(This is the second installment in an extensive series of posts by TheMadIsraeli devoted to a retrospective analysis of the discography of Slayer. With luck, we’ll manage to post the remaining installments on a daily basis until it’s completed.)
The thing about these early proto-thrash albums is, frankly, that a lot of them kind of sound the same. Obviously, this isn’t a fault of the musicians, as this was a developing style at the time and a lot of people fail to remember that these bands all came up in the same area and no doubt fed off each other creatively.
For a proto-thrash record, however, Slayer’s Show No Mercy remains distinctive even for it’s time. While Metallica had a simplistic, straight-forward approach and Megadeth rejoiced in excessive technicality, Slayer knew how to write songs, and this record makes that fact more obvious than any other when placed in the context of when it came out. It’s brimming with energy, its mix is incredibly good for its era, and some of the song-writing ideas here were ahead of their time.
This record, of course, has the classic Slayer lineup — Tom Araya on bass and vocals, Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman on guitars, and Dave Lombardo on drums — and the chemistry that this lineup is known for was immediately apparent even back then. Dave Lombardo’s aggressive drumming style was especially boundary-pushing at the time, with lots of double-bass gallops — straight-up machine gun bombardments that enhanced the intensity of traditional NWOBHM and Punk beats. Lombardo’s drumming was an excellent complement to Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman’s razor-sharp and more aggressive approach to riffing.
Where Hetfield and Hammett relied on a straight-forward sense of punk abandon and NWOBHM melodic riffing and pace, Slayer were already experimenting with intense rhythmic attacks, palm-muted machine-gun riffing, and the introduction of the pedal-point riff as we know it today in serious form as well as the introduction of tremolo-picking open strings as a riffing mechanism. They also broke conventional harmonic minor melodic barriers by throwing in notes that did not fit into the scales, which added that bit of bite and discord.
This aspect of their song-writing is where Kerry King would get the “devil’s scale” talking point when discussing their use of chromatic scales in their riffing. It’s that added twist of dissonance and sense of a lack of order that really defined these guys and set them apart from Metallica. And while it was present here in a much more mild degree than in even their very next releases, it was definitely there. Even Tom Araya, who has a vocal style on this record that was pretty typical for the time, has a snarl, a bite, and a rawness to him that was not present in other bands breaking the new ground of thrash metal. The foundation for the dark, vicious, and unrelenting Slayer sound was developing here.
There are definitely some traditional, very proto-thrash, songs on this record. The opener “Evil Has No Boundaries” is early thrash metal personified. Mid-punk pace, mostly straight-forward British heavy metal style riffs, just played much faster than its mother style. “The Antichrist” exemplifies this too, and “Tormentor” is about as traditional as it gets. It’s on songs like “Die By The Sword” and “Metal Storm/Face The Slayer” that we really hear the Slayer that would come to be — pushing speed boundaries, technical riffing, just throwing in that little bit of dissonance to create a sense of darkness and unhinged aggression.
Overall, Show No Mercy even for its time is an extremely strong debut. If I had been around in ’83 when this came out, this probably would’ve been the only proto-thrash album I would’ve enjoyed. It’s certainly the most aggressive out of this era of metal, and Dave Lombardo’s drumming really puts it over the top. As strong as this album was, though, it would in no way have prepared anyone for the shift that would come almost immediately after its release.