No other band has become more synonymous with extreme metal than Slayer. While Reign in Blood (1986) is often cited as the group’s definitive release, it’s their previous efforts that are the very definition of blood-soaked satanic imagery. The hellish landscapes brought to life through the unrelenting sounds of thrash metal are still revered by legions of devotees and disciples. Sure, 1986 was the year that Reign in Blood and Master of Puppets would both establish a blueprint that several groups still adhere to. For all intents and purposes, Slayer’s releases with Metal Blade records show a band frothing at the mouth with raw aggression that kept the establishment awake at night—convinced that the testosterone crazed teenagers who were banging their heads with unrestrained enthusiasm were part of the alleged satanic underground lurking in the shadows of middle America. If there were a physical soundtrack to the era of “Satanic Panic”, Slayer would be the living manifestation.
For a first-time listener—it might have seemed that they were being indoctrinated into a legion marching from the bowels of hades with aspirations of world domination. While Slayer’s determination was unquestionable—Hades wasn’t as far away as some might have guessed. While the flames of eternal damnation might not have been real, the sun baked streets of Huntington Park, California were. A suburb of Los Angeles, this was ground zero for a band who were destined to one day take the underground by storm. If thrash metal was a conglomeration of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and punk—then Slayer’s sound was a perfect amalgamation of both genres. Like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, the band was fueled by the twin guitar lineup of Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King. King, a devotee of the NWOBHM was complimented almost too well by Hanneman’s punk influenced rhythms. This love for bands such as DRI, Minor Threat and GBH was shared by one half of the band’s rhythm section, drummer Dave Lombardo. Lombardo’s pulverizing abilities were what any band needed to take the speed factor up a notch—or several for that matter. Out in front was Tom Araya, while some might have questioned his bass playing abilities over the years, he was the front man that fit the mold all too well. Between dramatic anecdotes between songs and the occasional high-pitched scream, Araya’s banter would soon become just as recognizable as the lyrics he sang.
The resulting sound was a natural evolution from the bands that came before them. If Judas Priest and Venom were the gateway drug, Slayer was the substance in the syringe that you mainlined. Combining the twin guitar songwriting approach of Priest, the raw aggression of punk, and the satanic imagery and attitude of Venom—Slayer were something new entirely. No one could have predicted the impact they were about to make, let alone the after effects that are still being felt years later…
Many people, including myself, consider 1986 to be the definitive year for thrash metal. If that’s the case, then 1983 is the coming out party. While Metallica were certainly leading the charge with their debut, Kill ‘em All, Slayer would ascend from the flames of purgatory with their first unholy offering, Show No Mercy. The album cover was more than indicative of the form and content confronting anyone who embarked on a first time listen. A somewhat cartoonish Satan wielding a sword next to an inverted pentagram of matching blades with Slayer’s now recognizable logo. There was no pretense in regards for what the listener was in store for. Almost as menacing were the photos of the band themselves. From Hanneman wielding an inverted cross complete with blackened eyes, to Kerry King decked out in gauntlets of spikes.
The songs themselves were near perfect representations of the group’s collective influences. Songs like “The Antichrist”, “Crionics” and “The Final Command” are eerily reminiscent of early Judas Priest, right down to Araya’s high-pitched screams and lead guitar driven overtures. Meanwhile, “Die by The Sword” and “Black Magic” and the title track in particular are Venom worship, right down to Kerry King’s Lyrical approach. Aside from the songs relying heavily on satanic imagery, much of the first-person phrasing and writing from the point of view of a thunderous horde were all part and parcel to many of Venom’s most recognizable songs. “Welcome to Hell”, “Black Metal”, and “In Nomine Satanas” all rely on this distinct phrasing.
Still, these songs might not have had the same potency if not for Dave Lombardo. His adaptation of punk drumming combined with Hanneman and King’s ferocious riffs and ear-piercing leads are an enormous part of why Show No Mercy overshadowed many of its contemporaries. Not only did the album live up to its title and expectations, it served as a bold mission statement for the gathering storm that was to come. Lyrics such as “Warriors from the gates of Hell, in lord Satan we trust…” and “Blasting our way through the boundaries of Hell, no one can stop us tonight. We take on the world with hatred inside. Mayhem the reason we fight…” certainly contain a strong similarity to Venom’s lyrical output. They also mirror the intention of a band not only laying waste to the underground, but the glam obsessed commercial hard rock that dominated the Los Angeles area.
Some critics have long accused Slayer of being a one-trick pony, a group famously playing one song over and over in a repetitive cycle. Nothing could be further from this uneducated assessment. As early as their sophomore effort, Haunting the Chapel, Slayer showed progression in both technical proficiency and lyrical content. 1984…the year in which dystopia was prophesized by George Orwell. As for Slayer, it would mark the next building block in the legacy they were starting to build. Haunting the Chapel, an EP released in the summer of the year in question was leaps and bounds ahead of Show No Mercy and showed a band who were not only unwilling to compromise their sound, but also capable of developing their craft further.
