There are very few bands that are as notorious and have done as much for the metal scene as Slayer. Not only were they infamous for their edgy Satanic/occult imagery but drummer Dave Lombardo also brought the (now ubiquitous) double-bass pedal to heavy metal. Many of the standards commonly seen in extreme metal today are there because of Slayer’s influence.
This kind of thing was seen at the very beginning with their debut record in 1983, Show No Mercy. Even at their earliest stage, Slayer had a truly evil sound that was marked with pure aggression, taking equal influences from early metal pioneers like Judas Priest and Venom.
From their pure-speed magnum opus in Reign in Blood, to slower, more diverse releases like South of Heaven and Seasons in the Abyss, Slayer knew how to sound unhinged and sinister. The 1980s saw Slayer at their absolute height, providing a seminal impact on genres like thrash metal, death metal and black metal. Essentially, they were the Black Sabbath of extreme metal.
On this day in 1985 they released what could arguably be considered their watershed moment, Hell Awaits. Their sophomore saw Slayer take a huge leap from their “evil” sounding version of Judas Priest into something more unique. Hell Awaits marks the beginning of what can be considered the classic “Slayer” sound.
First of all with a title like Hell Awaits, Slayer isn’t pulling any punches. You know what you’re going to expect: something that sounds truly evil. Slayer arguably sounds their most fearsome here, and I don’t think they have been able to replicate the haunting, chilling atmosphere as effectively as they have on Hell Awaits.
With seven total songs and a runtime clocking at just over 37 minutes, Slayer knew that each of these songs had to be meticulously crafted. Each of these songs sound tight and concise, making for a relatively digestible listen. There’s no superfluous action here. The same can’t be said for the many metal bands who have fallen prey to bloated tracks and overindulgence, a trait which even some of the biggest bands aren’t fully immune to.
The title track opens with an eerie intro and guitar whammy bars emulating the screams of the dead. An ominous backwards message continually chanting “join us,” and a demonic voice growling “welcome back,” opens the album on a sinister note. The instrumentation kicks into a slow, foreboding march that continually grows until Slayer finally kicks it into overdrive for the second half of the song.
The speedy “Kill Again” features vocalist/bassist Tom Araya’s trademark screams and drummer Dave Lombardo’s machine gun-styled drumwork. Hellfire guitarwork from Dave Hanneman and Kerry King just sounds absolutely bonkers here. Who knew a song about a serial killer would have such a catchy chorus?
“At Dawn They Sleep” is a creepy and underrated fan favorite about undead vampires, with a lot of interesting instrumentation going on as well. There’s an atonally-harmonized guitar intro, a double-bass drum solo from Lombardo and frequent dueling guitar leads from Hanneman and King. There’s a lot of tempo changes going on in this song, with another slow buildup into pure fury reminiscent of the title track making an appearance in the last third of the song.
“Praise of Death” is a pure thrasher and is heavily driven by the manic guitarwork. This song offers but a taste of what was to come in their next album, Reign in Blood. “Necrophiliac” has one of the coolest descending guitar intros I’ve ever heard and it promptly kicks into a frantic riff-o-rama. It is a rather complex song however; there’s key shifts all over the place.
“Crypts of Eternity” is one of the most unique-sounding songs in Slayer’s discography and a personal favorite of mine. There’s the call-and-response guitar harmonies, Araya’s protracted evil scream (the second-best of his career) and jazz drumming by Lombardo. It’s just such a tasty song and an incredibly underrated gem.
Finally, “Hardening of the Arteries” is a slow-cooking meat grinder of a song. Want to hear one of the influences for seminal death metal acts from the 1990s like Cannibal Corpse, Deicide and Morbid Angel? Listen to this song. The influence doesn’t get much more overt than it does right here. Were it not for Araya’s shouted vocals this would literally be a death metal song. The song, and by extension the album, ends with the thundering riff that opened it up in the first place. It comes full circle.
There is a lot that is done well on this album. Lombardo is considered one of the greatest drummers in metal for a reason: he absolutely kills it here. Araya’s vocals are fearsome and legible, and his bass is clearly audible. Hanneman and King have impressive chemistry here and their guitarwork is frequently all over the place.
The mixing is raw but it fits the atmosphere and showcases the guitars and drumwork very well. One thing that I appreciate is that the bass guitar is clearly audible in the mix. More often than not, metal bands have the bass so buried in the mix that you can hardly tell it’s there.
By no surprise, the lyrical content is about as dark as the atmosphere. The lyrics range anywhere from descending into Hell, serial killers, undead vampires, death and gore, among other things that are certainly not appropriate for newsprint. This is another blatant influence for the gory (and at times cartoony) imagery death metal bands would employ in the 1990s.
Hell Awaits is a fantastic album. Slayer perfectly captures a haunting and dismal atmosphere, and this definitely has to be one of the most “evil” sounding metal albums ever recorded. It’s easy to be heavy, but it’s not easy to have “feel,” and that’s what Slayer has on display here. It might not be their magnum opus, but it is a quintessential release nonetheless. Slayer might never tour again, but they can at least hang their hat on this masterpiece and the legions of bands they have inspired because of it.