The reunion of the original Slayer lineup appears for the first time in the studio since 1990's Seasons in the Abyss (a record that topped off one of the great four-album stands in metal history: Hell Awaits, Reign in Blood, and South of Heaven preceded it). Drummer Dave Lombardo's retaking of the drum chair places the band back on the edge, pushing themselves and the genre to look back at where they've been and where they go from here. For a band that has been together as long as Slayer has, they have never made concessions and have stubbornly refused to sound like anyone but themselves. Christ Illusion is a raging, forward-thinking heavy metal melding with hardcore thrash; this is what made them such a breath of fresh air in the first place. And while they no longer sound terrifying, that was never their point anyway. Slayer rips through these ten songs, complete with lightning changes, off-kilter rhythms, and riff invention, together with plodding crescendos, sick-as-hell guitar breaks, and dark, unrelentingly twisted-as-f*ck lyrics that reflect a singular intensity. The big themes on Christ Illusion center on the perverse myth of religion and its responsibility for, and cause of, war. One can talk about the power big-money has at stake in the Middle Eastern havoc, but the root, according to some of these songs, is the culture war between two competing myths, Christianity and Islam, that this time out could result in the apocalypse. On the opener, "Flesh Storm," Tom Araya roars the refrain above the guitars and frantic drumming: "It's all just psychotic devotion/Manipulated with no discretion/Relentless/Warfare knows no compassion/Thrives with no evolution/Unstable minds exacerbate/Unrest in peace...only the fallen have won/Because the fallen can't run/My vision's not obscure/For war there is no cure/So here the only law/Is men killing men/For someone else's cause."
Elsewhere, such as "Eyes of the Insane," the story comes in the first person from the point of view of a soldier who is suffering the effects of PTSD, yet he may or may not still be on the battlefield. Lombardo's drums open it slowly, then the Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King guitar gods create an intensely harrowing and angular riff that changes from verse to verse, through the refrain and bridge, and comes back again. Yeah, Slayer actually crafts and writes songs. Check the little skittering vamp that leads into "Jihad," where Lombardo just shimmers his hi-hat before the band begins to enter and twist and turn looking for a place to create a new rhythmic thrash that's the most insane deconstruction of four/four time on tape. The indictment of "holy war" is possible only through the telling of the narrative from a Jihadist's point of view. The blazing, low-tuned heaviness of "Consfearacy" turns the entire principle of patriotism's blind ideals into an evil joke. Araya's voice is mixed way up this time, every utterance is understandable, thanks to producer and mixer Josh Abraham and label boss Rick Rubin. This scathing rejection of religion as the cause for world conflict is best characterized in "Cult." The low-tuned, two-string vamp that slithers into the foreground creates a tension as Lombardo's cymbals call the band into the riff that opens the tune. It's slow, meaty, unrelenting in its tautness. When Araya's voice comes in, the whole track is off the rails and stays there: "Oppression is the holy war/In God I distrust...Is war and greed the Master's plan? The Bible's where it all began/Its propaganda sells despair/And spreads the virus everywhere/Religion Is hate/Religion Is fear/Religion is war...." Whether you agree with Slayer's anti-religion militancy is one thing, but their view that it underscores this war and so many preceding it has to be taken with some seriousness. And musically, they are in a league of their own. Christ Illusion creates an interesting dilemma for people of faith who like heavy metal: the stance against war here is unreproachable, but can one hang with the conflicting point of view that faith in a god is responsible for it? Given the defined presence of the vocals, one cannot simply listen to the voice as another instrument, as in much of heavy metal. One has to deal with the music and the words this time out, and yes, they're printed in the lyric booklet. Christ Illusion is an antiwar record that asks people to think for themselves. At one point Araya makes his choice, "six six six," but even that's in reaction, an irony. Christ Illusion is brilliant, stomping, scorched-earth thrash metal at its best. Lyrically, it may offend people, but getting the listener to think and make choices is what this music is all about. An anti-Christian/anti-Islam/anti-theocratic, antiwar album, Christ Illusion is essential for anyone interested in the genre.