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Slayer: Seasons In The Abyss - Album Of The Week Club review

Slayer's fifth album Seasons In The Abyss: the sound of a band stuck in a rut, or hitting their groove?

Slayer: Seasons In The Abyss
(Image: © UMC)
Slayer - Seasons in the Abyss

Slayer: Seasons In The Abyss

(Image credit: UMC)

War Ensemble
Blood Red
Spirit In Black
Expendable Youth
Dead Skin Mask
Hallowed Point
Skeletons Of Society
Temptation
Born Of Fire
Seasons In The Abyss

The last studio album for drummer Dave Lombardo (until 2006), Slayer's Seasons In The Abyss offered no great change in direction from what had gone before, but the band’s strength of vision was clear on Dead Skin Mask and War Ensemble

Many believed that Seasons In The Abyss was the sound of Slayer stuck in a rut. However, this was actually a band in a groove, knowing precisely what they should be doing, and how to deliver it.

Warfare is a recurring theme in Slayer songs, and Hallowed PointExpendable Youth and the opening blitzkrieg War Ensemble all resonated powerfully at a time when US forces were engaged in the first Gulf War. 

Equally morbid were Dead Skin Mask and the title track, although the latter had some diehard fans crying ‘sell-out’. Truth be told, at a time when some were saying thrash was dead, Slayer were still brimming with ideas. 

"In my opinion it’s the ultimate thrash album, Amon Amarth's Johan Hegg told Metal Hammer. "From start to finish this is an awesome album. All the songs are hits. The atmosphere goes from eerie and evil to flat-out aggression in both music and lyrics. Slayer were already an iconic band, and I think that this album didn’t so much impact the scene as cement them as the ultimate thrash band."

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Other albums released in October 1990

  • Wrong Way Up - Brian Eno and John Cale
  • Enlightenment - Van Morrison
  • Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band - Ringo Starr
  • Change of Season - Hall & Oates
  • Chronicles - Rush
  • Edge of the Century - Styx
  • Girls, Girls, Girls - Elvis Costello
  • The Greatest Hits, So Far - Public Image Ltd.
  • No Prayer For The Dying - Iron Maiden
  • Souls of Black - Testament
  • Hindu Love Gods - Hindu Love Gods
  • Hold Me Up - Goo Goo Dolls
  • Recycler - ZZ Top
  • Up from the Ashes - Don Dokken
  • Faith Hope Love - King's X
  • Slaves & Masters - Deep Purple
  • Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3 - Traveling Wilburys
  • Heart Still Beating - Roxy Music
  • Raygun... Naked Raygun - Naked Raygun

What they said...

"There's even full-fledged social criticism, which should convince any doubters that Slayer aren't trying to promote the subjects they sing about. Like Metallica's Master of Puppets or Megadeth's Peace Sells...but Who's BuyingSeasons in the Abyss paints Reagan-era America as a cesspool of corruption and cruelty, and the music is as devilishly effective as ever." (AllMusic)

"Overall, a collection of strong material, speed and power delivered in abundance. The band is obviously sticking with a winning formula as fans expected. If this lineup had stayed intact, who knows how many more quality releases could have been sustained." (Encyclopaedia Metallum)

"Although it wasn’t the sort of genre-defining or landscape-changing work that 1986’s Reign In Blood was, Slayer’s fifth LP, 1990’s Seasons in the Abyss, might actually be the most focused start-to-finish album the band has made to date. Seasons seamlessly blended the thrashy aggression of their early work with the doomy swagger of 1988’s South of Heaven." (Rolling Stone)

What you said...

Alex Hayes: It was the early evening of Monday the 4th of November 1991. Despite the drab conditions, the not long turned 17-year-old me was tremendously excited, as he was about to pop a metaphorical cherry of sorts. Whilst the rest of our mates enjoyed having the gang's annual bonfire on the back fields at home, a friend and I were instead queued up outside Manchester Apollo to see the mighty Slayer in concert. To this day, I'm sure the other lads in our gang only decided to have the 'bomy' a night earlier than is traditional just to spite the pair of us. It didn't matter though, as I was about to attend my first ever gig and, by God (or Satan), it was to see Slayer no less.

