Friday, April 17, 2009

Slayer - Hell Awaits (1985)

Hell Awaits is Slayer's second full-length album, released in September 1985. It was their fourth effort on Metal Blade Records, expanding on the darkness of Haunting the Chapel. Much like Venom's At War With Satan, this record featured longer and more complex song structures, making this Slayer's most progressive offering. This masterpiece of Black Metal was financed by Brian Slagel, rather than making the band pay for the recording as with Show No Mercy. This bloody offering of seven Satanic rituals is the best aural depiction of Hell ever put to tape.

Already well acquainted with the first few releases, I thought I had a good idea of what was to come when I purchased Hell Awaits and took it home, on that cold January night. The lights were turned off and the candles were lit. This wasn't done for effect, it was simply how my room was, most of the time. I wasn't sure if I should expect more blackened NWOBHM (of which there remained only faint traces) or the vicious assault found on the previous E.P. In a sense, I got neither. As soon as I put the album on, something strange began to happen. It was as if my room had been transformed into a dungeon or a forgotten crypt, no longer of this realm. I was about to go beyond the point of no return.

The album begins with hellish, twisted sounds of feedback, demonic voices and tortured guitar solos, squealing in the distance. As it becomes clearer, one can barely detect the wailing of tormented souls. It all grows louder and louder, building a sense of tension and creating an atmosphere of doom. The backmasked voices are urging you to join them. This continues building until an indecipherable growl, saying "Welcome back" backwards. At this moment, the feedback ceases with a thunderous crash of drums. Slow, mid-paced riffs build the tension and dread, layer upon layer, accompanied by the rumbling drums. Despite the murky production, the guitars are sharp as razors and the drums are crisp and lethal. Suddenly, a lone guitar erupts, followed by the rest of the band. The vocals are spewed forth at a pace as frenetic as the guitar playing. They are far too fast to comprehend. What can be clearly understood is the demonic voice, chanting "Hell Awaits". The frenzied solos is enough to make your ears bleed. The only downside to this song are the frantic attempts of Tom Araya to keep up, during the verses. In this sense, a little feeling is lost by the fact that the lyrics are going by too fast to have any lasting effect.

There is but a brief pause before "Kill Again" continues the vicious assault. As the song opens, the drums take on the feeling of a war march alternating with the tremolo-picked riffs that add a sense of urgency. After another riff change, the murderous vocals chime in with a sinister echo. This song is incredibly intense and Tom's vocal approach seems to be even more dark and aggressive than before. The solos attack from both sides, still containing some sense of melody, bleeding into a high-pitched wail from the diabolical frontman, who sounds absolutely deranged by the closing moments of the song.

Dark and evil harmonics introduce the next song. "At Dawn They Sleep". This song tells a story of vampires in the service of Satan. They are not only satisfying an insatiable bloodlust, they are serving the master of Hell. This song is fairly mid-paced, though it speeds up a little bit for the bridge. The lyrics are morbid and evil, and the vocal delivery adds a great deal to this sinister atmosphere.

"Unveil the hidden coffin
Lift the lid of terror
Feel the deadly cold
Freeze you from inside"

The bass is quite audible as the song slows down the rhythm changes to unleash a heavy onslaught of mid-paced thrash. Tom sounds completely possessed as the background voices, repeatedly, chant "Kill". Building to a bloody climax, the song then resumes a faster pace. As the final verse concludes, a perfect slide introduces the solo. Once this is finished, there is nice interplay between the two riffs as the less melodic one fills up the space between its counterpart, but this space is gradually closed shorter and shorter at each interval, building the tension until everything stops for an explosive drum solo. After this, the main riff returns to finish the song out.

"Praise of Death" then erupts at full speed, offering you no time to recuperate. Tom's bass is a bit more prominent in the mix, doing well to keep up with Kerry and Jeff. After the first chorus, there is a nice drum roll that leads into the second verse. This may be the most straight-forward song on the album. While it does feature some complexity in structure, the pace rarely wavers. The blistering guitar solos are aggressive as they howl through the darkness. A little past the midway point, the pace slows down by half as more solos pierce your brain. Everything then ceases, leaving only hellish feedback that seems as if the guitars are screaming from the eternal flames, before everything picks up again. The vocals are filled with unholy passion as the chorus is, maniacally, scream one last time.

"Stricken to live, Hell on earth
Shackled and bound we lie
Praise of death, life's a dream
We're only living to die"

The next song is "Necrophiliac". This begins with a very distinctive and evil riff. The pace is fast and frenzied, though going through a rather intricate chord progression. The vocals join this hellish sound, creating a very morbid feeling. Alternating between thrash and tremolo riffs, the song is carried forth by the pounding drums. After Tom screams, "The bastard now must die", his voice seems to trail a bit as the tempo shifts to something darker, calling from the black abyss. The atmosphere could not be more evil than this. What you hear now is pure Hell.

"...Lucifer takes my dark soul

Down to the fiery pits of Hell
Down to the fiery pits of... HEEELLL!!!"

As that last line echoes through the abyss of torment and flames, a chill goes up your spine as you see what lies ahead. As the pace speeds back up and more insane solos are unleashed until the song abruptly ends, you are left in a state of awe and terror.

"Crypts of Eternity" slowly rises from the darkness, creating a morbid and gloomy atmosphere. A slow build erupts into screaming lead solos that have come to rape what is left of your tormented soul. By this point, there isn't much left. Hell Awaits was the most evil album released by this time. Others may have been faster or more brutal, but nothing touches this in terms of pure evil. This epic masterpiece utilizes a variety of changes before the first verse, maintaining a more relaxed pace than the previous song. The chorus is very memorable and blasphemous at the same time.

"I have seen the darkened depths of Hell
Sorcery beyond the witch's spell
Robbed the crypts of death's eternity
Killed the priest and cursed him, endlessly"

This displays a wicked sense of melody, particularly the dual guitar harmonies heard before the eerie lead solo, around the four minute mark. The lead then gives way to a very tense build-up of instruments and shrieking vocals before Tom devastates the listener with an inhuman scream. The final verses are interrupted by searing solos that incinerate your flesh. Again, this is one of those songs that really needs to be heard and experienced to be comprehended fully.

The final song is "Hardening of the Arteries". Lyrically, this is a very nihilistic piece that carries a somber tone. The guitar tone still maintains the same dark and evil feeling throughout this fast-paced and straight-forward assault of Black/Thrash. A few more intense solos precede more dismal lyrics delivered in a hateful and aggressive manner before the song shifts gears and returns to the same theme that began the album. This adds a sense of musical symmetry, as Hell Awaits fades out with the same sounds that faded in at the beginning, minus the chanting. This only serves to add to the epic feeling of this nightmarishly haunting record.

It's safe to say that Hell Awaits is the most evil and twisted Slayer album. It may be the most wicked and vile thing ever recorded. This is about as graphic of a representation of Hell that one can find without losing your soul. The sounds contained on this record go well with the cover art; an image of demons torturing pathetic mortals in the fiery pits of the Kingdom Below. Hell Awaits stands as the most complex and mature release from the band. The fuzzy and echoed production is reminiscent of their earlier works and only adds to the dark atmosphere, giving it room to breathe. This is the highlight of Slayer's career, being vastly superior to what came after it. It is a shame that they didn't continue down this path, further exploring and pushing their boundaries. Worship this or with cloven hooves begone.