a high-end classic Blue Note jazz pressing. Sparing no expense, lacquers were cut and re-cut several times to ensure the highest-possible sonic excellence. The meticulous quality control has paid immense dividends. Placed in the context of their metal genre and recording eras, there is no available comparison to how lively, realistic, open, and balanced these LPs sound. And since Warner Bros. had to fight through shoddy original production on the first four original Metallica albums (not a problem in Slayer’s case, much thanks to Rubin), not even WB’s otherwise excellent 45RPM remastered editions of Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, or …And Justice for All touch the breathtaking pace, sound staging, separation, and impact achieved here. (Rhino’s analog remasters of Pantera’s essential studio efforts, reviewed in TONE 29, are the nearest contenders.) There’s not a metal band more deserving of the honor. With the exception of the punk detour covers album Undisputed Attitude and slightly experimental Divine Intervention, Slayer has persisted as a model of consistency while continuing to both push limits and take innovative approaches.
Moreover, eight of the records in this set, housed in a slipcase, have been out of print for years; some, for decades. In one feel swoop, generations too young or then without turntables can now realize the unrelenting riffs, immersive tempos, and head-spinning rhythmic architectures that, even on the CD remasters, never delivered the massive level of disarming gut-punch and severing slam present on these LPs. The degrees of instrumental isolation and textural colors astound; these sound like completely new albeit familiar records. In particular, Dave Lombardo’s inhuman drumming has, almost impossibly, become more astonishing by virtue of the fact that his precise timing, double-bass beats, and blistering speeds are that much more apparent and visible. Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman’s guitars come on like marching armies, the grinding textures and fanatic momentum split evenly between the left and right channels, with solos often hovering near the center. And Tom Araya’s vocals are nearly three-dimensional, with previously unheard echoes and howls carrying and decaying across an extra-wide field. The amount of newly uncovered information is staggering.
What’s been unburied (and/or filtered) from the original, more congested mix is a testament to Rubin’s understanding of the quartet’s strengths and structures, and how they can be expressed in the most riveting manner. To be certain, Slayer isn’t for everyone. Audiophiles that prefer to hone in on Norah Jones’ tongue smacking against the roof of her mouth rather than feeling the unsettling, invigorating, and visceral music of one of the five best, most virtuosic, and socially relevant bands to emerge in the last three decades are welcome to their soulless porn. But for those that seriously want to rock and experience what’s possible across the dynamic spectrum via decibel-pounding, surface-quiet, amazingly produced LPs that bring to life several of the greatest metal records ever made in a way that places Slayer on a stage feet away from where you sit—a thrill as exhilarating as any in audio—The Vinyl Conflict is a godsend.–Bob Gendron