Much like veganism, not liking Slayer is completely beyond my comprehension. Why would anyone deny themselves the great stuff which food and metal have to offer them? Once you reach either point of denial, why not fully commit and start only listening to records with a 2 or below on the DR and/or AMG scale, only drinking wine that comes in an oversized juice box, or talking about philosophy exclusively with stoners? If you, for some reason or another, feel the utmost need to deny yourself the pleasure of indulging in great things, you’re in luck! There’s a contemporary group from Australia called Hellbringer who are making some high-quality imitation Slayer stuff that you can safely ignore. Perhaps “imitation” is unwarrantedly pejorative; don’t worry, this isn’t tofu-Slayer or any other such barbarity. No, we’re looking at choice cut of red-blooded retro-style thrash metal.
Taking one look at their name, which Slayer record do you think is Hellbringer’s favourite one? Here’s a hint for the obtuse: it came out in 1985 and is called Hell Awaits. Darker, heavier, and faster than Show No Mercy, Hell Awaits would go on to influence death metal in a huge way and remains one of the finest examples of thrash metal today. Its intensity and extremity haven’t dulled with time, and so it remains a vital and overflowing well of inspiration that Awakened from the Abyss wisely taps into. Haunting the Chapel, Reign in Blood, and bits of Show No Mercy make appearances too, but overall there’s little deviation from the general Hell Awaits template. This is fine, as everything in music has some outside influences; Hellbringer simply chooses theirs carefully and narrowly for maximum effectiveness.
There’s an impressive devotion to understanding what made early Slayer tick here which can best be described as musical reverse engineering, and to a fan of the Bay Area’s best band this is nothing short of exhilarating in practice. “Coven of Darkness” takes the “At Dawn they Sleep” format but adds a cold-open solo a la “Captor of Sin” into the mix and makes the inevitable full-throttle thrash part come earlier, placing the huge half-time beating after it; it’s a different take that’s great. The title track draws more from Show No Mercy than the other six songs here but keeps the Hell Awaits backbone, making me think that this is something not too far removed from Haunting the Chapel. When this came to mind as it did after a few listens, what Hellbringer is doing here really clicked. While this isn’t an indisputable classic like any one of Slayer’s first four full-length records, it doesn’t sound anything like a pale imitation either. What Hellbringer does sound like is a band that could’ve been a peer of classic Slayer, playing in a very similar style and putting forward a spirited effort that’s vicious, convincing, and of a high quality.
The flaw here, if we can call it that, is that Awakened from the Abyss will spend nearly all of its time reminding you of old Slayer. “Iron Gates” has a midsection that’s got a whiff of Sodom, but it doesn’t last too long; soon enough, it’s back to business as usual, but business is mighty good. Calling “Realm of the Heretic” what the mixture of “Altar of Sacrifice” and “Epidemic” with “Necrophiliac” would sound like is an understatement, but unless you inexplicably don’t like those songs, this is definitely worthwhile. Of course this raises the obvious question of why anyone should care about Hellbringer when every serious metalhead has heard and probably owns a copy of Hell Awaits. The answer lies in Awakened from the Abyss being an extremely adept take on the style that Slayer had moved a good bit away from by the time Seasons in the Abyss was released. This isn’t a shallow rehash in the vein of making a bland game with 8-bit graphics and calling it “retro” as much as it’s a group of guys who clearly knew and loved the classics trying to recapture the magic and doing a damn admirable job of it.
Completing the package is the production, which is dynamic, clear, and above all else sounds natural. This is four talented musicians playing no-nonsense thrash without studio trickery, fakery, or polishing. The leads are chaotic and noisy as expected, and may be the most convincing Slayer leads not performed by Slayer that I’ve ever heard 1. Vocals are intelligible and extremely Araya-esque, but you could’ve guessed that. Awakened from the Abyss is utterly predictable in that it follows the template Slayer laid down thirty-plus years ago. Sure, the lack of originality in sound (an absurdly overrated attribute) will bother some, but rest assured Hellbringer have embraced another important attribute of classic Slayer: making ripping thrash that wipes the floor with their peers.