In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week: songs about ghosts.
The ghosts haunting the blistering Slayer song “Spirit In Black” aren’t the kind people encounter on Earth. No, they’re black-clad “Spirits damned to rot / Amidst the brimstone fire wall” in hell under the watchful eye of the devil. To see one is to be among them in a place where “Broken glass reflections / Show your flesh eating away / Beyond the gates I’ll take you / Where the blood forever rains.”
That’s pretty metal, and it’s exactly the kind of thing listeners would expect from seminal thrash band Slayer. “Spirit In Black” is the third track from the group’s fifth album, Seasons In The Abyss, which features other appropriately metal song titles like “Blood Red,” “Born Of Fire,” and “Dead Skin Mask” (about metal muse Ed Gein). But “Spirit In Black” is the most hell-centric, painting a miserable portrait of spirits suffering eternal torment: “Hear the piercing cries of all / Who found hell awaits.”
Seasons In The Abyss came out the same year Judas Priest was sued for having subliminal messages in its music—which apparently incited the suicides of two young men. A judge dismissed the case, but it became a landmark suit in the debate over free speech and the aggressive, dark music bands like Slayer performed. The Judas Priest case coincided with the rise of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), whose hearings a few months before the suicides of the men in the Judas Priest case had led to the introduction of warning stickers on albums.
Nearly 30 years later, the PMRC’s so-called “Filthy 15” looks like Pat Boone compared to contemporary pop and hip-hop, and the heavy metal that freaked out people at the time has long since returned to the margins. Slayer’s use of hellish imagery distracted the hand-wringers from a surprisingly agreeable perspective: For all its talk of “coils of the serpent” and tortured souls “burning from within,” “Spirit In Black” doesn’t celebrate the hell it conjures. A conscience lurks beneath the brimstone throughout Seasons In The Abyss. Turns out, that’s pretty metal too.