Hell Awaits (1985)
Like Black Sabbath, Slayer is a band that probably needs no introduction. Well known for their style of speedy thrash metal, wild chromatic guitar solos, the tortured yell of vocalist Tom Araya, and their over-the-top Satanic and anti-religious lyrics, Slayer cemented themselves as one of the preeminent bands of the genre with 1986's Reign in Blood. However, for me personally, Hell Awaits has to take the cake not just as their wickedest record, but arguably their best effort overall too. But before any rabid Slayer fans want to throw down with me in the pit, allow me to explain.
There's no arguing that the first five or six releases (including the spectacular Haunting the Chapel EP) are some of the finest thrash albums, as well as the best moments of Slayer's catalog. In my opinion, though, what sets apart Hell Awaits from Reign in Blood is the raw ferocity in the production, songs, and even the lyrics, to an extent. The album begins with feedback, the slow beating of drums, and a backwards message that says "join us." If that isn't a creepy enough intro, the march-like progression of the opening riff will draw you a nice picture of thousands of souls filing one by one into the dark depths below. Following the titletrack, we have other standout songs of uncanny evil, such as "Kill Again," "At Dawn They Sleep," and the vile and disturbing "Necrophiliac."
Slayer's early material is marked by a fascination with the occult and the shock value Satanism gimmick, and this already started to fade by Reign in Blood, where we see tracks focused more around death, insanity, and religious mockery. It's good for bands to mature and not fall into the same tired old monotony as so many others (I'm looking at you, Deicide), but when I want to get the Halloween spirit, I go for the malevolently supernatural. It may seem strange, being that I'm an atheist, yet when you look at the success of otherworldly horror stories/films against the purely naturalistic ones... it doesn't take a genius to know that horror can't all be based in verifiable reality, or else it loses its appeal, becomes predictable, and so forth. I also happen to like some mythos and mystery with my horror.
Hell Awaits feels like something channeled from the bowels of Lucifer's domain: it's rough, uncompromising, aggressive, sadistic, and sinister. It's the dark descent into Hades after Show No Mercy, and prior to the ascent into fame and glory that is Reign in Blood. The guitar work on the album is moderately progressive for Slayer, with loads of riffs, hooks, and moments of creativity that shine through in some of the longest songs in their repertoire. Alongside South of Heaven, this is one of the more innovative points in their career, making for music that isn't just fast and chaotic, but can be cryptic and enchanting at the same time. After the brief 37 minutes of Hell, you won't want to leave.