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On “Seasons In the Abyss” Bay Area thrashers Slayer settled into its midpaced sound, and wrote its most epic album to date. Almost the entire album (with exception of one track) deals with topical real-life events, the horrors of war and serial killers. “Seasons In the Abyss” was Slayer’s highest charted album at the time, and their best selling. The album was promoted by extensive touring on both continents, and two promotional videos were shot. The most well-known was the title track, which had its video shot in Egypt, whereas the video for ‘War Ensemble’ was shot during the UK leg of the world tour. “Seasons In the Abyss” sees a band in control of its sound but remaining accessible without compromising on what made them famous to begin with. This album just kills.

slayer-1986The band has eased into its slower sound, and works around the new compositional freedom that it allows. On “Seasons In the Abyss” Slayer knows exactly what works and what doesn’t. It further hones and perfects the midpaced sound hinted upon with “South Of Heaven”. In a way it is similar to how Sepultura’s “Arise” perfected the sound hinted upon with “Schizophrenia” and “Beneath the Remains”. Slayer might not be breaking any records in terms of speed or extremity – but it pays off dividends in more involved songwriting and a stronger compositional muscle. On the whole the album is more musically ambitious and calls back more to the long gone times of “Hell Awaits” than it does to any of its immediate two predecessors. In fact in a lot of ways this is Slayer’s second attempt at a more epic and melodic sound but this time with the advantage of having a cutting edge production job that emphasizes its considerable strengths.  “Seasons In the Abyss” is a compromise between the band’s earlier cutthroat style, and their more recent venture into more melodic and midpaced territory. It just works.

‘War Ensemble’ is another graphical World War 2 epic that details the Battle Of the Bulge. The lyrics succinctly describe the hopelessness and desperation of war.  It is one of the most recognizable Slayer tunes, and despite the high sing-along factor of the chorus, the heavy subject isn’t left untouched. The band go on to describe the major German offensive campaign launched through the densely forested Ardennes region of Wallonia in Belgium, France and Luxembourg on the Western Front toward the end of World War II in Europe in loving detail without choosing either side. It shows Hanneman’s interest in war history, and specific that of World War 2 without glorifying the horrors it brought upon those involved. In a way it also counters the argument that Slayer were closet Nazi supporters, as ‘War Ensemble’ talks about the conflict from the standpoint of the Allied forces. Other than that, it is just a very strong track in itself.

'Blood Red' details the Tiananmen Square massacre in Bejing in 1989, where over a thousand protestors were slaughtered. ‘Spirit In Black’ is another horror/satanic themed song with probably the best lyrics the band had ever penned. It vividly depicts the sort of macabre atmosphere that would come to define the Doom video game franchise, and it actually references a number of earlier Slayer tunes and albums. ‘Expendable Youth’ concerns the hopelessness of youths in poverty-stricken, decaying urban areas, and gun-related deaths in gang culture. ‘Dead Skin Mask’ is about notorious 1950’s cannibal/serial killer Ed Gein, the Plainfield Butcher. This real life horror story remains a fixation for various extreme metal bands to this day, as both Deranged and Mortician (among others) have written their own songs about the subject. ‘Skeletons Of Society’ is a “torn-from-the-headlines” apocalyptic tale of a world falling in ruin.

On the whole “Seasons In the Abyss” is refinement of the sound the band started on “South Of Heaven”. It is more accessible compared to the earlier Slayer output, and the production is the best the band would ever experience. Despite the slower overall pace Slayer is still its usual self. When the band plays fast they do go all out, and the solo’ing between Hanneman and King are still a wonder to behold. Kerry King does start to show minor symptoms of his “string-random-notes-together” type solo’ing that would come to define the crowd pandering records after this one. It is also the last album to feature Slayer in its classic wardrobe, and have King have long hair. This is the point where the old Slayer and new Slayer become separate entities. The ill-fated follow-up to this record would herald the downfall of a once considered unattaintable thrash metal royalty. In a lot of ways it is the end of an era for a band that was in constant evolution. After having defined and redefined a genre with much of its output, Slayer is at the verge of becoming usurped by its corporate branch. All records to follow in this album’s footsteps would be born out of market research and crowd pandering rather than a passion for the music. “Seasons In the Abyss” is the last mandatory Slayer record in that regard, although “Divine Intervention” doesn’t nearly deserve the bad rap it usually gets.

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‘In the dark of the night I search for the mindless wretches of society’ Barnes imparts solemnly in the ominous opening of “Maximum Violence”, ‘to drink of their blood and feast upon their flesh.’ Maybe third time is the charm for these Tampa, Florida knuckle-draggers? Maybe, just maybe they lifted themselves out of the creative morass they had submerged themselves in with Allen West? Maybe the presence of Steve Swanson led to the band actually raising an effort and writing the best possible material they could? All these questions and more will go through your head upon hearing those first few moments of ‘Feasting On the Blood Of the Insane’ – however brief it sounds as if Six Feet Under finally redeemed itself, and wrote something worthy of their collective legacy….

