And you thought my first Slayer retro review was going to be of the landmark release, Reign In Blood didn’t you? Well, the answer’s no. Though RIB is one of the greatest metal albums of all time, and one that absolutely blew me away once released, it was not my first introduction to Slayer. No, my first introduction to Slayer was Hell Awaits. To me, Slayer will always be Hell Awaits, more so than any other album of theirs. This is where they were at their most epic, and where they fulfilled my lust for long, epic songs that told dark tales in vivid detail. THIS is motherfucking Slayer in their motherfucking PRIME!
Like the other three of the Big Four Thrash bands, Slayer’s second full release was a major leap forward musically for the them. Their first release was good but suffered from a lack of musical maturity. Don’t get me wrong, Show No Mercy is absolutely worth your time, the song Crionics alone is worth the price of the whole album, but the album was definitely indicative of a band still trying to find their “real” sound. Well upon the release of Hell Awaits, Slayer showed they had arrived in their full glory.
When I first heard Hell Awaits I was floored by how much “dark theater” they brought to their sound. It spoke to me in the music and in the words, words that were worthy of the greatest horror novels I’ve ever read. The intro song Hell Awaits provides the necessary tone right at the beginning, a tone that sets the stage for a script of stories in musical form that describe the darkest side of life, the afterlife, and in between. The song Hell Awaits describes the rebellion of Lucifer and his army of demons, providing a description of the spiritual in the negative as opposed to the positive. The backwards message at the beginning is frightening, and the riffs that follow it are an exercise of pure epic heaviness in dark metal tones that stay with you long after the music stops. As a kid, I remember buying the album, and then using my finger to play the vinyl record backwards so I could understand the message – “Join Us” they said to me while the hair on the back of my neck stood up. Truly epic stuff.
This is followed by stories of serial killers, vampires, necrophiliacs, Lucifer’s spawn, and more. I have a particular fondness for At Dawn They Sleep, Necrophiliac, and Crypts of Eternity.
And these are not simple minded stories, for instance, At Dawn They Sleep speaks of vampires, and the subject matter is treated and presented as if written by a highly skilled horror novelist using sophisticated language with an almost Victorian linguistic style:
Blood sucking creatures of the night
Nocturnal spectre hiding from the light
Cries screaming out every fright
Eagerly awaiting plight
Apparitions from the pits of Hell
Death plagues the streets in which they dwell
Demented lust, the secrets they must keep
Addicted to your blood
At dawn they sleep
Dude, that is some deep shit right there! Beautifully written lyrics. At this point in time Slayer were by FAR the best lyricists in Thrash, with the possible exception Dark Angel. Their sophisticated grasp of the English language was quite impressive, and their dark tales were gripping in their descriptive language. I attribute most of this style of writing to Jeff Hanneman, who at the time was a driving force on all the music and lyrics they created. And it’s easy to see the change in Slayer as Jeff became less an integral songwriter in later albums. It showed. They lost much of the deep lyrical content and epic songs, not to mention the incredible riffs. He was the primary riff writer on this incredible album.
Another of the beautiful things I loved about Slayer in their early years was when they would both split riffs, King playing one riff, while Hanneman played another, but the riffs complimented each other so well. Even when they weren’t playing in key with each other it sounded right, wittingly or unwittingly they would cause a dissonance in the tones that fit the atmosphere of the songs so freaking well! \m/
Listen to Necrophiliac starting at 2:10 for a prime example of this.
Hell Awaits was also Dave Lombardo’s coming out party. Though he did a pretty damn good job of showcasing his chops on Show No Mercy, here he EXPLODED and cemented himself at the top tier of the Thrash drummer heap, along with Charlie Benante, Gene Hoagland, and Tom Hunting. His work was an exercise in power and speed, with drum rolls that would shake the EARTH. Check out Crypts Of Eternity for a prime example of his skillset. Just wait for 4:25 as it builds to an incredible set of drum rolls that are awe-inspiring.
The only downfall of this otherwise pristine exercise in epic Thrash is the production. It left much to be desired, but that was much the case for Thrash bands in 1985. They didn’t have the resources of the big name bands because of no major label support. It left the sound somewhat muddled, too much reverb in the vocals, and the drums do not sound as dynamic as they should. But it’s not a barrier to one’s listening pleasure. The rawness of the sound actual has a primitive appeal to it, and creates a contrast of sorts to the overall sophisticated songwriting.
All in all this a masterpiece of heavy metal. Slayer would never be this epic again. Never would they reach the balance they exemplified on this album again in regards to its epic feel in the lyrics, music, and overall emotional depth. This is my favorite Slayer album, and it has withstood the test of time. If you don’t have this in your catalog of classic releases you are missing out. Get it now.