I'd really fallen hard for thrash metal between a year to 18 months earlier. I was just the right age and mentality for it thinking back. As well as the almost ubiquitous 'Big Four', I'd developed a passion for groups like Kreator, Nuclear Assault and Testament. Slayer were by far my favourites though. They were the coolest, fastest, most aggressive thrash metal band of them all, and 1990's Seasons In The Abyss was their masterpiece as far as I was concerned. The live gig was actually in support of Slayer's first full live album, appropriately titled Decade Of Aggression, but Seasons... tracks still featured heavily in their set-list, only adding to my fervour.

If my 17 year old self had to describe Seasons..., it would probably go something like this: "Well, it takes the best bits of both Reign In Blood and South Of Heaven and kind of mixes them together."

To be honest, although simplistic, that statement sums the album up perfectly. Even though the benefit of hindsight will forever see Seasons... lag behind Reign In Blood in terms of impact and legacy, it will always be my favourite Slayer album. War Ensemble and Hallowed Point still rage furiously. Tracks like Expendable Youth and Skeletons Of Society are propelled forward by some of the finest riffage ever penned by Kerry King, Dead Skin Mask never fails to make my own skin crawl, and as for that epic, atmospheric, yet menacing title track? Phew, stunning stuff.

Like most of my favourite bands, Slayer's fortunes waxed and waned as the 90s progressed. Their output slowed down and was variable in quality. 1994's Divine Intervention seemed half-hearted and lacking in fresh ideas by comparison (although I've grown to appreciate it more with age}, 1996's punk covers album Undisputed Attitude was disposable at best, and 1998's Diabolus In Musica flirted with nu-metal tendencies (the ultimate horror). Regardless, Slayer remained a titan of the thrash metal world and they inevitably got themselves back on track as we entered the new millennium.

The memories that I attach to this album are of huge importance to me and I'd almost be cheating myself if I didn't award this superb offering full marks. Oh, and the gig was electrifying, naturally.

Brian Carr: From the ages of 16 to 23, I lived in the Rockford, Illinois area, a city whose only claim to worldwide musical fame is the brilliant Cheap Trick, but from 1988 to 1995, there was a pretty strong collective of thrash groups in town - not cover bands, but original acts. Although my tastes always leaned toward more melody, being friends with many of these musicians at that important age made me a reasonable fan of heavier stuff. Slayer was a bit extreme for me, but Seasons In the Abyss was the one album I purchased, partially because of the brilliant title track and partially because I was briefly in a band that covered the haunting Dead Skin Mask.

As I've gotten older, my tastes have changed and although heavy music brings back fond memories, I rarely give it a spin in my adulthood. So it was a nice surprise to find that I still really like Seasons. Sure, Araya's vocalising is more shouting than singing, but it works for the music and for me, works way better than Cookie Monster vocals of many bands of this style. Hanneman and King's cacophanic whammy bar lead work isn't a favourite of mine, but to me they are the standouts here. The riffs are excellent and the rhythmic interplay between the two are absolutely stellar. Lombardo was an absolute king to my drummer friends at the time, primarily due to his thunderous double bass work. Fantastic album that I was glad to revisit.

I did see them live somewhere around this time. The internet tells me it was probably in January of 1991. I remember immediately losing a shoe in the pit during Testament’s opening set and crowd surfing with only one shoe. I knew better than to get anywhere near the pit with Slayer on stage, especially minus one shoe. The light show was amazing.

Iain Macaulay: WAAAAAARRRRR!!! There is no band like Slayer. Slayer is more than just a band. Slayer is a lifestyle for thousands of kids who caught them in the late 80’s. And Seasons In The Abyss is one of their albums that I listen to quite regularly, all the way through. Because it is simply a fantastic album. It is powerful, technical, imaginative and very relevant. To me, it is Slayer's punk album. Regardless of the punk covers of Undisputed Attitude

In that I mean that it tones down the metal elements of what came before and eases off the brutality and thrashy doom to give a lesson in controlled, pointed, aggression. This is also where the band grew a social conscience and branched out of the schoolboy demonics and dove head first into the evils of the real world, of war, politics and murder, just like one of the hardcore punk bands beloved by the band. 

It is the third in the triptych of classic, genre-defining albums they released, along with Reign In Blood and South Of Heaven. It is, without question, the bands most accessible album. It’s the one you would play to people if you wanted to covert them to Slayer, an easy break-in point. If they didn’t like it, then they wouldn’t like anything by the band. 

Now, that’s not to say this is a bad album, or a pop album, god no. It’s just more concise and more immediate than the previous heavy hitters, using a clearer, taught production. It's the sound of a band that understands what they're good at, and how to capitalise on it. It’s also more suggestible of what Slayer sound like live, showing that they're very tight and very technical underneath all that noise. And they were one of the tightest most together bands I’ve ever seen. 

It also contains four songs that made it into the set list of their very last gig: War Ensemble, Seasons in the Abyss, Born of Fire and Dead Skin Mask, with War and Dead being two of my favourite Slayer songs. Reign In Blood was the only other album to have four tracks make it into their final show, while South Of Heaven only got two. 

Slayer are not for everyone. They have been dismissed by so many but still hold a place in music history, despite the haters. Whether you see them as too dark, too noisy, too scary, too limited, too talentless, what ever way you want to describe them, remember they changed the metal landscape without even trying, and have come out the other end with a legacy that will cast a shadow over heavy, uncompromising music for ever. All power to them.

Chris Downie: While their inimitable third album Reign In Blood continues to sweep the polls of the all-time greatest thrash metal albums well over 30 years after its release, there is a compelling case to be made that Seasons In The Abyss, along with its predecessor South Of Heaven, not only completed the unholy trinity, but saw Slayer at their peak.

Having bludgeoned the metal community into submission with Reign In Blood in 1986, in which they honed their distinctive Priest-meets-Venom attack and delivered one of the most ferocious albums of all time, it was inevitable that its follow-up would take the foot off the gas slightly and it is to South of Heaven's credit that they expanded their musical palette, while losing none of their trademark ferocity. 1990's Seasons, however, was the best of both worlds, combining the thrash assault of War Ensemble with the darker mid-paced approach of Skeletons Of Society and the semi-epic closing title track. The album's masterpiece would arguably be Dead Skin Mask, with its sinister tones and serial killer-inspired theme.

It could be argued that this was the end of the classic Slayer era, and though there were highlights to come after, none (with the exception of 2001's fabulous return to form of God Hates Us All) came close to these heights. Essential listening for any thrash metal fan. 10/10.

Plamen Agov: I've seen them live twice, mostly by chance. Both gigs been part of festivals in the post-2000 era.

Honestly, I find Dead Skin Mask to be the only memorable tune by Slayer, making this album their best release. Other honourable mentions here for Skeletons Of Society and the eponymous Seasons In The Abyss. Anyway, they've never qualified for my playlists through the years.

Michael Kay: If Seasons In The Abyss were a movie, it would be a hard R (or a 15 in the UK if Google tells me true). Graphic descriptions of gunshot wounds, realistic depictions of violence (as opposed to fantasy violence), dark and disturbing imagery throughout. Even when my kids were starting to enjoy songs like The Trooper or Enter Sandman, Slayer was strictly for my solo commute home, not metal to make dinner by.

If I was too timid to touch a Black Sabbath album as a teen growing up in the Texas Bible Belt, there's no way in...uh...heck I was going to touch a Slayer album. So, really Slayer has only been a regular part of my listening since I picked up their 2006 album, Christ Illusion, at a public library jumble sale for a dollar. Then I worked my way back to the “big three.”

Thirty years on, Seasons In The Abyss is still Slayer’s world beater. Their album that’s on a par with Metallica’s Master Of Puppets or Megadeth’s Rust In Peace, the proof that they've entered the elite level of thrash. The production job by Rick Rubin (fourth appearance?) is crisp and clean and all caffeine. It is hard as a diamond, but just as clear. Larry Carroll’s cover art is still intensely disturbing, but a sunset yellow replaces black to join red as the dominant colour on the sleeve. Everything about the album telegraphs “high quality thrash for only the most discerning metalheads.”

And it is. The songwriting triumvirate of guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman and bassist/vocalist Tom Araya have, in various configurations, written ten mostly great songs as opposed to blasts of noise with different titles. Probably the craziest thing about Seasons… is how much it grooves, thanks in large part to perennial Slayer underdog, drummer Dave Lombardo. It's unlikely it was their intent, but you can actually dance to Expendable Youth, Skeletons Of Society and Blood Red. You could probably slow dance to Dead Skin Mask, but you might also want to seek professional help.

Like the band that started it all, Black Sabbath, Slayer can get written off as Satanists, and they also often embraced the image if not the actuality. Also like Sabbath, I generally interpret their dark lyrics as warnings, not celebrations. Expendable Youth doesn’t paint gang violence as a fun way to spend the weekend. I don’t know what happened to the world in Skeletons Of Society,” but I know I don’t want to be there. In Temptation – I mean, it’s called Temptation – that pretty much spells out it’s a bad idea. I read War Ensemble as an indictment of the sabre-rattling propaganda that drives young men to the front line, Slayer's version of War Pigs or Disposable Heroes, if you will.

Of course, there’s dark fantasy at play too. As odes to the Adversary go, Spirit in Black works for me, mostly because of the way Araya intones, “Coils...of the serpent unwind!” Tom Araya may have the best voice in thrash. He effortlessly spits out harsh and angry sounds while generally remaining intelligible, no easy task in thrash. It could be argued he genuinely sings the chorus of Dead Skin Mask, a tale of terror that would be tough to top for even Stephen King or Clive Barker.

For me, the only weak points are the gun worship of Hallowed Point, which crosses the line for me, and Born Of Fire, one rumbly grumbly Kerry King antitheist ditty to many.

Simply put, Slayer at their peak

Marco LG: Recently someone was asking online to name the first song by Slayer we’ve ever heard. I am among the lucky ones to have been introduced to the band with Reign In Blood, and therefore the first song I ever heard by Slayer is Angel of Death, the opener of their most iconic album.

This of course doesn’t make me a better fan than anybody who discovered Slayer later than 1987, but I believe it puts things in perspective when I claim my favourite Slayer album is Seasons In The Abyss. I don’t hear much praise for it, and yet at least two songs from this album have become classic Slayer numbers: War Ensemble and Dead Skin Mask.

While RIB is a very aggressive album, with songs mainly driven by speed and impact, SITA has in my opinion a more subtle way to generate the same reaction. Tom Araya for instance added on this album a distinctive singing tone, different from the screaming and talking he was using before. And having all songs mixed continuously together made listening to SITA a frenetic experience, like one incredible journey to hell.

I am sad Slayer have decided to call it quits, but I am also very proud to have been witness to their incredible career. The music they left behind really is timeless and will still be going strong long after the band will be no more. No matter which one is your favourite album, I’m sure you will agree.

Uli Hassinger: This is the album that connected me to Slayer. In the early 80s the bands were too monotone for me, but this changed and I'm now also crazy about Hell Awaits, Reign In Blood etc. And this album is almost my first choice, topped only by South Of Heaven.

