Friday, June 26, 2009

Slayer - Seasons in the Abyss (1990)

In October 1990, Slayer returned with their fifth full-length, Seasons in the Abyss. This album was the last to be recorded with the original line-up, at least for well over a decade. Long ago abandoning the dark, Satanic themes, this record is much like the two that preceded it in that the lyrics focus on subjects such as war and serial killers. Rather than pursue any sort of musical progression or experimentation, Seasons in the Abyss works like a 'best of...' in the sense that it takes the speed of Reign in Blood, the mid-tempo sections from South of Heaven and even a small bit of the eerie nature found on their earlier works, in an effort to put display the full spectrum of their capabilities with a refined production. For the experienced Slayer fanatic, there are absolutely no surprises here; however, that is not to say that the album is boring. It is very consistent and presents exactly what one would expect from a Slayer record.

I didn't get this album until a few years after it had been released. Busy at the time with the Black Album and Rust in Peace, I had no idea something like this was lurking around the corner. This one was purchased along with the earlier ones, yet suffered the fate of being the last Slayer album that I really explored. While it lacked the dark feeling of the old albums, I still appreciated the solid songwriting found on this one. The intensity of some songs were a perfect fit for the anger that I felt quite a bit of the time, while the creepy atmosphere of others suited the constant stream of horror movies that my best friend and I were viewing. Listening to this, now, takes me back to ninth grade, as I was prone to drawing (or carving) the Slayer logo on whatever surface was nearest to me. It was a simpler time, to be sure...

The album starts out with the most intense song the band had written in years, "War Ensemble". While most Thrash Metal bands were toning down, Slayer managed to up the ante, nearly causing the listener to overdose on adrenaline. Musically, this is the successor to "Chemical Warfare". The production is clear and powerful enough to blow your brains right out of your skull. It could also be compared to "Angel of Death", yet possessing a little more of a punch. There are no wasted riffs, here. Everything is crisp and precise. One may think is is a straight-forward speed assault, but there is a section where the tempo drops a bit, leading to a great moment around the 3:30 mark as Tom screams, "WAR!!" Intensity is the only word to truly describe this song.

"Blood Red" picks up with only a split-second to rest, in between tracks. This one is a bit more relaxed, utilizing a tempo and riff style that could not be mistaken for coming from anyone else. This is the shortest song on the album, clocking in under three minutes, yet it does not give the impression that anything is missing.

Once again, hardly a moment is given before "Spirit in Black" erupts from the speakers. This one features several memorable riffs and killer solos, especially near the end. There is a slightly darker tone to the vocals, which is much appreciated. The speed picks up, around the middle, including some lyrics that seem to hearken back to their glory days.

"Hear the piercing cries of all who found that hell awaits"

"Expendable Youth" begins with a fairly catchy riff, one that is sure to stick in your brain. So far, Slayer has done quite well to differentiate each song from the next, giving each its own personality and feel. This one is, mostly, a mid-paced affair that serves more as an appetizer for the main course of Side A, "Dead Skin Mask". That one was one of my favorites, early on, and the main thing I remembered about this song was the anticipation for that which followed. As such, the last line always echoed in my brain as the first eerie strains of the next song started.

"Death, the only solution"

Side A ends with the creepiest riff that Slayer had recorded in years. Tom's spoken word part added to this eerie atmosphere. This song was inspired by the well-known murder and grave robber, Ed Gein. A staple of their live set, "Dead Skin Mask" is mid-paced and dreary. The vocals seem to match the psychotic mindset of the character that inspired this story.

"Dance with the dead in my dreams
Listen to their hallowed screams
The dead have taken my soul
Temptation's lost all control"

To really appreciate the feeling of this one, you should listen to it in total solitude and utter darkness. Only the most jaded could listen to this without getting chills up their spine, as the voice of a child begs to be freed, during the final chorus. This effect has long since faded, but during the first listens, it could not be denied. Actually, in a somewhat humourous side note, I had no idea who the song was written about when I first obtained this album. As such, I thought the girl was screaming, "Mr. King, let me out of here!"It took a few years before I discovered that it was Mr. Gein, rather than Slayer's guitarist. Somehow, it added an even more sinister feeling to think that the victim was begging for mercy from one of the band members. Almost made you wonder where the recording came from. Ah, the idiocy of youth.

Side B starts out with a fairly intense track, "Hallowed Point". This was isn't as totally barbaric as "War Ensemble", but it's in the same vein. It's full-speed, all the way, with lyrics that most could identify with. The lyrical theme is that of a killing spree. This is always a favourite to listen to while driving, as that is when I am, often, in my most murderous mood.

"Skeletons of Society" flows directly from the final moments of the previous song. This one is, probably, the catchiest one on the whole album. It's mid-paced, but still interesting enough to hold your attention. Tom's vocals help this out, as he utilizes a lot of variation, rather than maintaining a flat tone throughout. Dave Lombardo keeps a steady pace as Hanneman and King trade guitar solos. They seem to be putting more thought into them, compared to Reign in Blood.

The next track is also the first to feel sort of generic. "Temptation" isn't the best song on the record, though it's not bad. It's faster than the last one, and features some decent riffs. The vocal effect takes away from the feeling, to a degree. Supposedly, Tom and Kerry had conflicting visions of how the vocals should sound and two takes were recorded. As the story goes, the first vocal track was never erased and when the producer heard heard both, together, he suggested keeping it that way on the album. Later in the song, the pace slows down a bit and there seems to be only one vocal track.

"Born of Fire" continues on as the previous song, and was actually a leftover song from South of Heaven. Supposedly, King had trouble coming up with lyrics, so it was put on the shelf. Oddly enough, the vocals sound more in line with the sound that was prevalent on South of Heaven. It features a decent amount of riff changes and works well to build tension as the album nears its conclusion / climax.

Creepy and epic-sounding riffs introduce the final song, "Seasons in the Abyss". When I first heard this, I was incredibly impressed. I think it was the monumental build-up. This one features so many different elements of the style that Slayer utilized on their later (at the time) albums that it is somewhat ironic that it closes out the classic era of Slayer. They also made a music video for this one, though why they filmed among the pyramids of Egypt is beyond me. After a couple years, it became apparent that this couldn't really hold up like the earlier works, being a little too repetitive and simplistic, but it's good for what it is.

Seasons in the Abyss marks the end of an era for Slayer. It was not only the last album that they recorded with the original line-up, for sixteen years, it also served as the final true Thrash Metal record that they made. This was before they allowed modern influences to creep in and corrupt their sound. Or, if they did the same thing back then, they simply had better taste and were influenced by superior bands. While it is weak when compared to the old Metal Blade releases, Seasons in the Abyss is the final record worthy of being released by the once-mighty Slayer.