The Hawk has already posted on here about how Slayer started out as 4 normal dudes from the same part of California, putting out their first album, ‘Show No Mercy’ on a shoestring, and hitting the road with a tour party of 7, including the band.
Not too long afterwards, they had conquered the thrash world forever with the legendary ‘Reign in Blood‘, probably the greatest offering in the genre of all time. So what happened in between? Sit back and let The Hawk fill in the blanks for you.
‘Show No Mercy’ may not sound particularly revolutionary to modern ears, but it was quite a statement back in the day. The term ‘thrash’ hadn’t even been coined in 1983, and a great deal of heavy metal, especially coming out of the American west coast was still of the big hair variety. But a few bands wanted their music to be heavier, faster, more intensive and aggressive, and were ready to test to the limits what kind of market there would be.
Slayer certainly fit that category, Metallica too.
So the album was certainly ground breaking in style, but it also showcased a young band who were still trying to work out their style – the sound, the song writing and so on. For example, young Slayer were influenced a great deal by NWOBHM bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, and you can hear that in some of the songs – that galloping riffing in ‘Face the Slayer’ is a great example – straight from the Maiden playbook.
Add to that that nobody really knew how to record what would become thrash – the production team on ‘Show No Mercy’ were basically winging it, and with next to no budget, they didn’t have the luxury of time to experiment.
Tom Araya was still playing around with his vocal style – plenty of falsetto and a few missed notes. Stuff he’d figure out as he grew.
The point is that this was obviously just a starting point, with lots of room for growth, as we saw in years to come. In fact ‘Reign on Blood’, their opus for the ages, came out less than three years later, which is an astonishing rate of growth and maturity when you think about it.
So what happened in the intervening years? Plenty, if you want the short answer.
Back to the Studio
After concluding their low-budget tour for ‘Show No Mercy’, Slayer found that they had shifted about 15,000 copies of the record – not massive, but it earned enough money for them to hit the studio again – this time with a much clearer idea of what their musical identity should be. They’d double down on all the best speed and aggression from earlier, and make a claim as the heaviest band anywhere. The result was the 3-track EP ‘Haunting the Chapel’, a massive statement, and a clear step forward.
Death By A Smell
Look at the opening number, ‘Chemical Warfare’ – that insane precision picking in the intro riff. The deeper vocals. The higher emphasis on the double bass drumming to drive speed. The very Slayer-esque cry of ‘F*** it up’ as a bridge to the solo section – now heavily anticipated at every live performance. ‘Chemical Warfare’ became a long term staple of their live set for years to come. The Hawk can remember them doing it as the first encore on his first Slayer gig – intense.
Holding it Together – Literally
(There was still no money for luxuries at this time – indeed, the recording studio had no carpet on the floor for the drum kit. Sitting on a concrete floor, it would take on a life of its own as Dave Lombardo bashed the s*** out of it. An assistant had to be brought in to hold the kit together as he played, which must have been quite the aural experience.)
The EP is rounded out first by ‘Captor of Sin’ which has a great solo right off the bat, and doesn’t let up from there. The chorus tempo makes it an instant mosh classic. Then there’s the title track, which finished everything off on as suitably energetic note.
For ‘Haunting The Chapel’, Slayer employed the same sound engineer as for ‘Show No Mercy’, Bill Metoyer, who’s experience now led him to take things up a level in just the same way as the band. Taken as a package, even with only 3 songs, ‘Haunting The Chapel’ was superior in every way to what had gone before.
With increasing confidence, Slayer embarked on another tour, creatively entitled ‘Haunting the West Coast’ – though in spite of the musical progression on display, the touring party was still chaotic. The same small party set out as for the previous tour, with Tom Araya’s Camaro for the band, and a van / U-Haul combo for the ‘crew’ and all the gear.
There was a high point for roadie Doug Goodman, however. After he dropped one of the bass drums down a flight of stairs (no damage, luckily), the rest of them told him to leave carrying the gear to the rest of them, and concentrate on making sure they all got paid – instant promotion to tour manager!
There were many adventures along the way – anything from a car crash in Montana where everyone miraculously walked away after a skid on black ice, to a backstage party with support act Voivod in Canada. Nobody in Voivod spoke mush English, and Slayer weren’t too hot with the French, but the language of heavy metal won out.
At an Italian dive in New York run by some possible mob gangsters, Araya was paid in cash by the ‘godfather’ of the place and didn’t bother to count it before getting the hell out of there – probably wise, since Dave Lombardo had already been beaten up by a bouncer who mistook him for a stage invader.
Then in Texas, they were supported by none other than San Antonio Slayer. San Antonio Slayer actually had first dibs on the name – they’d registered it and owned the copyright. But, as true gents, they didn’t make a fuss, no doubt realizing that the LA version of Slayer were the ones potentially going places.
At the end of the tour, they even had another release on the market, the live offering ‘Live Undead’ recorded in New York in 1984. Camp Slayer have always been coy about whether crowd noise was dubbed onto that after the event, but either way, it increased their exposure as a hot live act, which is generally what heavy metal is about.
Now Awaiting Hell…
Back home post-tour there was no rest for the wicked. They’d already been writing new material as well as touring over the past months, so were champing at the bit to get back to the studio, this time to male a real statement of intent.
A new, full length album that would cement their now burgeoning reputation and blow ‘Show No Mercy’ out of the water.
