When Tom Araya reflects on Slayer‘s “Seasons in the Abyss” video, which came out a quarter century ago this year and showed the group thrashing at the feet of the Sphinx, the first thought to enter his mind is war. “It was right before the first Bush attack on Iraq,” he says, referring to Operation Desert Shield. Then he laughs at his word choice and references another one of the band’s songs. “You notice how I used the word ‘attack’? It was the first ‘war ensemble.'”
Despite the tension in the region at the time, Araya and guitarist Kerry King remember being received warmly by U.S. military and locals alike. When they arrived in December 1990, they chatted up the soldiers, who told them they were preparing for President Bush to escalate the invasion to what became Desert Storm, and met with Egyptian officials to make the sort of trades that would allow them the rights to film in and around one of the Seven Wonders of the World. “We bribed everybody with porn and cigarettes,” Slayer guitarist Kerry King says with a laugh. “It’s amazing the doors those open.”
The eerie, six-and-a-half–minute video depicts people living in squalor juxtaposed with the band riding on a boat on the Nile, playing in an ancient room adorned with hieroglyphics and at the foot of the pyramids as locals wave torches in their faces as the gloomy title track to the band’s 1990 LP uncoils. The clip doesn’t tell a story as much as it evokes Araya’s otherworldly lyrics about introspection at the time of death, bolstered by horror-movie-ready shout-outs to “a bloody tomb,” “a sadist ritual” and a “demanding physical need” to watch someone bleed.
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The concept came from Rick Rubin, the group’s producer and president of their label at the time, Def American. “He was always trying to be the visionary,” Araya says. “He just told us, ‘We want you to do a video where we’ll fly you to Egypt.’ And we were like, ‘Egypt?!’ I thought, ‘You know what? Fuck it. That’s so cool.'”
It took longer to convince King, as the group had just concluded an Asian trek promoting the album. “We were all toured out after Japan,” he says. “We wanted to go home. It was just a big pain in the ass. I remember we got there in the evening and it wasn’t a sandstorm, but you couldn’t see very far. We checked into a hotel, woke up the next morning and it was so clear. It felt li you could touch the pyramids from my window. We all just went, ‘This is really cool,’ and got into it.”
The one thing both band members remember vividly is how it felt to be there: “Cold as fuck,” in Araya’s words.
“I had a long-sleeved shirt on, and that’s totally not like me,” King says with a laugh.
Araya still marvels at the places they visited for the shoot. “When we floated down the Nile, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, Moses went down this water,'” he says. “To me, the history of what went on 3,000, 4,000 years ago was the cool thing.”
They also set up some shots in a tomb. “This was before people knew that light and sound affected antiquities,” the singer says. “We had sound playback while we were jamming.”
“It wasn’t even that loud,” King says. “Tom was probably singing louder than whatever was coming out of the playback. I remember they reflected sunlight down these corridors to light the place up.”
Araya also looks back fondly at some of his interactions with the Egyptians they met. One gave him a kaffiyeh – a scarf headdress – and showed him, he says, “how to put it around my head the way the Egyptians would.” He traded something of his, which he doesn’t remember, for it, and he has hung onto it all these years.
Other interactions weren’t as positive. An extra atop a horse asked the singer if he wanted to ride and once he was on, led him away from the shoot and asked him for money. “I’m just thinking, ‘Fuck, I don’t have any money, man; I’m wearing leather pants'” Araya says with a laugh. “They wouldn’t take me back unless I gave them something. Eventually they realized we didn’t have any money and brought us back. A dollar bill is like a thousand dollars there, and they just wanted something. That was the last time I did anything with the extras.
“But they were all cool,” he continues. “They had a little tent set up for us where we could keep warm. And they offered us food, but, you know, we were dumb Americans and didn’t appreciate cuisines from another part of the world. So we’d sit there and snack on stuff we thought was edible.” Araya laughs.
The experience left such an impact on the singer, he decided to return to Cairo the next year with drummer Dave Lombardo and the band’s manager. That’s when they got to experience the culture of the area. “When you’re doing a video you spend most of your time waiting for them to set up shots, and you have no time to enjoy or visit the sights,” he says. “So the second time we went to a bazaar and a hookah teahouse.”
When the video finally came out, Def American sent out a press release touting the shoot’s proximity to the Gulf War. “It added an air of excitement, didn’t it?” Rubin said in a statement, dated February 13th, 1991. “Military exercises were taking place, diplomatic talks were being arranged, bomb shelters were being built and Slayer was shooting a video in the midst of it all.” It also said that a quarter of the group’s fan mail was coming from U.S. troops in the Middle East and that some of the letters found troops claiming that they blared Slayer’s music over loudspeakers in the middle of the desert. The song would subsequently become a set-list staple for the band’s concerts, as well.
The whole shoot had taken weeks to negotiate, but it was worth it to the band members. “We never made videos that catered to MTV,” Araya says. “We’d say, ‘We’re gonna do a video. You can show it or not. It’s OK. We don’t care.”
The video would get a lot of play on MTV’s Headbangers Ball, and years later, it was featured in an episode of Beavis and Butt-head. “[The guys on the horses] are, like, the desert cops and they’re kicking Slayer out of the desert,” Butt-head says. “Yeah, they were playing too loud,” Beavis counters. “Not loud enough, dude,” Butt-head rejoins.
The clip had another strange afterlife when video director Markus Blunder took a different artist to the pyramids. “That was the beginning of Shania Twain, and she did the exact same video in Egypt with the same director [‘The Woman in Me (Needs the Man in You)’],” King says with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘Come on, dude.'”
Nevertheless, he looks back on the experience fondly. “‘Seasons in the Abyss’ is the last great Slayer video until [2015’s] ‘Repentless,'” he says with a laugh. “Visually, it’s stunning.”