In Defense of 'Diabolus in Musica': Slayer's Most Hated Album | Revolver

In Defense of 'Diabolus in Musica': Slayer's Most Hated Album

Thrash stalwarts' polarizing experiment is worthy of reconsideration
slayer diabolus

Mike Hill is the founding vocalist/guitarist for Brooklyn-based avant-garde black-metal outfit Tombs. He's also the host of the Everything Went Blackpodcast, and the owner of Savage Gold Coffee.

One of the reasons that Slayer have had such an illustrious, time-honored career is their consistency. Where the other "Big 4" bands have strayed away from thrash, the genre of music that put them on the map, Slayer have persisted, holding the line with little deviation from the diabolical alchemy that they've pursued in writing such classics as "Chemical Warfare," "Angel of Death" and "Seasons in the Abyss."

When you pick up a Slayer album, you pretty much know what to expect: thrash drum-beats, heavy guitars, dual solos, Satan, death, war and darkness. Later records such as God Hates Us All, Christ Illusion and Repentless have pretty much stuck to the framework built during the early years.

You knew what to expect from Slayer — that is until 1998 when Diabolus in Musica was released. There hadn't been a new album of Slayer originals since 1994's Divine Intervention, and 1996's covers-laden Undisputed Attitude (itself worthy of reconsideration) received mixed reactions from fans and critics alike. Metalheads were poised for a new Slayer album. They NEEDED a new Slayer album, but what they got was ... different.

When I picked up Diabolus in Musica back in 1998, the first thing I noticed was that the iconic Slayer logo was different. The artwork, which on previous releases depicted some sort of hellish scene, portrayed a pale-faced dude in a robe with a right-side-up crucifix emblazoned across his chest. It had a modern look to it that made me a little uncomfortable. Speaking for myself, I didn't want Slayer to be modern. I wanted the same awesome, dark thrash metal that they had been churning out since 1983 when Show No Mercy dropped.

Let's remember that nu-metal was huge in the late Nineties. Bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit were moving product and playing to huge crowds with their downtuned, hip-hop–inflected take on heavy music, and even some veteran metal bands were following suit. In 1996, Sepultura had released their "nu-metal" album, Roots, which many considered to be their attempt to get with the times. "Real metal" was once again underground and in many ways struggling for survival. Black metal was emerging, but was still very much on the fringes. Death metal was living off of the scraps of the early Earache days. Times were tough. Bands like Slayer that had enjoyed mainstream success were also suffering as a result of the post-grunge post-apocalypse.

With much trepidation, I remember dropping the CD into the player. The opener "Bitter Peace" hit like a classic Slayer song, albeit a few bpm slower. There's an malevolent-sounding intro that segues into some thrash fury. It's when we get to the second track, "Death's Head," that things begin to get "modern," for lack of a better term. "Stain of Mind" goes deeper into unfamiliar waters. When "Love to Hate," which could be an outtake from an early Snapcase record, is up, we realize that we have somehow taken a Dutch angle on our view of what a Slayer record should sound like.

Yet, surprisingly, despite what its numerous detractors might say, Diabolus in Musica still rocks hard. Sure, it doesn't sound like Reign in Blood, but it stands as a welcome experiment for a band that has helped define extreme metal. Though Slayer incorporated some of the tropes of nu-metal into their sound, it was more a flirtation with what was considered "modern" in the late Nineties and a Slayerization of that, than it was any kind of full-fledged kowtowing to the trends. There is still more than enough "Slayer" in there for the record to feel dangerous.

Ironically, Slayer, a group that will be remembered for being consistent and steadfast, should be applauded for making a record as experimental as Diabolus in Musica. It came out during a time when heavy metal was going through a personality crisis, and Slayer took on that challenge and created their take on what was current. Sepultura did a similar thing with Roots a couple years earlier, and over two decades later that record has been reconsidered by many metal fans and almost universally embraced.

As Slayer is on the victory lap of their distinguished career, let's embrace their entire catalog of records. Sometimes metalheads can be too orthodox and rigid when it comes to their favorite bands. Let's remember that this is Slayer, who, aside from being unrelentingly evil and heavy, have consistently written great, memorable songs. I would wager that if they had decided to make a country record, it would still somehow have sounded like a Slayer record and there would have been some great tracks on it. Such is certainly the case with Diabolus in Musica.