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“Hell Awaits” was one of two Slayer records released on the then-new label Metal Blade Records, which was formed only a mere three years prior in 1982. Whereas “Show No Mercy” was financed by the band themselves (through funds accumulated by Tom Araya’s dayjob as a respiratory therapist, and a loan from Kerry King’s father), this second full length was financed by Brian Slagel and his upstart label. Not only did Slagel co-produce the record, but he also brought in a number of respected engineers and producers to allow a more professional production. Recording took place at Eldorado Recording Studios in Burbank, California and the young Slayer had the change to work with the likes of Bernie Grundman, Eddy Schreyer and Bill Metoyer. This album is the second of three Slayer albums that were hugely influential on the nascent death metal scene, although “Hell Awaits” is notable for its Mercyful Fate influence with its longer songs that are dynamically richer than the straightforward cuts of its infamous debut.

On its second album American thrashers Slayer came into its own musically and conceptually. “Hell Awaits” is the band’s darkest and most ominous sounding record, and together with Possessed’s “Seven Churches” it laid much of the groundwork for what would later be called death metal. Not only that, Slayer would continue to redefine this then-emergent genre with the successor to this record, the unanimously savage “Reign In Blood”. On “Hell Awaits” Slayer played much heavier and slower than on its debut, but the songs and the subject matter is the grimmest they had penned. Despite being only 7 songs long “Hell Awaits” packs a lot of punch, and while there were faster alternatives available in the scene, it is testament to the band’s substantial growth as songwriters and musicians. On this album the real Slayer sound starts to surface, and the foundation for their later, more universally recognized albums is first laid out here.

tumblr_mmirvp2ihP1r8g0l5o1_12801The album opens with the title track, and unlike the preceding “Show No Mercy” there’s a considerable build-up towards the actual song. Guitar noise, bestial screams, a martial drumbeat and the inverted “join us!” chants last for about a minute before the chants end with “welcome back!” Dave Lombardo kicks in with his drums and the instantly memorable opening riff introduces the now much loved song, which remains a live staple. Much in tradition of Cliff Burton era Metallica the intro serves to set up the rest of the song, and every single member gets his moment in the spotlight. As with any of the early Slayer records vocalist Tom Araya’s bass guitar can actually be clearly heard, and it is responsible for much of the inherent heaviness along with Dave Lombardo’s drums.

Besides the fast, multisyllabic, one-breath diatribes that Araya spits out there are one or two instances where his vocals are deformed due to studio effects. It is probably here that the eventual death grunt vocal style took root, along with other early American practictioners of the form such as Jeff Becerra (Possessed), Kam Lee (Massacre), Donald Crotsley (Nunslaughter), King Fowley (Deceased) and Chuck Schuldiner (Death, Mantas). The opening section to ‘Kill Again’ is absolutely monstrous and the lyrical themes fit Slayer as a glove. What initially appears to be a vampyric themed outing turns out to be a serial killer tale, but this band never let a tasty subject slip them by. Thus they deliver a one-two punch with following up ‘Kill Again’ by the slow grinder ‘At Dawn They Sleep’, the band’s take on vampyrism. Interesting is also that ‘Kill Again’ contains one falsetto scream courtesy of Araya, which featured more prominently on the band’s debut but seemed to disappear more with each consecutive release after this one.

Araya goes completely off the rails towards the end of the track, which adds greatly to the adrenaline-fueled intensity. As expected the off-the-wall delivery completely sells the track and its, at the time, shocking subject matter of serial killing described in gruesome detail. By the same token the slow churning of ‘At Dawn They Sleep’ greatly benefits from a truly macabre atmosphere, especially during the dirgey ‘beware! Beware!’ section where demonic voices start to call out to the listener towards the middle of the track. Notable is also that Araya’s bass lines are actually more interesting than the riffs of the hallowed duo that were Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King. The last third of this song is especially interesting as it shows off Dave Lombardo’s dexterity behind the drumkit and it actually sets up the next track in terms of speed and intensity.

jeff‘Praise Of Death’ is the fastest song on the album, and probably also the band’s heaviest track to date. It is a proto-death metal song in more ways than it initially suggests, and it is the sole writing credit for Kerry King on his record. Most tracks were co-written by Hanneman and King. In terms of construction it formed much of the basis for the much shorter cuts of the successor to this album “Reign In Blood”, although that album would reduce the songs to its essentials. ‘Necrophiliac’ deals with the lovely theme of corpse molestation, and ‘Crypts Of Eternity’ is another horror themed song that pretty much covers the plot of Lucio Fulci’s 1980 splatter classic “The Gates Of Hell”. ‘Hardening Of the Arteries’ is mostly remembered because it reprises the opening section of ‘Hell Awaits’ shortly after the two-minute mark. This was the only time that Slayer bookended a record with almost exactly the same melodies and riffs. The reprise ends in guitar noise and only serves to mask the fact that this song is barely over two minutes long.

“Hell Awaits” has Slayer at its most musical and ambitious. The album is dynamically and compositionally richer than the album before or after it. While slower compared to the band’s off-the-rails debut, and the wall-to-wall extremity of its successor, “Hell Awaits” is the only album of its kind in the Slayer canon. Dark, depressive and utterly frightening it is an unrelenting exercise in pacing and overall heaviness that the band was never able to replicate. Like Metallica’s “Ride the Lightning” or Sepultura’s “Schizophrenia” it marks an undeniable surge in instrumental skill, more complex and involving songwriting and a keen understanding of what makes its lyrical concept work. Horribly dated by today’s standards, and a bit goofy in retrospect “Hell Awaits” was nevertheless an important cornerstone for the emerging death metal sound that was being formulated in the mid-to-late 1980’s by bands in Europe and the US. Slayer’s name will forever be etched in the annals of extreme music history for that reason.

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Like any young band’s first recording “Show No Mercy”, the first Slayer longplayer, was an offering marked by youthful exuberance, enthusiasm and unrelenting energy. Released in 1983 it went on to change the face of metal music forever. It is not so much an original recording as it is a brash lovenote to all of the band’s inspirations, and it are exactly those inspirations that make it the only record of its kind in the Slayer canon. Tapping heavily from the vein of early Iron Maiden, Metallica and Venom “Show No Mercy” was the first of three records that were important for the creation and early evolution of the then-emergent death metal genre. Sounding dated and juvenile by today’ standards it was nevertheless paramount in bringing a new level of heaviness, speed and intensity to the speed/thrash metal genre. This is one of a number of Slayer records that would lead to the creation of an entire branch of a new metal style called death metal. It sounds nothing like the genre it helped form, but in several respects it is the trough from which many, if not all, proto-death metal groups would feed.

1384759_origThe early history of Slayer can be traced back to a number of California metal bands. Kerry King (lead guitar) and Chilean transplant Tomás Enrique Araya Díaz (Tom Araya, vocals and bass guitar) both cut their teeth in a local band called Quits. Dave Lombardo was sitting behind the drumkit in Sabotage. Quits broke up resulting in Araya and King going their separate ways. Araya was working a full-time job as a respiratory therapist in a local hospital. The band was formed in earnest in 1981 by guitarist Kerry King in Los Angeles suburb Huntington Park by getting Araya back in the fold. Contrary to popular belief the band did not name itself Dragonslayer (after the 1981 fantasy movie of the same name) but right away chose for the abbreviated, and much more powerful, Slayer. As history would note King happened upon second guitarist Jeff Hanneman as he was working downstairs in the same building as he went upstairs to audition for another band. Dave Lombardo, future drummer for the band, worked as a pizza delivery guy at the time and eventually all four of the men would be drawn together due to a mutual interest in heavy metal. Slayer’s beginnings are truly humble and blue-collar.

While the band is still all over the place musically and lyrically, the classic line-up is already in place. The band is fronted by Tom Araya on vocals and bass guitar, lead guitarist and main songwriter duo Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King with Dave Lombardo providing drums. “Show No Mercy” was financed independently by the band (through funds accumulated by Tom Araya’s dayjob as a respiratory therapist, and a loan from Kerry King’s father) and recorded quick and dirty at Track Record in Los Angeles, California with Slayer’s then-label boss of the freshly formed Metal Blade Records sitting behind the console. Almost half of the record was co-written between the guitarists, with the exception of ‘Evil Has No Boundaries’ and ‘Show No Mercy’ being written solely by King. Supposedly recorded in all but 8 hours “Show No Mercy” is Slayer its infancy. History would note that it was at Kerry King’s behest that the band adopted its Satanic imagery and legendary stage productions as a way to gain notoriety in the local scene.

kingwithhair‘Evil Has No Boundaries’, one of two tracks penned entirely by Kerry King, is notable for its inclusion of gang shouts during the chorus. Among the ones to lend their voices to the chorus was an aspiring young musician by the name of Gene Hoglan, later of Dark Angel and Death repute, who worked as a lights/drum-tech and general roadie with Slayer during the Haunting North America 1984 tour. Another thing that is instantly notable is how much this was a carboncopy of “Kill Em All” by Metallica, that was released five months prior. Slayer took everything that Metallica did but pushed it to the extreme, with faster drumming, a rough hostile production and the type of riffing that liberally borrowed from punk rock. What Metallica had in compositional strength with bass guitarist Cliff Burton Slayer compensated in sheer energy and swagger. Slayer sounds on fire here, and Tom Araya’s vocals sound of out control, as do the scorching guitar solos. There’s an almost punk energy to the album, and the NWOBHM construction only serves to emphasize that Slayer hadn’t yet found its true voice musically. Lyrically this is the archetype from which the next two records, and the nascent death metal scene at large, would cull its subject matter. “Show No Mercy” does indeed do what it says on the tin.

Slayer’s signature leads are already in place, and the duels between the more technically refined Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King’s more straightforward style deliver most of the record’s auditory fireworks. The solos sound as chaotic and disturbing as the band’s rabid musical package and horrifying lyrical explorations about Satanic war, infernal death and Hell. The only songs that sound truly different are ‘Metal Storm/Face the Slayer’ and ‘Tormentor’ as both lay the seeds for the slower, more melodic and refined songwriting that Slayer would capitalize on with this album’s universally lauded follow-up “Hell Awaits”. These tracks sound more structured and uniformly dark and stand in stark contrast to the more straightforward ripping material of the rest of this album.  In fact, these tracks have all hallmarks that would later return in more complete form in tracks as ‘At Dawn They Sleep’ and ‘Kill Again’. Also notable is that Araya’s bass playing actively contributes to the songs and isn’t merely there for the heaviness quota.

‘Black Magic’ and ‘The Final Commandment’ are - much like ‘Die By the Sword’ or ‘The Antichrist’ - thinly veiled punk numbers put into a traditional speed metal framework. The overall simplicity of the riff set and structure of both cuts are redeemed by its epic opening, the solo section and the always relentless drumming of Dave Lombardo. ‘Crionics’ is the closest to Iron Maiden that Slayer would ever sound, and the song feels like a throwaway b-side from that UK’s band seminal records “The Number Of the Beast” or the conceptually ambitious “Powerslave”. The highlight of the record is the title track which feels like a more violent, more lean early “Kill Em All” Metallica number – and the riffs, drumming and vocal cadences would be plundered wholesale by early US death metal group Necrophagia for its “Season Of the Dead” debut. The artwork and classic Slayer logo were both created by Steve Craig. Lawrence R. Reed, the father of then-current drum/lightning tech Kevin Reed, drew the Minotaur with the sword on the album's cover. Due to the shocking imagery and violent lyrical content, Slayer received mail from the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) telling the band to stop releasing records – which they clearly refused to do. “Show No Mercy” is where speed/thrash metal was taken to new extremes on every front imaginable, but it was merely a dress rehearsal for greater things to come.