It feels weird to think of SLAYER in the past tense — and technically incorrect, seeing as, even with only two original members in the band, “Slayer” are intent on fulfilling their contracted touring schedule for this summer. But most who conceive of the band as being about the humans behind it and not its bellowing brand know that, despite what Kerry King and Tom Araya’s touring calendar may look like, the metal band Slayer has been slain.
Jeff Hanneman, guitarist and founding member of Slayer, passed away May 2 from alcohol-related cirrhosis. He began music as part of a small underground of bands that were developing the musical identity of what would come to be known as thrash metal; he died as one of the progenitors of a vastly influential musical style and culture, as well as a core creator of an instantly recognizable musical brand whose reach far exceeded the market of metal cultists.
In the wake of his death, many are quick to point out that Hanneman, the press-shy Slayer
member, was responsible for the majority of the band’s most memorable riffs and lyrics, including the band’s signature tune, “Angel of Death.” Like the proverbial Greatest Generational born in a barn and dying in a skyscraper, Hanneman, in his too-brief 49 years, saw his thrash metal band go from some Cali yokels crushing beer cans on their foreheads into a massive branded legend known by millions all over the globe. The very name, “Slayer,” is more than a band or a group of songs, it has become a war cry that, one could argue, represents the heavy metal attitude at its most basic and primal.
Slayer’s take on metal began as typical swords-and-sorcery, as their early ‘80s shows saw them don leather, make-up, and fake blood — but the band’s transformation from glam-shlock to the mean machine of 1986’s Reign In Blood was where the legend was born, as minotaurs and seven-minute odes to Satan were replaced with compact thrash riffage and an obsession with real-life horrors. Hanneman had war in his family; his father fought in Normandy, his brothers in Vietnam. A childhood of model planes and tanks primed him for a career of penning tunes like “War Ensemble” and “Mandatory Suicide.” The band never really dropped the Satan schtick, but even Beelzebub-themed tunes like “South of Heaven” and “Raining Blood” were less about shock and gore than they were about the carnage and doom of man’s folly. It was an extension of the Vietnam-era proto-metal of a band like Black Sabbath, but more focused and ripping.
“Angel of Death,” the first song on 1986’s Reign In Blood, is perhaps Hanneman at his most Hanneman-esque, a horror-filled description of Nazi atrocities attributed to Josef Mengele. