Revisiting A Classic: Show No Mercy

Disclaimer: There’s an ironic intellectual consumption with metal.  Disheveled looking characters in faded shirts speak of a band’s catalogue as if they are historians discussing colonization and conflict.  A new band is discovered, and suddenly the community becomes auditory sommeliers.  Abrasive and grotesque imagery is revered. Blunt delivery is preferred.

Five minutes later and we’ve just given intellectual validation for Cannibal Corpse.

The charm in metal lies within the consumption.  By revisiting some of the pillars of the genre, we can look at a snapshot of everything that was culturally significant within the music, the band, or how the story of metal progressed.

In the case of Slayer and other Bay Area thrash bands, very few probably had any idea they were witnessing the birth of some of the most influential bands in not only metal, but in music in general.  

A musical hotspot was brewing in the LA/San Francisco area in the early 1980’s.  Kids in their late teens and early twenties were forming bands that would ignite an entire genre of music, while also featuring some of the most influential musicians of all time.

At this point, Slayer was nothing more than an underground band covering Judas Priest and Iron Maiden songs.  And until the hostile crowd at Ruthie’s Inn (and likely Exodus frontman Paul Baloff) harassed them for even remotely resembling a glam band, they even donned a little spandex and makeup.

As a result of those Maiden covers, Brian Slagel, of the recently formed Metal Blade Records, offered the band a spot on his Metal Massacre compilation album. An album series that featured the early renditions of Metallica, Overkill, Ratt, and Armored Saint. Slayer delivered the song Aggressive Perfector, which generated enough underground buzz through tape trading networks that Slagel offered them a record deal through Metal Blade.

It took all of one week to record Show No Mercy in November of 1983, which was done in the dead of night in order to keep costs low. The band had borrowed money from Kerry King’s father in addition to front man and bass player Tom Araya’s wages as a respiratory therapist in order to fund the sessions. 

The witching hour recordings resulted in an album with low production value, which enhanced the rawness of the sound.

Show No Mercy was the second installment to the Bay Area thrash scene after Metallica released Kill Em All several months prior.  But when Metallica introduced themselves to the world by playing faster and more aggressively than anyone else, Slayer responded by playing just as fast.

And much darker.

Slayer, much like their contemporaries at the time, drew their musical inspiration from the likes of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, but their lyrical content and imagery took heavy inspiration from the british extreme metal band Venom and the newly formed Danish band Mercyful Fate (Distinctly apparent with each Tom Araya wail)

Show No Mercy was just as dark and sinister as it was vicious. And even despite their musical influences, which reveal themselves on the album, it wasn’t a malevolent Iron Maiden, it wasn’t a more aggressive Venom, and it wasn’t a faster Mercyful Fate.

It was Slayer.

The dark lyrical themes and demonic imagery paced the album, as apparent from the pentagram and sword brandished minotaur on the album cover.

Tracks such as The Antichrist and Die By The Sword gave listeners some of the first openly satanic lyrics ever featured on an album. 

Watching disciples of the satanic rule

Pentagram of blood holds the jackal’s truth

Searching for the answer, Christ hasn’t come

Awaiting the final moment, the birth of Satan’s son

Tales of a demonic siege and holy assault barked out in Tom Araya’s distorted vocals, accompanied by Jeff Hanneman’s feverish riffs and Dave Lombardo’s rapid drum tempo. 

But we didn’t get our first flash of a true Slayer hallmark until Fight Till Death. The song that gave us the second half of the Slayer equation.  Aggressive lyrics with an aggressive tempo, driven by an iconic riff. A hallmark which led to other Slayer masterpieces such as Dead Skin Mask, Raining Blood, and South of Heaven.

Due to the content of the album, Slayer received backlash from the Parents Resource Music Center requesting the band cease making music. 

The supporting tour for the album was just as glamorous as the production.  Slayer hit the road with just Araya’s Camaro and a U-Haul. Araya’s teenage brother served as a roadie, while friend of the band Kevin Reed served as a make-shift drum tech.

Slayer didn’t even have a manager for the first leg of the tour until Doug Goodman met them while he was waiting in line for the first show. And despite not being able to sell records while on tour, Show No Mercy became Metal Blade Records highest selling release at the time.

The album became a launching pad for Slayer, as well as countless other bands.  Terry Butler of Obituary and Death labels Show No Mercy as “The blueprint for the beginning of death metal”.  Nergal of the polish black metal legends Behemoth cited he was specifically attracted to Show No Mercy by the dark aesthetics.

38 years later, Show No Mercy remains a foundational pillar in metal. A low-budget, ragtag recording, directly responsible for almost 40 years of the heaviest music.

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