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B-Sides cuts to the heart of the matter with songwriter John Hiatt, while a new book about Slayer asserts the band's thrash-metal dominance

Reign of Terror
If there's one immutable opinion in metal circles, it's that Slayer's Reign in Blood is unfuckwithable. To argue otherwise is to insist the sun rises in the West.

Reign in Blood came out in 1986 on Def Jam Records, a rap-oriented label. Rick Rubin, who at that point was best known for his studio wizardry with the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J, produced it. Andy Wallace — who'd done much dance-music remixing and later went on to record Nirvana's Nevermind and Jeff Buckley's Grace — engineered. The LP's ten songs clocked in at 29 minutes. All of this data seemed unlikely to culminate in what's become revered as the most potent expression of thrash/speed/death metal ever.

D.X. Ferris' book 33 1/3: Reign in Blood (Continuum) is, surprisingly, the first volume devoted to Slayer. He does a thorough, unflashy job examining how this masterpiece came to be. Ferris combines his own analyses with interviews he conducted with Slayer's four members — Kerry King, Dave Lombardo, Tom Araya and Jeff Hanneman, plus Rubin and Wallace — and with several of Slayer's heavy-metal peers, while cherry-picking from criticism published in music magazines to provide a multifaceted look at this seminal long-player. "I wanted to present the story in a way that's compelling to both rabid Slayer fans and to NPR listeners who love pop music but have never lost a shoe in a mosh pit," declares Ferris, the longtime clubs editor at Cleveland Scene, and he largely succeeds.

Early on, Ferris states his thesis: "[Reign in Blood] defined the band — and...the genre of thrash metal. It's the purest thrash album, recorded by the genre's greatest, most respected group...[T]he disc left deep marks on metal, punk, alternative and arena rock." A little later, he writes, "[The members of Slayer are] the standard-bearers of metal itself."

He backs up these claims with other critics' and musicians' testimonies. In fact, Ferris lays it on thick with these general praises about Reign's kickassitude, as if trying to sell his book concept to an editor. But he already won that battle. More analysis and anecdotes and fewer encomia would've enriched the work. (While we're discussing negatives, the book contains a few grammatical and spelling errors, plus it twice lists the incorrect release date for Reign in Blood's follow-up, South of Heaven.)

But these quibbles pale beside Ferris' diligent reporting (more than 80 interviews, including those with Hank Shocklee, Henry Rollins and Reign cover artist Larry Carroll) and cogent observations. He ably describes Reign in Blood's impact within the context of mid-'80s extreme metal, comparing it to contemporaneous efforts by peers such as Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax, and to the output of such later challengers as Pantera and Behemoth. Ferris competently describes each member's instrumental prowess and role in the group, and he vividly captures the recording process.

Other highlights include the extended discussion of "Angel of Death," the lyrics of which — about Nazi doctor Josef Mengele — caused controversy among Def Jam parent company Columbia Records' Jewish execs (but not with the Jewish Rubin), and the section dissecting each track, with comments from fellow musicians detailing their favorites. Ferris' most memorable bit comes at the end, when he compares Slayer to their metal antecedents as being like Terminator 2 vs. Jurassic Park.

Overall, 33 1/3: Reign in Blood will thrill those who've carved SLAYER into their skin (it's more common among fans than you'd think), and pique the interest of hard-rock aficionados curious about Slayer but who've not yet taken the sanguinary plunge. Dave Segal

The Heart of the Matter
When B-Sides reached John Hiatt on the phone in Nashville, the 55-year-old songwriter wanted to talk about the floods. He's a Midwesterner, after all, born and raised in Indianapolis and the songs on his latest album, Same Old Man, feature characters, including himself, finding their way through the heartland, both geographically and metaphorically. Love in real life remains his obsession, one that's led to a river of songs covered by everyone from Bonnie Raitt to B.B. King to Mandy Moore. Those songs remain Midwestern and personal, wry and wise, of the blues but mostly of the world, the one we love and live in every day.

B-Sides: You still consider yourself a Midwesterner?

John Hiatt: Absolutely. You can't get rid of that stuff. You're a kid raised in a cornfield. I used to spend all summer, every summer, up around Monticello and Delphi, Indiana, running through cornfields, hiding in them. When I grew up in Indianapolis, it wasn't the city we know today. It was pretty sleepy.

You've settled into the skin of a country-blues singer and songwriter. Are your rock & roll days behind you?

I don't know if I'd say that. I've gone back down into the roots of rock & roll, two or three components. That's not to say I won't rise up into the trunk of that tree. But lately I've been down in the rivers from whence it came.

Are you finding things in those rivers that you hadn't found before?

No one's ever put it to me this way before. It makes me think that possibly the simpler themes I seem to be expressing, simpler ways of expressing the joy of enduring love, the more basic forms of music fit with that. I hadn't really thought of that before. On this new record, a lot of these songs are about enduring love, love songs for the well-worn, I'd describe it. Plain talk, if you will.

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