Many metal bands — from Black Sabbath to Mastodon — have had windows in their history during which they've created their greatest and most complementary albums, records that make up defining bodies of work, not just individual statement of intent. Slayer are no exception. Between 1986's Reign in Blood and 1990's Seasons in the Abyss, the band crafted its three most sinister, hook-laden and timeless releases, earning them their reputation as the sickest, fastest and most brutal group in thrash's Big 4.
Seasons in the Abyss wasn't meant to be the completion of a trilogy. Yet, from its distinctive sound, compositional structure and biblical cover art, Seasons in the Abyss — the third Slayer LP produced by Rick Rubin — in many ways completes a three-part masterpiece along with its predecessors Reign in Blood and South of Heaven. Indeed, sonically, it stands as almost a perfect hybrid of Reign's speedy savagery and South's dark, dirgey atmospheres. Much like Metallica's Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets and …And Justice for All, Slayer's late-Eighties albums form a natural tryptic and represent the creative high point of the band's career.
While Seasons in the Abyss marks the end of the group's most fertile period — as well as the end of the band's classic lineup (drummer Dave Lombardo would not play on a Slayer studio LP until 2006's Christ Illusion) — the album also fired a climactic shot across the bow of thrash writ large. The band would support Seasons in the Abyss on the much-mythologized Clash of the Titans tour, which brought together "titans" of thrash, but was opened by a group that would soon play a large role in ushering the style out of popularity: grunge upstarts Alice in Chains. Meanwhile, Metallica were prepping 19991's "Black Album," a smash record that saw the band move away from the hallmarks of the genre they'd helped spearhead, adding their own nail in thrash's coffin.
At least, Slayer sent both their classic lineup and thrash in general out in style. Seasons in the Abyss was written at the tail end of the Cold War, during a time when the economy was sluggish and the Western world had entered a recession, American troops were being prepped for Operation Desert Shield, which would lead to the first Gulf War and — for the first time in decades — young Americans entering the workforce were pessimistic that they would ever be able to exceed the standard of living they experienced growing up. The wave of negativity and nihilism that marked 1990 yielded some of Slayer's most ferocious and topical songs.
"Blood Red" addresses the drawbacks of totalitarianism and was likely triggered by the massacre that took place in Tiananmen Square in Beijing China, in which the army murdered scores of students protesting the government. ("Peaceful confrontation meets war machine, seizing all civil liberties/ …You cannot hide the face of death, oppression ruled by bloodshed.") "Dead Skin Mask" details the gruesome rituals of serial killer Ed Gein ("Incised members ornaments on my being/Adulating the skin before me") at a time when Jeffrey Dahmer was still on the street committing acts of torture, murder and cannibalism. And "Hallowed Point" could be viewed as a prophetic warning against the proliferation of guns and the cycle of gun violence ("The power of a gun used with conviction/Diffused compulsions, Unending repercussions"). With these powerful lyrics fused to some of Slayer's most thrilling, earworm compositions, Seasons in the Abyss showcases some of the band's most enduring songs, including "Dead Skin Mask, "War Ensemble" and the title track, all of which were written by late guitarist Jeff Hanneman, who also took pole position for Reign in Blood and South of Heaven.
Decades after its release, Seasons in the Abyss remains a highpoint of Slayer's catalog. Unlike most thrash albums from the late Eighties and early Nineties, it has remained relevant through the rise of extreme metal and shifting music industry landscapes, sustained by its musicality, subject matter and rollercoaster levels of intensity. There's a reason Slayer have routinely played Seasons' aforementioned standout cuts during their farewell tour. It's the same reason South of Heaven's "Mandatory Suicide" is always so well received by audiences, why that album's title track is a highlight augmented with some of the wildest pyro the band have ever staged, and why the last two songs of the set have regularly been "Angel of Death" and "Raining Blood." For the 30-plus years that Slayer reigned, they never topped the trilogy of Reign in Blood, South of Heaven and Seasons in the Abyss. And really, who could?
Below, see Lamb of God's Randy Blythe sing the praises of Slayer and share "a secret" about the thrash OGs: