THIS MONTH IN METAL No. 11: Slayer’s “Hell Awaits”

The Legacy

WELCOME BACK! If I had to identify the first album that actually scared me as a kid, it would be Slayer’s thrash classic Hell Awaits, which turns 35 this March.  For once it wasn’t just the cover, but rather the nakedness of aggression that felt like a genuine threat.  As a thirteen year-old churchgoer I truly thought the introductory backwards messages and demonic voices were going to reserve me a spot in Hell.  In time, however, this record that taught me a valuable lesson: it’s okay to have fun with the dark side.  It’s not a ritual sacrifice, it’s a fucking party!  Slayer embodies that more than anyone, and Hell Awaits is perhaps their best example.  It’s not often considered their best, nor is it my absolute favorite, but I doubt Hell Awaits cares about what anyone thinks.  It’s unpolished, unapologetic and wants you to suffer.  Therein lies the brilliance… in your grave! 

Original Hell Awaits cover by Albert Cuellar (elements by Jean Giraud). Photo: Genius

Hell Awaits is akin to a carnival dark ride from, well, Hell.  The introduction of backwards chanting, “join us… join us… join us…” is the facade to entice willing victims into the depths.  Hop into the rusty cart and creak forward as a disembodied, barely tangible demon voice gargles “WELCOME BACK!”  Dave Lombardo’s drums conduct an infernal rhythm to bust you through the well-worn doors of a painted Hellscape.  Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King’s riffs squeal along the rickety track as you are subject to sudden strobe lights and bursts of suffocating fog.  Tom Araya thrusts rubber corpses and winged creatures at you with bouncing Giallo-esque bass riffs.  You clunk through crypts of vampires, stained sheets of necrophiliacs and atrocities of homicidal mutilation all in the name of SATAN.  There are even a few props you might recognize from somewhere else.  As it turns out, that isn’t a coincidence seeing as everything on the album cover except the background and title is ripped from a 1977 issue of Heavy Metal by Jean Giraud, AKA Moebius.  I don’t support plagiarism nor this particular instance, but what’s a dark ride without an out-of-context bootleg?

One of three major Hell Awaits elements lifted from French artist Moebius. Original artwork from “Approaching Centauri” within a 1977 issue of Heavy Metal.  Photo: The Battle For Art

At last we approach the end with the same riffs that brought us in.  Sweaty from the claustrophobia and coughing from the mold we bust through the mausoleum doors and are reborn into the sunlight.  Sure, there was some unpleasantness, but you managed to suspend disbelief for a moment and do what you came here for: have a bloody good time.  Hell Awaits may not be the shattered window into Hell that Reign in Blood, Slayer’s following and oftentimes most-acclaimed release is, but it certainly lit the fire.  It’s lack of sharpness is its greatest advantage, not with one clean cut but bludgeoning blow after blow to hack off your head.

BEHOLD, THE ABYSS

30th anniversary tribute artwork

Behold, The Abyss
Slayer – “Hell Awaits” 30th anniversary // March 2020

I love Hell stuff, simple as that.  Visions of the infernal regions have provided endless creative influence throughout art history.  Bosch, Breugel, Blake, you name it.  No matter how gruesome the scene, Hell has been given much deserved respect when it comes to works of the masters.  I find it impossible not to take influence from these works, nor do I hesitate to.  Metal artists like Slayer didn’t either, and Hell Awaits is a great example of such visions translated to sound.  The art of catastrophe is tough to pull off without seeming aimless.  Just as the masters used their knowledge of artistic elements and principles of design, Slayer does so in their harmony and structure.  Like the third panel of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly DelightsHell Awaits feels as if it is going to fall apart at any moment.  It doesn’t.  The record jumps in for the kill and jumps back out at a brief 37 minutes (albeit leaving a sloppy crime scene).  Despite the chaos it remains a neatly tied vignette, knowing not to waste time as a lengthy novel.  This contained chaos is what guided the design and process of BEHOLD, THE ABYSS.  The work itself isn’t blatantly inspired by specific lyrical elements of Hell Awaits but rather its tactics.  I wanted to create an illustration (without plagiarized elements) that simulated not an immersion, but a glimpse into pandemonium.  It needed to be a vignette of the mind tortured by visions of Hell.  Emphasis played a crucial role here, giving breathing space to contain the madness.  I only actually planned out the figure and a general shape of his visions.  Like most of my works, I monoprinted the foundation in acrylic which gave me a natural random texture in the fiery vision cloud.  I then merely interpreted the texture and created the scene from there, creating something I could not have imagined until that very moment.  I knew that in order to rely on random interpretation I had to maintain some control, thus containing it to an emphasized space emerging from a tangible image.  BEHOLD, THE ABYSS stands as an example of inspiration that transcends medium, a think piece on the art of catastrophe.

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STAY EVIL

–NCM