There’s no denying the impact that Slayer made during the 1980s. All these years later and we’re still discussing Reign in Blood as if it was just released last week. In an age where heavy metal constantly drew disdain from the establishment, Slayer must have been seen as the harbingers of Armageddon. On albums such as Show No Mercy and Hell Awaits, the group created vivid landscapes of Satanic imagery. Continually developing their sound, Slayer, despite what some critics might have accused them of, was not a one-trick pony show. South of Heaven and Seasons of the Abyss both featured songs that departed from the typical thrash formula. Over the years they would develop their lyrical content and explore subject matter such as war, gang violence, and real-life horror that’s existed throughout history.
As the 1990s got underway, the musical landscape hadn’t just changed, it had been completely reshaped by changing trends. Even thrash wasn’t spared from the winds of change, as many attempted to evolve their stylistic approach to stay relevant. Both Destruction and Sepultura had adopted a groove heavy sound and Metallica had crossed over into mainstream popularity on the heels of the black album. If there had been any thought that Slayer would be forced to undergo radical alterations, 1994 would silence any curiosities with their sixth studio release, Divine Intervention. However, there would be one decisive change to the group. Divine Intervention would be the first release without the presence of longtime drummer Dave Lombardo. To say that his replacement, Paul Bostaph, had his work cut out for him is certainly an understatement.
If there’s one term that perfectly describes Divine Intervention, it’s evolution. While some of the themes on the album were familiar territory, they were dealt with and explored in new ways. Slayer were going in a new direction, but their unrelenting speed and ferocity had still yet to be compromised. “Killing Fields”, the opening song on the album is a perfect beginning. While the song title might be reminiscent of the atrocities committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, the lyrical content is decisive in establishing one of the dominant themes of the album—the predatory instinct of evil. Tom Araya’s lyrical contributions throughout Divine Intervention explore the darkness of humanity and a horror that’s all too real.
1991, the world was confronted with serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. His crimes were so viscous that they seemed to emanate from a horror film and not a mild-mannered citizen of the American Midwest. The discovery of bodies in various states of decomposition, along with stories of cannibalism and necrophilia sent a shockwave through the country. Naturally, this subject is all too convenient for a band like Slayer to capitalize upon. “213”, a song named for Dahmer’s apartment number, is another one of Araya’s lyrical contributions. “213” itself is in a similar vein as “Dead Skin Mask.” However, there’s a radical amount of evolution between the two songs.
“Dead Skin Mask”, which was featured on Seasons in the Abyss, was loosely based on Ed Gein. As one of the most infamous figures in history, his legacy is one that’s inspired both Norman Bates in Psycho (1960) as well as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). If there’s one thing to be said about “Dead Skin Mask”, it’s that the lyrical content is somewhat vague. Araya’s lyrics are more than just a simple retelling of Dahmer’s crimes. He places himself into the mindset of the murderer, talking about isolation and psychosis. “I need a friend, please be my companion. I don’t want to be left alone with my sanity” explores Dahmer’s compulsion for murder and his desire to create a partner who he could keep in servitude. While both songs feature introductions that are clean and gradually build as they progress, “213” genuinely feels like a slow descent into madness.
The compulsion that drives many serial killers is further explored in “Serenity in Murder.” The realism in which Araya describes the content is a firm indication of his ongoing development as a songwriter. By exploring the homicidal mindset of the murderer, Araya’s delves deep into a world that’s a source of fascination for many. “Quench the fire that drives my soul, soothing me as death takes hold. Divine godsend enveloping me, spiritual ecstasy sets me free.” It’s an evil that’s far more harrowing than the images of demons and hell the band were once known for.
While Araya explored the epidemic that lurks in the back alleys of Middle America, Kerry King chose a more noticeable adversary to focus his aggression on. A theme that King would later describe in the documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (2005) is the saturation of violence in mass media and the public fascination contained therein. The dissatisfaction and alienation from the world, in general, is described in “Dittohead.” (a nickname for fans of Rush Limbaugh and conservative talk radio.) “Here in 1994, Things are different than before, violence is what we adore” In some respects, “Dittohead” is a throwback to the groups punk influence from bands such as D.R.I. While Slayer was never known for writing anthems for dissatisfied youth, “Dittohead” and “Fictional Reality” in particular contain a level of angst amidst a world that was becoming more and more violent. “Suicidal hierarchy racing in reverse. Everything that’s done today will be tomorrow’s curse” is a candid observation in regards to the perpetual deterioration of modern society.
There’s quite possibly no Slayer song more noticeable (Although “Raining Blood” now possesses a popularity normally reserved for pop music.) or infamous than “Angel of Death.” The opening track from Reign in Blood caused a fair amount of controversy upon release. The song in question, which details the wartime atrocities of Josef Mengele lead some to question whether or not the group harbored any far-right political ties. Jeff Hanneman always maintained that it was simply a subject matter that he wrote about, and that there was nothing glorifying the Nazi regime.
“SS-3” also possesses content related to the holocaust—yet presented in an entirely different method. The song itself is named for the car in which Reinhardt Heydrich—chief architect of the final solution was travelling in at the time of his assassination. The lyrical content isn’t so much a retelling of history, as it is about retaliation and revenge. “When the plot is executed There will be nowhere to run. Ramifications will be high. A price paid in torment. The end justifies the means. To hell you will be sent.” The lyrics from Hannenman pay tribute to the guitarists’ punk roots and are very much in the same vein as an anthem about striking back at injustice and those in power. Like “213”, the lyrical content offers perspective rather than describe a string of facts.
As far as Divine Intervention’s place among Slayer’s previous material, look no further than the Live Intrusion home video release. Filmed during the tour in support of the album, many of the songs flow effortlessly with the older material in the setlist. Sadly, Divine Intervention was an end of an era in some ways. While the album shows a band still unwilling to compromise their vision, changes were right around the corner. 1998 would bring the album Diabolus In Musica. Departing further from the thrash element in favor of Nu-Metal aspects, this trend would continue on God Hates Us All in 2001. Despite the misgivings some have about the groups later material, Divine Intervention remains a definitive statement in regards to the changing world of the early 1990s.