It contains typical neckbreakers like War Ensemble, Hallowed Point and Born On Fire. War Ensemble and Born On Fire wouldn't have attracted negative attention on Reign In Blood. In fact, they could easily keep up with the best songs on Reign In Blood.

The big benefit of this record are the slower songs (in terms of Slayer): Skeletons Of Society, Dead Skin Mask, Expendable Youth and Seasons In The Abyss expand the spectrum of Slayer tremendously. The slower rhythm and the dark and gloomy atmosphere shows a totally new side of them.

If I rate every single song, there are only two which deserve a 9 (Spirit In Black and Temptation). The rest are straight 10. Therefore it's hard to pick out some favourites. I would choose War Ensemble, Dead Skin Mask and Seasons In The Abyss.

This album sealed their reign in thrash metal. Sepultura came near, but didn't throw them from the throne. It's a pity that they stopped touring. On their last tour they were a blast, probably in their best shape ever. Even their last album was terrific. I hope there will be more to come. Rating : 10/10.

Carl Black: This Thrasher is happy…. beaming. Slayer are the blue print for thrash. If you don’t believe me try this very simple experiment. At your next gig, Scream “SSSSLLLLLAAAAYYYYYEEEEERRRRRR” at the top of your voice. No matter what, you’ll get a “SSSSLLLLLAAAAYYYYYEEEEERRRRRR” hollered back. I have done this in various settings: Lining up outside Slayer gigs, (obviously), Just before Alice in Chains have come onstage, at 3 o'clock in the morning in the Reading Festival campsite, even down the local boozer. In every situation I’ve had the correct reply returned to me.

This is because Slayer don’t have fans. They have an army of devotees that will do the band's bidding on a scale of devotion that you can only dream of. The Thrash Metal Album of the Fortnight Club ran a competition which pitted thrash bands against each other over the course of 18 months, with the goal of finding which was the club's favourite band. Slayer smashed through every round and won at a canter. It was never in doubt, and no other band ran them close.

This album is considered the last of their truly classic albums and brings an end of a five album triumphant run which is unrivalled in the thrash world. The material falls into the middle of the band's arsenal: Fast songs, (War Ensemble, Hallowed Point), slower songs, (Dead Skin Mask and Seasons In The Abyss) and mid-tempo, groovier songs (Skeletons Of Society and Blood Red). It all here to enjoy.

It’s a massive ten out of ten for this album. I'd score it higher if I could.

Jon Marks: Amongst the very best thrash albums I own - I rate it above both Reign and SOH. They could not do any wrong at this point, as it was literally the culmination of everything they had worked towards. Was it their "Black Album" moment, if comparing to Metallica? No - I would say it was their Puppets' moment, because I don't think it could ever get any better than this for Slayer. And although they remained steady and consistent from here on in, it will always be Seasons that I remember more fondly than any other album of theirs. Tighter and more uncompromising than any of their 80's peers, this is up there in my top three of all time along with Puppets and Testament's The New Order.

Paul Hutchings: The kings of thrash with one of their most epic albums. Slowing the pace down, there is more technicality than on previous albums, yet they proved they could still do brutality with tracks like War Ensemble. The Ed Gein-inspired Dead Skin Mask still makes the hairs on the neck stand erect, and the title track is a monster. Many would argue that it's the band's last great album. It's one that still gets played regularly.

Dikshit Srikumar: Definitely their best album, perfectly combining the energy of Reign in Blood with the melodicism of South of Heaven. As for my personal experience, listening to it was a shock. It literally changed my life.

Stuart Morrison: An outstanding album that perfectly balanced and refined the change of pace between Reign in Blood and South Of Heaven.

I bought this a week after its release and found it a superb mix of thrash aggression (War Ensemble, Spirit in Black) and slower atmospheric tracks (Dead Skin Mask, Seasons In The Abyss). Meanwhile tracks like Blood Red and Skeletons Of Society pulled off being both melodic, heavy and - dare I say - catchy.

