Let’s ruminate on the dawn of the death in metal: Slayer and Possessed

I can ignore Iron Maiden for the purposes of this feature. I can ignore Metallica. I can ignore Manowar, Megadeth, Anthrax, Queensryche, and that other band what got pretty famous. Enough has been written about these artists by fans far more familiar than myself. Enough has been written about Slayer, but so pivotal were they to the evolution of extreme metal that if we are running this feature in roughly chronological order they simply cannot be ignored. It would be akin to giving a history of Greek philosophy that omitts Socrates. 

Sometimes I wonder if extreme metal said all it needed to say with Slayer’s ‘Hell Awaits’ back in 1985. In terms of ambition and scope, the leap from 1983’s ‘Show no Mercy’, a more aggressive take on NWOBHM – to ‘Hell Awaits’, is astounding. Here we have riffs formed entirely of power chords, some lifted straights from the book of D.R.I. and Suicidal Tendencies, placed into simple tritone play and screeching solos combining the speed and aggression that this music demands, with the purpose and ambition of Judas Priest. Tom Arya has never been the strongest of vocalist, relying more on a bark incapable of delivering melody. However, when the vocals do kick in on the opening track they are so high in the mix and full of intent that they serve to lift the music to a new level of intensity reminiscent of King Diamond more than punk. The occasional banshee wail only serves to add to the theatrics. This album is also the last Slayer album to deal exclusively with the occult, before they turned their attention to ‘singing what they see in the world’ resulting in odes to war, crime, genocide, death, and madness. Instead we are guided through descriptions of hell, vampires, and witches, with a sense of revelry and authenticity never found in an artist such as Venom.

Structurally, the riff dominates all. By writing music that extends well beyond the runtime of the average pop song that maintains such speed and intensity requires shifts in tempo and mood to retain the listeners intrigue. This is done by constructing riffs exclusively from power chords, unhampered by selecting a key, writing a verse, a chorus, a bridge, and piecing the song together around these blocks, the riffs are free to play off each other allowing the composition to develop in new and unexpected ways, which really does require seven or eight minutes to truly expand. This ‘riff salad’ approach to forming compositions was to become a staple of death metal and much thrash metal to follow. More than that, and also a direct inheritance from punk, was the fact that the riffs also drive the rhythm, and demarcate tempo changes. This allows the drums a surprising amount of creativity for such fast music. Again, in death metal this would be brought to new dimensions of musical intrigue with drums that frame the song rather than occasionally punctuate repetitive rhythms with fills and such. 

Arguably, this was the real step to demarcate death metal in its own right rather than just an extreme take on thrash. So the real question is: where does this leave such stepping stone artists as Possessed and their iconic 1985 offering ‘Seven Churches’? One wonders what significance history would have bestowed this album with if the closing track had not been entitled ‘Death Metal’. This is an important release no doubt, but it seems to be cursed with an eternal question mark of whether it is the first fully fledged death metal LP, or just dark thrash, leaving the crown of originator to the likes of Death and Morbid Angel two years later. Setting all this aside there is much to love about ‘Seven Churches’. The album is littered with pounding d-beat rhythms, over riffs that walk the line between shredding and full on tremolo strumming. The tremolo riff is another staple of death metal that marks sets it apart from thrash metal, where the notes and chords are held from bar to bar, strummed extremely fast to create the tremolo effect, lifted directly from the horror film soundtracks that these musicians worshipped. 

That’s not to mention the vocals, which really were venomous. We can track the evolution of the distorted vocal style which was to become a staple of extreme metal around this time. From the half grunted half sung crooning of Lemmy, to punk itself, to Thomas G Warrior’s throaty wail, Quorthon’s demonic screech that was to become the blueprint for black metal. But Jeff Becerra of Possessed’s was arguably the first true death metal guttural growler, imitated by Death and Morbid Angel alike. As with rhythm, this is a more important step than the superficial ‘the music just kept on getting more extreme man’ view of history as a predetermined course with a beginning, middle, and end. The noteless bark, shout, grunt, screech, this removed one avenue of melody from contemporary music but never replaced it with another. There is no hook, no obvious repetition, and no reference to or interest in any feelings the listener may want to feel as part of the musical experience. We are left only with the atonal powerchord riff, d-beat drumming, the occassiaonly harmony delivered through lead tremolo riffing and solos. The structure, the emotion, the tension, these are built up throughout the album, and one must look beneath the extremity to find them. 

‘Hell Awaits’ may be the last stand of heavy metal fans before descending into what could be called true death metal, this album still holds a sense of the epic, of fun and play, and the occasional classic metal riff amid all the power chords. ‘Seven Churches’ muy not be fully fledged death metal, but there is no doubt that it took thrash a step further along that road in lyrics, vocals, rhythm, if not structurally. For this reason, superficially Possessed feels like the dawn of death metal, but beneath the surface Slayer’s ‘Hell Awaits’ had far more to offer to the integrity of extreme metal as a well-crafted and thoughtful artform, indeed far more than its follow up ‘Reign in Blood’. ‘Hell Awaits’ is the true legacy of Slayer, and it is a disservice to the intelligence of this music that the legacy of the follow up album, a legacy of extremity alone, always seems to overshadow the truly new compositional direction for metal that some artists were striving for around this time.

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