The result was, of course, ‘Hell Awaits’ – a remarkable step forward musically, starting from the very second you press play. Slayer wanted to re-create the sound of Hell itself in the intro to that opening title track, and to The Hawk’s mind, they succeeded, certainly better than anyone else has before or since. There’s the groaning and cackling, screaming and shouting and above all the mindless chanting of what we now know to be ‘Join Us’, played backwards. Yes, here’s one heavy metal record that really did have a backwards message on it – lucky nobody killed themselves after listening to it.
‘Welcome Back’, yells Tom Araya, this time forwards, and we’re into one of the great guitar riff intros of all time, with tension cranking up the whole time. It’s for this reason that ‘Hell Awaits’ is such a great live opener as well, and fans will well recognize it as the opener of the seminal ‘Decade of Aggression’ double live CD release a few years later.
After that, it’s a long list of classics, with some classic Slayer themes now getting a run out. As well as Hell / Satan in the opener, we cover serial killers (‘Kill Again’), vampires (‘At Dawn The Sleep’), death (‘Hardening of the Arteries’), and of course that charming ditty about screwing a corpse, ‘Necrophiliac’.
Taken as a whole, there’s nothing remotely mindful of Iron Maiden, unlike ‘Show No Mercy’ – the band are starting to take ownership of their trademark sound, with sometime down-tuned guitars, and harmonic devices like the creepy tri-tone – the so called ‘Diabolus in musica‘ – very apt in this case.
Professionalism Arrives (Sort of…)
Metal Blade records managed to scape together a budget, which meant a better studio (no need to hold the drum kit together), and some more professional help on the production side, including Ron Fair as a sound engineer. Fair would eventually go on to become president of Geffen records, as well as a famous A&R exec, but here, we was paid 100 bucks to mix ‘Hell Awaits’, which he did in a single all-nighter.
The production still sounds a little muddy to modern ears, but as a product of its time, it was immense. Slayer tend to see albums as sort of time capsule material – products of their time. Which means that unlike some people who seem to throw out remixes of their classic works like confetti, ‘Hell Awaits’ hasn’t been remastered, and it seems unlikely that it ever will be.
Album out, there was naturally a tour in the offing, but Araya’s Camaro could happily be put out to pasture. Slayer were going places, and that was proven beyond doubt when they were signed for a tour supporting black metal godfathers Venom, with Exodus also in tow. Slayer were big fans and had even covered a couple of Venom numbers in their early tours, so were delighted by this opportunity – not that it was sweetness and light behind the scenes. Venom guitarist Mantas was on the verge of quitting over musical differences, labelling their most recent album ‘Possessed’ as being ‘shite.’ It didn’t help that they were on their knees financially – they started in buses, but finished up the tour getting around in cars.
As we have seen, a bus was beyond luxury compared to the normal Slayer touring experience to date. But they didn’t allow themselves to be overawed or starstruck by their exulted companions. They got hammered on the tour bus, to the point where Tom Araya forgot where the bathroom was on. Upon enquiring, and being told by Venom singer Cronos ‘Right here in my mouth,’ Araya took him at his word – he unzipped his fly, and took the piss literally all over the dude.
Cronos was mightily taken about by this and punched Araya in the face – the rest of the band broke up the fight before it could escalate.
Happy times – but in spite of all the chaos, the shows were great, and the fans loved it. There’s even some footage of both bands, along with Exodus. Look closely, and you’ll see Araya sporting a black eye from the tour bus fight. Slayer and Exodus have remained close ever since, with Exodus guitarist Gary Holt even filling in after Jeff Hanneman’s death.
Next up was their first European tour – though now being busted back down to basics. Landing in London, they found they’d been provided with only one small bus for all the gear, the band and a couple of roadies / tour managers. In fact, they could only fit it all in by abandoning the flight cases for the hired amps. No driver either – they had to navigate Europe’s narrow roadways themselves.
Nobody had bothered to prepare paperwork for customs, so when they came to cross the UK border on the way to Belgium, all the merchandise had to be concealed in the amp bins. The border guards made a cursory inspection but didn’t find the contraband – a let off that meant they’d be able to make a little money flogging the t-shirts at shows.
Confiscation would have been the last straw – Kerry King had wanted to go home rather than put up with the miserable conditions on offer. But the others insisted and the shows were triumphant, finishing up with a wild night at the Marquee club in London. Here’s a link to the show – it’s audio only and not great quality, but The Hawk sure would have loved to be there.
Final Puzzle Pieces
So that’s the story of Hell Awaits – the stepping stone from good to great for Slayer. Upon release, it did not enter any chart, but it continued Slayer’s journey to the pinnacle of thrash, and at the time of writing has sold over a million copies all up. And, only 18 months after its release, ‘Reign in Blood’ would come along and put them on the summit beyond any doubt.
By this time, they’d locked in their sound and their ideas, and now, only more minor tweaks were needed. Basically, they just had to ramp up the intensity another few notches. Indeed, one of the interesting quirks of ‘Hell Awaits’ is the song lengths – here we have 7 tracks clocking in at 5-and-a-bit minutes each on average. By the time of ‘Reign in Blood’, the numbers would be 10 songs averaging less than 3.
Slayer would serve up speed and intensity leaving their fans gasping for more. If you can’t wait to read more about that, why not head straight over to The Hawk’s blog on ‘Reign in Blood’. In the meantime, we’ll play out with one of The Hawk’s favourite tracks from ‘Hell Awaits’ (and apparently one of Dave Lombardo’s faves as well. Ladies and Gentleman, a little song called … ‘At Dawn They Sleep.’
Hell Awaits – stepping stone to bigger and better things, or heavy metal classic in its own right? What are your favourite moments from the record?
Let us know in the comments below.