Not a bad track on the album, and I still listen to it nowadays.

Abel Calvo: To fully appreciate the impact of Slayer’s Season in the Abyss, one would have to revert back to the end of the eighties, the PRMC era (my CD copy still has the Parental Advisory sticker intact). What Tipper Gore intended to be a way to discourage sales, had the opposite effect among metal fans and the sticker ended up being kind of a “seal of quality”: If an album had the Parental Advisory sticker, it had a good chance of being a good irreverent album, at least lyrically.

War, serial killers, murder and Satan all but guaranteed the sticker for this record. Just the cover and back cover were enough to offend most parents’ sensibilities (including my very Catholic mother's). But for us thrash-heads it proved just irresistible. Before it came out, it was already the stuff of legend. The title track’s video, shot in the Egyptian pyramids, only cemented the mystique around the album.

As for the music, after the unbridled aggression and speed of 1986’s Reign In Blood and the relative restraint of 1988’s South of Heaven, with Seasons In The Abyss Slayer managed to perfectly combine the best of both its predecessors to make their most refined album ever.

Beware, however: for those who are more classic rock fans without a heavy metal background, this could a little too much.

Elliot Brown: We always hear about people hearing the Beatles or Kiss and that was their gateway into rock music, but I think Slayer have had a similar impact in the genre of metal. It's just fast enough that unlike Metallica your parents will hate it, just obscure enough that you feel cool listening to it and full of blood and guts which is what every teenager wants. While at the same time having clean vocals and just enough melody to ease you into extreme metal. However I still feel Reign In Blood is their Magnum Opus, but this isn't far behind. For me it's a solid 8/10.

Ian McNee: It’s a bit like being bashed over the head with a saucepan.

John Davidson: I've obviously heard bits and bobs of the big thrash bands but it's not (in general) a genre that holds much interest for me. So it was with some trepidation that I opened Spotify to listen to Seasons In The Abyss.

The closest I've come to enjoying thrash in my 40 plus years of buying rock and metal albums is Metallica's Ride the Lightning and Sepultura's Chaos AD, though for Metallica and Megadeth I favour their more classic rock output.

Opener War Ensemble is exactly what I was expecting from Slayer. Aggressive, fast, and not particularly tuneful. 

It doesn't help that I loathe the skank beat drumming that underpins the opening few minutes. I'm not sure why it sets my teeth on edge but it always has. On the other hand I didn't know what that drum pattern was called until I did some research before I wrote this review, so at least there's that.

The rest of the album, fortunately, uses the skank drum pattern more sparingly and some of the songs verge on tuneful. I'm guessing that's a no-no in hard core thrash circles but it did make the album more varied and interesting than I'd expected.

Even with that, and given this was published in the same year as Metallica's "Black Album", it cleaves closer to thrash than the more mainstream song writing that Metallica had began to explore.

Picking out a few songs that I enjoyed: Expendable Youth, Dead Skin Mask and Seasons In The Abyss stand out from the rest, though the guitar solos on Hallowed Point and Skeletons of Society are both very good.

Technically it's impressive. The guys play fast but it isn't sloppy and – skank beat notwithstanding – the drumming from Dave Lombardo is incredible.The twin guitars are also very effective.

Singing isn't a big feature in thrash but the vocals are ok. They convey the aggression of the music and there is a hint of melody beneath the shouting.

What did surprise and disappoint was the absence of any notable bass playing. The mix doesn't sound thin so I am guessing it is in there supporting the riffs but I'd have preferred to actually hear it.

I did listen to Reign In Blood and South Of Heaven to give this album some context. It does seem to be more of a blend of the two. RIB is fast and crunchy, SOH is more doomy (though still has plenty crunch). On balance I prefer the doomy epics and the songs with a Sabbathy vibe .

Overall this well executed, but not really my taste. 6/10.

Final Score: 8.30⁄10 (232 votes cast, with a total score of 1927)

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