When Reign in Blood (Def Jam) catapulted Californian thrashers Slayer into the big leagues, the 1986 (or 1987 if you lived in the UK) seminal release also created a problem for the band. How exactly do you follow perfection?
The answer was 1988’s South of Heaven (Def Jam). Wisely taking a different approach to its groundbreaking predecessor, the follow-up avoided accusations of repetition and self-plagiarism by slowing down and adding depth and variety. Although it was clear that South… was still quintessentially Slayer, it was also looked on with a level of suspicion, some viewing it as a first step towards commerciality. But then in 1990, with all the grace of an exploding corpse, Seasons in the Abyss (Def American) arrived.
From the opening blitzkrieg of ‘War Ensemble’, it was clear that the brutal thrashing energy of Reign in Blood had returned. A churning battlefield of riffs and drums, and even containing its very own war cry, the song was a ferocious statement of intent. With barely a chance to draw breath, the band was upon you again. However, unlike the whirlwind of aggression which preceded it, and even though it contained all the usual staples of blood, evil, death, and war, ‘Blood Red’ showed off a new weapon in Slayer’s arsenal. Groove. This, of course, created a small level of dissent among the fans, but one which was relatively short-lived, the song becoming a live favourite for years to come.
‘Spirit in Black’ took Slayer’s new-found groove and combined it with South of Heaven style slashing, while ‘Expendable Youth’ packed a thunderous, and surprisingly socially aware punch. Meanwhile, their ode to infamous Wisconsin murderer and corpse enthusiast Ed Gein, Jeff Hanneman’s unforgettably macabre riff to ‘Dead Skin Mask’ proved the band didn’t have to play a million miles an hour to sound twisted and evil.
‘Hallowed Point’ was back to basics, blood and bullets thrash which segued seamlessly into the Dave Lombardo led, apocalyptic stomp of ‘Skeletons of Society’. Arguably the album’s most underrated track, the overdubbed dual vocal of ‘Temptation’ came about purely by accident when frontman Tom Araya and the thinning hair of guitarist Kerry King disagreed on how the song should actually be sung. The black, serpentine coils of ‘Born of Fire’ saw the band return to traditional Satanic territory before the spiraling insanity of the climactic title track tightened its grip with absolute finality.
Thirty years on, as the dust settles on their illustrious career, and with all of their subsequent albums still being compared to those twenty-nine minutes of speed metal perfection from 1986, Seasons in the Abyss still stands as not only one of Slayer’s finest achievements, but as (sorry, Mr. Mustaine) arguably the best “proper” thrash release of the entire 1990s.