Back Into the Abyss

Slayer revisit their 1990 album on tour

On this summer's American Carnage tour, two of the biggest old-school thrash bands are performing classic albums from 1990. Megadeth are playing the guitar landmark Rust in Peace, and Slayer are tearing through all of Seasons in the Abyss, an album that helped pave the way for other classic records — including Jeff Buckley's debut and one by Cleveland's Integrity. Seriously.

Abyss' bone-dry production represents Slayer at their tightest. The hesher heavyweights were always palatable to punks, and the album's sludgy slow jams were influential to a wave of hardcore bands like Integrity. It was co-produced by Rick Rubin and engineering ace Andy Wallace, who later mixed Nirvana's Nevermind and produced Buckley's Grace. Rubin is still the band's executive producer, but back then he and Wallace were active participants in the creative process.

Guitarists Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King had dominated the previous albums' lyrics and music, but Abyss is heavy on singer-bassist Tom Araya's songs. He penned four of Abyss' ten tracks and co-wrote another two with Hanneman, who was his roommate during the recording. Araya recently looked back on the album and broke it down, track by track.

"War Ensemble" — "I asked [Hanneman] to bring in a book to give me an idea what he was doing, and we finished the song. It was one of his books about World War II — I can't recall the title. The [song's] title was Jeff's idea. I liked that. Ensemble — a group of people that get together to make war."

"Blood Red" — "The papers and magazines were writing about Tiananmen Square and what was going on in China. And the picture of the guy standing in front of the tank is what [planted] the idea for that song. And there were other things going on: They were killing people for voting in South America. I put those ideas together."

"Spirit in Black" — "That was like Kerry — to write about an evil spirit. I thought it sounded funny the way it was written. I switched [words] around, thinking we had a more visual image if we moved some. The phrase 'living halls' and one of the verses didn't paint the picture the way I was thinking, and Kerry didn't seem to mind that."

"Expendable Youth" — "The L.A. Times [had an article] about gang warfare, and it was an entire page. I read it and thought, 'Wow, this is really cool.' I grew up in a gang neighborhood, so I had an idea of the mentality."

"Dead Skin Mask" — "It's about Ed Gein, the [real-life] Psycho guy. I read the book Deviant. It had some really [explicit] pictures that were omitted from the second pressing. They had a picture of a corpse hung upside-down in the barn. You pick it up, like, 'Ugh!' I saw the pictures, like, I gotta read this!"

"Hallowed Point" — "That's a kind of bullet — hollow points. It's about a gun and what guns do to a body. It can turn flesh into confetti. It's about the motivations to use a gun. People ask, 'Is it an anti-gun song?' No. 'Is it a pro-gun song?' No. Guns are dangerous. But I'm not an anti-gun [advocate]. I'm a gun owner."

"Skeletons of Society" — "We had an idea what Kerry wanted, but when I'd sing the chorus, I'd tell Rick Rubin, I hear this here. [He'd say,] 'Me too!' So the first chorus doesn't have the two outer lines. And the [last] chorus was done the way Kerry wanted."

"Temptation"— "Kerry handed me the lyric, and I told him, 'Let me do it. If you like it, you like it; if you don't, you don't.' He said, 'That sounds good, but I wanted you to start here.' And then I said, 'Let's let Rick Rubin come in and see which one he likes.' And he just turned it on, and both vocals came out. He listened to it, gave a nod, and goes, 'Cool.' We all agreed to keep it."

"Born of Fire" — "I never asked Kerry what that one's about, but it's obvious: It's about someone that was born on fire, born from hell

"Seasons in the Abyss" — "I had read a Stephen King book ... [and] I started writing ideas. Jeff said, 'I have some music.' So it just came together [since] what I had written fit. It blew my mind, like I had written it for that. I think [the slow songs] represent Slayer very well."

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