Why I Still Love Slayer, and the “Hell Awaits” Era In Particular

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The first article I ever had published was an article about Slayer in my high school newspaper.  So,  I guess it’s only fitting that my first blog post would also be about Slayer.  I have matured so much since 1986.

I was fourteen when I first heard Slayer.  It was 1984 and I was entering my  freshman year of high school. I had already been a long-time fan of hard-rock and metal, but it had been of the Motley Crue, WASP, Dio and Iron Maiden variety with a dash of Metallica.  Tom Duncan (The Heavy Metal Warrior) had taken over the Friday night 10pm-2am slot on the University of Alabama’s radio station (WVUA– or V-91 back them) and called it “Total Destruction”.   It was a ballsy move on his part;  the University of Alabama as well as the surrounding town of Tuscaloosa was and still is staunchly firm in their view about what constituted as the “Three Pillars of Civilization”.  Jesus Christ, Alabama Football and deer hunting. None of which were my thing.  I did, however, love metal.  But when I heard “Chemical Warfare” by Slayer for the first time, everything changed.

Tom played real metal.  Thrash/black/death metal.  We weren’t so “genre-obsessed” back then; none of this “power metal”, “nu metal”,”post metal” (whatever the hell that is),”doom metal”, “National Socialist Black Metal” silliness.  However there was a clear distinction between “glam / hair metal” (poseurs) and “real metal”. “Real metal” a definition for it is rather elusive. It’s a bit like what the US Supreme Court considers “obscene”; you can’t quite put it into words, but  you know it when you hear / see it. That was “real metal”.

Anyway, I want to dig into the whole 1985 Slayer for a bit, because I feel this was probably the most influential-era of the band, not only on my sheltered suburban Alabama self, but on the scene in general.  I remember I had this surreal vibe when I actually had my own copy in my hands for the first time. Being a kid in Alabama, owning a copy of this seemed absolutely subversive,  nearly… illegal.   Far more than Metallica (because they never really delved into the Devil-schlock),  Hell  Awaits, brought underground thrash to the forefront. 1985 also marked a kind of watershed for the genre as well;  it was really the last year thrash was still a truly “underground” movement.  More on that another time.

Now, I understand that “Chemical Warfare” is on the Haunting the Chapel  EP (and that it actually came out in June of 1984).  However, it, unlike Show No Mercy,  proved to be iconic in what would define the “Slayer” sound from there on.  Hell Awaits maintained this atmosphere; and since the two of them together is a total of ten songs, I use my warped sense of math to call the two of them a single album.  I am a douchetard.  I never claimed to be otherwise.. There were other albums that came out on Metal Blade Records during the same time–  Nasty Savage,  Hallow’s Eve, etc.  but there was a strange sort of , almost hypnotic bleakness to the production in what Slayer offered at the time.  Listening to Hell Awaits feels like an auditory tour into Perdition.  There is a background vibe to Hell Awaits that screams of loneliness and solitude It’s dark, it’s nasty, it’s kinda scary and it is fucking brilliant!

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Just look at that album cover. Dante himself would have been stretched to top the lyrical imagery contained in Haunting the Chapel and Hell Awaits.  Both begin ominously, of course.  But what they both unleash is a whirlwind of stringed-frenzy.  It’s not just “noise”, either; several of Slayer’s songs have been revamped by stringed ensembles and the interpretations are ass-kicking.  Sure, this is raw, underground thrash metal… but it’s also actual music. The arrangements are complex, intricate throughout the album; time changes happen without warning; the vocals are visceral and hateful, barking;  gone were the shrieking vocals that characterized the first album. Hell Awaits from top to bottom is a well-thought-out, musically-mature album that was in so many ways ahead of it’s time.   There is a flow, and overall atmosphere unlike any other album.  The blanketing darkness is tempered with a fury that is both admirable and unsettling. But even between the songs, the silence seems to only add to the bleak feel of the album.

Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman were the main culprits who put together this masterpiece musically, and for the most part, lyrically as well. You kinda gotta wonder if they weren’t tapped into something otherworldly.  Show No Mercy was an okay album, don’t get me wrong;  but it sounded like a first album, recorded by a handful of schmucks who had no idea what they were doing, which it was. Show No Mercy became Metal Blade Records highest selling LP and boasts no other producer other than the band itself. Brian Slagel of course took credit, but it wasn’t until  Haunting the Chapel  that he actually forked-over some much-needed cash and brought engineer Bill Metoyer aboard but fort the follow-up LP, Hell Awaits. The difference in sound is like night and day; both  sound like well-oiled machines. Honestly, I cannot pick a “favorite” song from either the LP or the EP. However, there are a few that I feel stand-out.

