Slayer’s “Angel of Death” Revealed!
On the surface, metal can sound cacophonous and disorienting to the uninitiated, and therefore come across as formally chaotic, or at least unstructured. For me—now that I’ve consumed immense amounts and varieties of the stuff and come out the other end as a true believer—it begins as an impenetrable surface that I love parsing so that I may find the order underneath. In most cases, with a little work that order becomes crystal clear. Even better, it demonstrates the kind of musical ingenuity required to keep a barrage like this going for more than a minute or two—I believe it’s the form, and not the aggression, that keeps these songs powerful for the duration of a song and an album. Aggression doesn’t hurt, of course, but the form and musicianship provide a vehicle for these carefully crafted songs which can articulate that passion and energy effectively. After making sense of the performance, of course I forget it all and just immerse in the sound-world. But finding at least some order in the notes provides me with a deeper pleasure and satisfaction with this music, which I treasure.
Case in point, Slayer’s “Angel of Death,” the opening song from their masterpiece Reign in Blood (of course you know that it’s a masterpiece, but I thought I’d mention it just in case). Like so many perfect Slayer songs, this one was written by the late Jeff Hanneman. Below is a breakdown of the song’s form as indicated by time. Notice that major chunks of the form are underlined by Dave Lombardo’s drum line—in this song and others, his unaccompanied fills and changes in beat and tempo provide guideposts for major transitions in the form. I’ll comment further below. All BPM markings are approximate—he’s playing REALLY fast.
0:00 Introduction/main riff (205 BPM)
0:28 Snare hit—transition to:
0:28 Verse/verse riff
0:37 Verse/alternate verse riff
0:55 Chorus/main riff
1:04 Verse/verse riff
1:22 Chorus/main riff
1:37 Snare hit—transition to:
1:37 Bridge—introduction/main bridge riff (93 BPM)
1:47 Bridge—introduction/main bridge riff, add drums
2:06 Bridge—vocal/primary bridge riff (182 BPM)
2:26 Bridge—vocal/secondary bridge riff
2:34 Bridge—vocal/primary bridge riff
3:06 Bridge—vocal/secondary bridge riff
3:14 Bridge—outro/main bridge riff
3:33 Snare hit—transition to:
3:35 Guitar solos over variations on main riff (242 BPM)
4:23 Bass drum and low-tom drum break—transition to:
4:26 Chorus/main riff (262 BPM)
The “main riff” and “main bridge riff” are the two distinctive instrumental melodies—you may know the main bridge riff because it was sampled on Public Enemy’s “She Watch Channel Zero?!” The other riffs play a supporting role and draw less attention to themselves.
Obviously the snare hits indicate transitions into the verse/chorus binary, the bridge, and then to the solos. The bass drum and low-tom break near the end emphasize that we’re coming to something big in the form, which in this case is a race to the finish—that race is further accentuated by playing the previously stated material at 262 BPM rather than the previous 205 BPM. Further, the enormous change from the 205 BPM of the opening and verse/chorus binary to the 93 BPM of the introduction to the bridge section is massively exciting.
On a larger formal scale, this tempo shift to 93 BPM sets up three further escalations in tempo with brilliant results. With the vocal section at 182 BPM, the bridge moves closer to the opening 205 BPM, but remains audibly slower to the listener—the near doubling of the tempo at this moment doesn’t fool you into believing we’re back up to speed. However, when the familiar main riff from the opening returns and the guitar solos wail out of the box at 242 BPM in the next section, the listener believes they are at the same tempo as at the beginning, and yet the sensation is much wilder. One reason for this sensation is the extreme increase in tempo, which is then bumped up further for the final chorus, which again revisits familiar material but at a higher BPM. So tempo is used strategically to make the form in “Angel of Death” both clear and dramatically effective.
Should you think this is some kind of fluke, a similar strategy is used in “War Ensemble” from Seasons in the Abyss (1990). Though the form is different, this song also uses a big, unaccompanied drum fill and a tempo change as a means to separate the bridge from the verse and chorus. However, in “War Ensemble” the guitars remain in tempo throughout and only the drums cut the rhythm in half for the bridge.
The majority of “War Ensemble” is at 206 BPM—again, this is approximate and varies significantly because it is so fast and physically difficult to maintain. After the drum fill at 2:11, the drums change tempo to 100 BPM, while the guitars maintain the same number of beats per measure. I use the word “tempo” here, but perhaps it’s better to say that the “rhythmic density” changes. The shift in drama here is obvious and effective—my language makes it sound subtle or only audible to experts, but it is, again, crystal clear to the listener. The bridge ends and transitions back to 206 BPM at 3:24, with drums and guitars pounding out quarter notes until the solos begin. Fucking wicked.
As a subject for further discussion, listen for the tempo changes in Death’s “Spirit Crusher” from The Sound of Perseverance. The opening section is in 6/8(!) at 80 BPM, but at 1:05 the tempo moves in stages to 95 BPM, and in each increment the guitars and the drums add greater rhythmic density. Then, at 1:15, the guitar notes sustain until lurching into the next section, which is slower (only 53 BPM), but also in 4/4. So not only is the tempo slower, but there are fewer notes between each downbeat.
So who cares, right? It’s just music—you feel it and that’s what matters. I agree with this to an extent. But it’s also cool to hear how it is that musicians construct the emotion and drama of their performances so that they’re effective to an audience—to us. Here is one way in which these three songs construct that drama. These metal guys are pretty clever.