Slayer's sophomore release shared little with the unrefined, unheavy Show No Mercy. Vocalist Tom Araya got gruffer. Drummer Dave Lombardo got better. Guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman both developed a keener sense of songwriting, and wrote material that showed Slayer at their darkest, most sinister. More so than Reign In Blood. The two also created some incredibly clever guitar riffs, and came up with some spooky yet subtle musical effects to help amplify that album's very sinister subject matter. Yet, this album still gets lost in the shuffle in the Slayer album discussion.
Hell Awaits combines several elements of Slayer that we really haven't seen since this album's release (though Divine Intervention appeared and failed to re-create a couple of them); the lengthy run times and the progressive nature of many of the songs among them. More than anything, the entire album has an atmosphere about it that is disturbing. Not the in-your-face kind of disturbing seen on Reign In Blood, the old-fashioned, Alfred Hitchcock type of disturbing. It's not every day that an album specializes in the macabre, something usually reserved for Stephen King novels. But that's just what Hell Awaits brings to the table, and is the number one reason why this album is a home run. Examples are prevalent in every track, especially Hell Awaits and At Dawn They Sleep.
As for the instrumentation, some of the most easily-encountered examples of the creepiness are in the intros to Hell Awaits, Necrophiliac, and Crypts Of Eternity. The former more so than the latter two, since Hell Awaits' intro lasts three minutes long, while the other two tracks' intros are mere guitar riffs. But really, these bits of unsettlement are scattered all throughout the record. Probably my favorite of all occurs at the end of Hardening Of The Arteries, which is also the final track on the album. Its 4 minutes long, and the actual, original song lasts about two minutes. After that, it reverts to the same opening riffs as in the beginning of Hell Awaits. Yet this time, they sound even more sinister, partly because they're missing the occasional, calculated lead guitar licks, and replaced by occasional, random lead guitar licks throwing out faint, dreadful effects among the zombie-like rhythm guitar. A part of the album that is typically overlooked that I thoroughly enjoy.
The lyrics are deliciously twisted. We have tracks here about murder, vampires, necrophilia, and hell, with no shortage of detail. Granted, today this stuff is abundant in death metal and black metal, but for its time, its just one of the reasons Hell Awaits is one of the most influential albums to extreme metal bands. Araya, thankfully, sounds like he completed puberty on this album, as opposed to Show No Mercy. He spits these lyrics at the speed of light, and with plenty of venom in his voice. He has the voice of an absolute psychopath as well, making him the absolute ideal vocalist for this album. The lyrics themselves aren't exactly Shakespearean, but with Slayer, are they ever? They always get the job done and achieve some sort of effect, and this album is no exception.
The only weakness (if you can even call it that) is the production values. They're sloppy, and create a wall of sound similar to that of Metallica's ...And Justice For All album. The guitars are often overpowered by other instruments, including the bass. However, when the guitars do break through effectively, usually during solos, it is a thing of beauty. Strangely, I actually feel the subpar production values on this album actually help it, because they do give it a muddier ambience. Apparently the band feels the same way, since this is the only critically acclaimed album of theirs that has yet to be re-mastered.
Like its successor, Reign In Blood, Hell Awaits does not contain a weak song anywhere. Every track is strong and memorable. There's only seven of them, but since this is Slayer's most progressive album, there are enough tempo changes in each song (the title track and At Dawn They Sleep, in particular) to keep you interested. The title track opens with the infamous backward moans of 'join us', with occasional demonic cries that come as close as anything on this album to generating fright. Soon enough, the actual music starts, and the guitar duo of King and Hanneman throw out riffs that were deemed the heaviest ever created by Sebastian Bach. The intro lasts about three minutes, and eventually Araya chimes in with his scathing lines about hell. Pure thrash.
Kill Again, like the previous track, takes a while to really get going (due in part to another lengthy intro section), but when it does, look out. This is arguably Tom's best performance of the album, as he sounds every bit the serial killer he's emulating. At Dawn They Sleep is one of Slayer's masterpieces. Its 6 minutes long, but has three tempo changes in it, going from thrashy-fast, to slowing down, to Reign In Blood-fast. Its goes by a lot quicker than its run time suggests. Praise Of Death doesn't offer a whole lot in the way of variation, but the frantic pace and the vicious vocal delivery more than make up for it. Necrophiliac is very cool. It opens with a quick, odd guitar riff, and soon enough picks up to the typical, awesome Slayer speed. The lyrics are just great. They reek of Kerry King, but they're still sickeningly awesome.
Crypts Of Eternity is the album's best track. It opens with a guitar riff that's more eerie than flat out twisted. This song has the best production values out of any on this album, as the guitars are very prominent (unless Araya's in the middle of a passage, in which case they are toned down quite a bit), and the sounds the guitarists pull off, from the opening, the riffs, to random licks, to the solo, is pure twisted genius. Without a doubt, the guitars' finest moment. This is the album's longest, at about 6:40, but it again throws you enough variation (and cold hard musical awesomeness) to keep you hooked for the entire run time. An overlooked masterpiece by the thrash kings. Hardening Of The Arteries closes it out, and for a while is shaping up the weakest track on the album, though still good, until it hits the aforementioned part where it reverts to the title track's opening riffs, with slight adjustments to make it sound even more vile.
Hell Awaits the unsung masterpiece of Slayer's discography. It's right there with Reign In Blood, and is superior to the likes of South Of Heaven and Seasons In The Abyss, the two albums looped with Reign In Blood to create, in most fans' eyes, the unholy trinity (and in some cases, only three) of excellent Slayer albums. Those albums were accessible and listener friendly. This is not. This may not be better than Reign In Blood, the consensus magnum opus from Slayer, but it is the band's ultimate sound.
At Dawn They Sleep
Crypts Of Eternity
Hardening Of The Arteries