That is until Barnes start growling and grunting with a hiphop timbre and the admittedly strong doom opening is abandoned for more of the usual fare, the thing we have all come to loathe this band for: redneck grooves, one chord/one riff songs and baseless hard rock pandering of the poorest kind.  So, here we are another two years later from the wretched “Warpath”, and no lesson was learnt – because outside of vastly improved production values this record sounds almost identical to the one that came before. Almost identical, emphasis mine – because Allen West is no longer in the band, and instead of sounding like a low rent Obituary knock-off Six Feet Under now sounds like a low rent Massacre knock-off. If it feels like you find yourself jumping from the frying pan into fire, don’t worry – because that is exactly what is happening here.

six-feet-underI honestly don’t know where to begin. Outside of a more powerful and spirited vocal performance by the has-been that is Chris Barnes, there’s little about this record to write home about. In part it is a return to the form of “Haunted”, but the remaining parts are still lacking as they have always been. Swanson in his writing and recording debut doesn’t make a complete fool of himself, and while the layman will have a hard time telling his riffs apart from those of former axe man Allen West, the material on display is still the same chugging stuff that was outdated by the time “Warpath” rolled out of the studio. Somehow there must have been audience for this because “Maximum Violence” is on all aspects a more expensive and ambitious undertaking than the preceding album.

Lacking is what this album mostly does, because when you break it down into individual pieces it isn’t all that good. Most obvious bone of contention is the riffing. Yes, the riffing. Not because the riffing is bad in itself, far from it. But to hear the same three basic riffs used in varying degrees and with little difference between them for the length of an album tends to grate on the nerves. So does the bass guitar offer some respite? No, Terry Butler is just being Terry Butler. If there are riffs to double he will do so unequivocally and without a moment’s hesitation. Greg Gall, the least talented member of this unit, continues to hammer away with typical hard rock beats, and offers nothing of note. It boggles the mind for how long these guys were able to get away with the obvious scam they were pulling with their band. Why does this band have fans – can somebody answer that truthfully without going into excuses or throwing insults? I’d love to hear it.

Notable is that “Maximum Violence” sounds absolutely massive with an organic warmth and crunch so often missing from death metal productions in the contemporary era. The record gives a new meaning to low-end heaviness and bass-oriented production work. Chris Carroll outdid himself with his outstanding production on a band that absolutely does not deserve the kind of gloss, smoothness and sheen he has provided this record with. The Paul Booth cover artwork is also the best the band has had since those bright early days of “Haunted” and the cheap cover photo of “Warpath”. It was 1999 and traditional death metal was considered dead due to rising prominence of (symfo) black metal and the emerging nu-metal movement that was to break loose at any point.  On the other end of the genre bands from Europe and South America were pushing the envelope in terms of velocity and speed. No wonder this record sold like hotcakes – because when you listened to stuff like this and suddenly Krisiun came from Brazil with its brazenly blast-focused and truly savage death metal. No wonder all the tobacco chewers, the basement-dwelling halfwits and stinky truckers embraced this band.

What is exactly the problem with this band? There’s nothing wrong with going for the simplest form of the genre. Death metal when played groovy and primitive can be a truly amazing thing. Just think of Bolt Thrower, Gorefest, Jungle Rot, Obituary and although Obituary jumped the shark in the ‘90s, the very idea of chunky groovy death metal isn’t that bad. Six Feet Under, despite the level of talent and influence involved, are the absolute worst and bottom-feeding example of the form. It is therefore not unreasonable for the band’s most visible spokesperson, mister Chris Barnes, to bear the brunt for his band’s continual missteps.

Why it would take until 2011 for him to figure out to get rid of his unit’s least talented members is a question for the ages.

“Maximum Violence” sounds, for better or worse, like Massacre attempting to write an Obituary record with Barnes growling on top. To wit, Massacre’s only album of note “From Beyond” was a whitewash of Death’s “Leprosy” – and despite its historical significance, the record isn’t very good, or memorable. That the label choose to focus on Swanson being "from Massacre" is also questionable. He had no hand, in writing or recording, 1991's "From Beyond", and only appeared at earliest on the "Provoked Accurser" single, itself a precursor of the 1992 "Inhuman Condition" EP. More importantly however is that Steve Swanson was just the second guitarist in Massacre, and never its primary songwriter. That was Fred DeLillo (Rick Rozz) - which makes the promotional tooting all the more questionable, if you take a minute to let it sink in.  Obituary was only good for their first three records, and “World Demise” was redeemed only by the grace of two songs: ‘Don’t Care’ and ‘Final Thoughts’. Like its predecessor the running time and tracklist is artificially lengthened by including a number of classic rock covers that no person in the right mind asked for. The unfortunate few this time around are Kiss, Iron Maiden and Thin Lizzy depending on the version of this album you decide to pick up. The problem of the previous album is not rectified. The cover tracks are still better than this band’s original songs. Overall is that “Maximum Violence” is more of the same, but not better.