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Slayer 

Christ Illusion (Warner Bros.)

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Christ Illusion improves mightily on its predecessor, 2001's clunky God Hates Us All, the low point of a 24-year run. The band's ninth studio album is comparable to Seasons in the Abyss, but its relentless frenzy lacks the subtleties that made Reign in Blood and Seasons in the Abyss high-water marks. Even with the return to the fold of original drummer Dave Lombardo, the disc feels more like the transitional phase of an upswing.

Guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman are thrash metal's finest lyrical tag team, capable of creating verses so striking that Tori Amos covered one of their songs. However, King wrote most of this album himself, dipping his quill in blood. Saving complexity for blinding guitar leads, he's content with such middle-finger missives as "You'll never see the second coming/It's all a fuckin' mockery," from "Skeleton Christ." Sixteen years after Seasons, the shredders' dizzying fretwork in "Eyes of the Insane" is a killer soundtrack for the latest Gulf war -- the times haven't changed much, and neither has the music.

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