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Throughout the 1980s, Slayer had been perhaps THE leading force in extreme thrash metal. While their contemporaries like Metallica and Megadeth were gradually streamlining their sound and appealing to major audiences, Slayer seemed to be doing anything to make sure they stood alone. And indeed, they did. While "Show No Mercy" and "Hell Awaits" were definitely feral, unrelenting, brutal examples of no-frills thrash, "Reign in Blood" took those elements into then-unchartered territory. It was a half-hour slab of flesh-ripping sonic torture, dragging you in and pummeling you with a psychotic, bloodthirsty frenzy, clearing out just as fast as it had arrived. Perhaps the band themselves realized they couldn't possibly top the speed and mayhem on "Reign in Blood", so 1988's "South of Heaven" was confusing to many fans because the songs were, for the most part, slower and more doomy in approach. It's a criminally underrated album, but in my opinion it's one of their highlights. Then came "Seasons in the Abyss" in 1990, which was their highest charting album at the time and their best-selling. Many fans have remarked it's kind of a middle ground between the speed of "Reign" and the slower, more sinister atmosphere of "South of Heaven". That's about as good a description as any.
"War Ensemble" starts things off in fine form, with perhaps their most recognized guitar riff next to "Angel of Death". This is one of the fastest songs on the album, and one of the longest. Dave Lombardo proves once again why he's regarded as one of the best metal drummers of all time, while Tom Araya shouts and screams over the racket like a demented Gen. Patton barking orders. The soloing by Jeff Hannemann and Kerry King is still plenty atonal and shrieky, but there's also a subtle sense of melody seldom heard before, or after, this album. "Blood Red" is a more mid-paced number with some catchy riffs during the chorus. The song concerns the Tiananmen Square massacre in Bejing in 1989, where over a thousand protestors were slaughtered. This album is really where Slayer's current lyrical fixation of tyrannical governments, social decay, and criminal insanity came into full focus, abandoning the Satanism of past albums. "Spirit in Black", though, makes a brief return to their early lyrical musings, and this song is also a fast, ripping example of their style of thrash. Tom's vocals are actually intelligible throughout most of the album, making the lyrics easy to follow. "Expendable Youth" weaves a tale of adolescents wasting away in inner-city gang violence. Tempo-wise, this is one of their "slow" songs although "slow" and "Slayer" put together really shouldn't mean such a bad thing like a lot of these reviewers seem to think. This isn't surprising for the band, since Los Angeles was pretty much a war zone at the start of the 1990s. It's a stark, blunt depiction of the cruelty and the waste of gang violence, the pointlessness and futility. Next up is "Dead Skin Mask", a chilling soliloquy about Ed Gein, the "Plainsfield Butcher" of the early 1950s. Tom's vocals take on a detached, ghostly, droning quality which fits the song VERY well... perhaps TOO well. The voiceover at the end of one of Gein's captives lends the song a gruesome, ghastly ambience. A sickening, deathly dirge, and then "Hallowed Point" rips wide open, hammering you from all directions. The lyrics are pretty graphic, seemingly a demented tale of a mass murderer, and it's one of those classic Slayer songs you just need to thrash around to.
The last half of the album to me, for some reason, seems to lose some momentum, but still provide a nice, stiff kick in the teeth. "Skeletons of Society" is a post-apocalyptic tale of a world falling to pieces, which at the time, I'm sure, was very appropriate and could easily be set to a montage of news footage of some recent events of today. "Temptation" is not exactly a blindingly fast scorcher, but at the same time, not a "South..." type funeral march. It juggles the two styles, and due to a studio mistake, Tom tracked two different vocal takes for this song. The first take was supposed to be erased because Kerry had his own idea for how Tom should sing the song, but the first take remained along with Tom's re-recorded vocals and the double-tracked vocal lines create a spooky vibe. "Born of Fire" is a short, to-the-point thrasher, marking another return to the Satanic lyrics of Slayer's past. To be honest, this song is forgettable compared to the closing cut, the monstrous, overpowering title track. A doom-laden, foreboding opening section with some haunting, well-played clean guitar lines, conjuring a picture of a deranged killer sitting in his hideout, surrounded by the dismembered bodies of his victims, ripping his own face to shreds and screaming at nothing but the dead audience spread around him. The song is one of Slayer's longest, and definitely their darkest, ever. I read somewhere it was inspired by the crimes of Ted Bundy (who, prior to the album's release, had been executed for the savage murders of some thirty women) but whatever the inspiration was, it's perhaps Slayer's most intricate. haunting song.
There is a lot of dissention over this album. Some fans love it; others despise it, citing the seeming "commercial" edge. I've never been caught up in silly purist bullshit, and I strongly suggest this album for all Slayer fans who are perhaps a bit more open-minded, and for thrash fans in general.