“Chemical Warfare”, in particular, picks up where Black Sabbath left off in “War Pigs.” Describing the carnage that comes from war, and the prospect of Satan and his minions looking upon the devastation with delight can be thought of as subversive, considering the escalation in the arms race during the cold war. “Captor of Sin” and “Haunting the Chapel” both display more complexity, all the while remaining true to the aspects that were strong on Show No Mercy. While “Chemical Warfare” might have been a realistic look at the ongoing threat of decay, “Haunting the Chapel” utilized Satanic imagery to attack organized religion. “The holy cross, symbol of lies. Intimidate the lives of Christian born…” By turning this concept into a literal war, Slayer throws down the gauntlet in a fight with the establishment. The groups’ prominent Venom influence comes across in “Captor of Sin”, by addressing a topic that any Venom fan familiar with the songs “Red Light Fever” or ‘Teacher’s Pet” is well acquainted with…smut.
As 1984 drew to its inevitable close, Slayer released their first “live” album, aptly titled Live Undead. Any formal discussion in regards to this release requires one to address the elephant in the room. While the album claims to be recorded live, it’s a half-truth. Playing in a studio in front of a small group of people rarely constitutes a live album. Still, it’s one of the best places to hear some of Araya’s wildly entertaining banter. “They say the pen is mightier than the sword…but I say fuck the pen! Because you can DIE by the sword!” It certainly captures the unrelenting speed and tenacity that anyone who’s attended a live performance of the band is familiar with.
“The gates of Hell lie waiting as you see, there’s no price to pay just follow me…” If Show No Mercy had been a steadfast declaration and a prophecy of the coming storm, then Hell Awaits is the culmination of a descent into Hades and a confrontation with Cerberus itself. While some might have gawked at past album covers as cartoonish or tongue in cheek—Hell Awaits’ cover was anything but. Human bodies being ripped apart by demons, heads impaled on pikes…it was unadulterated nightmare fuel. The types of images that pastors used to frighten their congregation during the puritan revival.
Images of eternal damnation aside, Hell Awaits could easily lay claim to being Slayers best album, and one where they shed the mantle of their past influences and come into being as their own. Showing an incredible amount of progression in the two years since Show No Mercy, Hell Awaits boasted an impressive amount of technical prowess and complexity that seemed out of reach on previous efforts. Not solely relying on the satanic imagery which had been the bands go-to, topics such as vampirism and necrophilia were brought into the fold, and it was made obvious that Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman were not only an effective songwriting duo, but a creative force to be reckoned with.
“At Dawn They Sleep”, a song depicting the hunger and hunt of the vampire showcased multiple time changes, an interlude, and an impressive drum break from Lombardo. “Necrophiliac”, depicting sex with the dead, and lyrical passages like “In my mind the horror lives to feel death deep inside…relentless lust for rotting flesh, to thrash the tomb she lies…” explores darker subject material than the group were known for earlier. Necrophiliac and Hell Awaitsbothshow King’s ability to craft more complex lyrics, while remaining true to the stylistic approach that they had established prior. “Praise of Death” explores nihilistic pessimism and an overwhelming apathy at the existence of humanity. One moment on Hell Awaits that foreshadows much of the bands content on subsequent albums, most particularly Divine Intervention (1994), is “Kill Again.” Here is the beginning of the group’s exploration into the predatory nature of real evil. This itself would be a subject that would eventually phase out the satanic themed material as Slayer showed the true horror that lurks in the back alleys and dark streets of the world we live in. The American fascination with true crime and serial killing has been well documented, and Slayer tapped this vein repeatedly throughout their career.
Hell Awaits was a landmark achievement for the group, it was also somewhat of a swan song. Label head Brian Slagel didn’t want to let the band go, and Slayer would soon be teaming upwith producer Rick Rubin and his Def American label. The same executive responsible for several hip-hop releases and the crossover between RUN-DMC and Aerosmith was about to take the band in a new direction. Not only would this alter Slayer’s career, but the genre in its entirety. Reign in Blood would place the band on Mount Olympus, and to this day remains the standard for what many bands strive for. By the time South of Heaven (1988) was released, the satanic imagery would be completely absent from Slayer’s compositions. Despite the achievements and accolades, they accomplished after their move to Def American, their years on Metal Blade remain unchallenged in both their tenacity and perfection. In a day and age where metal continues to be absorbed into the accessible world of popular culture, these releases will always serve as a witness to the days when the genre was one of the greatest threats to the establishment.