Firstly, there is of course the title track.  “Hell Awaits” is your typical evangelical sermon set to metal music.  I still have no idea why those folks had such a problem with this music. It begins with a bleak, sort of Stygian groove of a primitive, tribal drumming, then graduating into a solid,  unrelenting marching tour of Perdition. How anyone could ever say this tune “glorifies Satan” is absolutely beyond me.  This ditty will do what no Baptist minister could ever hope to accomplish —  it made one laugh at damnation.  It begins with an obvious back-masked message as a piss-take to the PMRC-inspired paranoia at the time.  For those wondering,  the message is “join us” repeated, the growl at the end is “here in Hell”.  Who besides evangelicals could take this shit seriously?

Then there is “Kill Again”.  A Jack-the-Ripperesque waltz though the mind of a psychopath, which was a typical motif of metal at the time. In my opinion, an okay bit to bang your head to, not really a stand-out track.

However,  it’s “At Dawn They Sleep” is where Slayer really does their thing;  this is the first real “horror” tune they did.  Incredible structure, vividly-atmospheric, so many tempo-changes, each buildng-up to the end. Yeah, it’s about vampires, but not those sparkly poseurs from Twilight.  oh, Hell no!  These are the Armies of the Night that Christopher Lee would allude to; something nearly Lovecraftian.  This ditty ends with a grunting chant:

“Driven by the instinct of
centuries of horror
Implanted along the brain
of the sickening parasite
Linked together by one trait
The Hell-filled need to kill… kill… kill… kill… KILL”

That graduates  full throttle to the near limits of speed in which one is able to shout the following:

“Emerging from their Hellish tomb
Taking flight amidst the night
The evening skies are raining Death
Swooping down from shadowed skies
Taking simple human form
Shed their wings to stalk the mortal man
Lock their jaws into your veins
Satanic soldiers strike their prey
Leaving corpses waiting for the change
Blood dripping from the jaws of Death
Not enough to satisfy
They must drain your soul of life”

I have to admit, that my favorite tune off the LP is “Crypts of Eternity” (even though I said I couldn’t pick a favorite — this ain’t the New Yorker, so cut me some slack, willya?).  There is a lot of allusion to ancient Eastern religion in this tune and I feel it’s probably the most “atmospheric” song of the album. It begins with a wall of chaos, and then settles into a frenetic groove that is so off-beat that it you can’t help to bang your head a little bit to it. The tempo is difficult to explain, as so much of it is experimental; nobody was even touching-on what Slayer was doing with this song.  It’s a strange tune, for sure. But in my opinion, it gave us our fist glimpse as to what Reign In Blood would be like just a year later.

I don’t know if most Slayer fans have ever picked-up on the outro of the final song of Hell Awaits, “Hardening of the Arteries” is also the intro to the album.  Which to this fan screams a warning : excessive living, poor diet and lack of exercise will lead to heart attack and / or stroke and your sloth, lust and gluttony will drag you into Hell.   There are seven songs on Hell Awaits,  and there are also Seven Deadly Sins.  Seriously, how can the evangelical crowd have any problem with this album?

I can’t leave this without saying something about “Chemical Warfare”.   This tune actually picked-up at lot airplay from college radio all over the US for a little while.  It’s on the Haunting the Chapel  EP which has three songs.  The other two your typical devil-metal bits, typical of the time  (“Haunting the Chapel” and “Captor of Sin”).  But “Chemical Warfare” picked-up a buzz with the punk crowd due to it’s obvious anti-war message.  This EP predated Hell Awaits by six months and was recorded while on the road.  It was so much more raw production-wise than Hell Awaits or even their debut, Show No Mercy;  which may have lead to it’s hardcore credibility.  Regardless, it was this EP that began them touring with the likes of Corrosion of Conformity, D.R.I., etc. in addition to metal bands.

Sure,  the later albums were far more polished, and the follow-up to Hell Awaits helped to fling Slayer, and thrash in general, straight into the mainstream.  But nothing else sounded quite like these two  releases at the time, or really since. They not only redefined metal in general; they also helped to legitimize underground 80s metal and paved they way for   so many other bands.  But showed that we mullet-sporting, ripped-jeans-wearing, black leather-jacket clad kids actually had buying-power;  Show No Mercy  alone sold 40,000 copies worldwide even before Hell Awaits was recorded.  While I am unable to find any numbers regarding the number of copies of Hell Awaits that have been sold,  I can say that their follow-up peaked at #94 on the Billboard Top-100.

Say whatever you like about Slayer.  However, it quite impossible to burn the bridge that brought you over the proverbial Rubicon without giving kudos where kudos are due.

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This ain’t no “glorifying Satan” — does this look like a “pro-hell endorsement” to you?

 

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