As the ‘80s died, Slayer had to do what metal bands fear the most: be somebody. 1986’s Reign In Blood had blown everyone’s mind with its sheer speed and violence, while 1988’s South of Heaven had scared away the fair-weather thrashers while drawing in the creeps and weirdos with its oozing evil. But thrash was getting older, slowly eclipsing the bloated glam metal scene with its technicality and substance; meanwhile, extreme metal had just gotten started, and was keenly watching Slayer’s every move. The lords of satanic speed metal were no longer in the pit, but rather in the spotlight, and needed to release an album which proved that was where they belonged.
With 1990’s Seasons In The Abyss, Slayer did more than that: the cemented themselves as metal legends. Relentless yet well-paced, extreme yet listenable, the record proved that maturing as a band didn’t mean that Slayer had to lose their edge. And while their other albums are often hailed as more formative and revolutionary, it was Season In the Abyss that made Slayer’s name universally synonymous with extreme music.
This wasn’t Slayer’s first shift in sound, though it was perhaps less forced than the one before it. South of Heaven was a noted departure from its predecessor, an active attempt by the band to change things up and prove they were more than just speed. The resulting album is today considered a masterpiece, but at the time caused all sorts of discontent among fans who were invested in the faster-louder-angrier arms race of ’80s metal (it’s funny today to imagine metalheads hearing a song like “Mandatory Suicide” and thinking Slayer had somehow gone soft, but hey, it happened).
In many ways, the follow-up to South of Heaven was a continuation of that slower, more menacing style, only with a more confident band behind it. There was the same level of patience and atmospheric malevolence, it just wasn’t an exercise meant to prove a point. “Seasons was what I wanted South of Heaven to be,” said Kerry King in the August 2006 issue of Decibel. Jeff Hanneman concurred: “To me, Seasons is just an extension of South of Heaven. We were still in that frame of mind after South.”
From the very first riff of Season In The Abyss, though, Slayer let fans know that they were back in full force, if simply more organized and deadly. “War Ensemble” got right to the heart of the battle, drenched in the gore of the everyday conflict that is life. “Blood Red” was an odd-angled examination of society, while “Spirit In Black” was the ultimate Slayer fan song, honoring those speed freaks who’d moved beyond just hi-tops and skateboards and had dedicated their lives to darkness. “Expendable Youth” had a bounding riff coupled with a solid sense of disillusionment, while “Dead Skin Mask” finally gave the band a chorus that could get a festival crowd singing in unison; that the track was about Ed Gein, the American necrophiliac who inspired Norman Bates and Leatherface, took Slayer down ghoulish paths beyond hell’s well-tread fire and brimstone.
When Seasons went thrash, it went all-out, as proved by the totally unhinged violence of “Hallowed Point” and “Born of Fire,” the latter song be as much about the mindset of the typical Slayer fan as it was about the Antichrist. Between them were “Skeletons of Society,” a table-slapping death march outlining the modern post-apocalypse, that would later inform much of Slayer’s more agro workl and “Temptation,” a strange, quick, psychological number with a bizarre vocal echo. Closing the whole thing was the title track, which galloped and wailed but still reveled in the psychological power of Slayer’s music. “Seasons In The Abyss” feels like the eyes on record’s cover art, seeing beyond the plane of this life while feeling tied to our very fraught reality.
The result was a new plateau for Slayer. The band toured the world, playing to massive audiences; soon after, they released a double live album recorded in Berlin to thousands of screaming fans. The next Slayer album wouldn’t come for another four years, with the crater left by Seasons and the touring schedule that followed it swallowing Slayer’s life. Meanwhile, as the rest of the world moved from thrash to groove metal and grunge, the band remained a crimson symbol of all things drastic and offensive. As leather and tight jeans gave way to sleeveless tees and camo, Seasons drew a line in the sand, daring typical hard rockers to come over to the side of actual metal. Tastes would change and trends would come and go, but “Dead Skin Mask” would always be about fucking corpses.
To think of Slayer as a band who achieved balance might sound off, as they’ve so often focused on tipping the scales towards sonic extremity while their peers have settled on the middle-of-the-road approach. But Seasons In The Abyss saw metal’s most evil band reach a morbid equilibrium, remaining unlistenable to the prudish masses but revealing to the casual listener that they might have a darker heart than they think. 30 years after its release, the album remains a beautiful culmination of the band’s first wave, a record that may not get hailed as revolutionary but which always satisfies one’s need for the twisted and unholy. With Seasons, Slayer completed their Goldilocks trajectory: the first one was too hot, the second too cold, but this — this was just right.
Words by Chris Krovatin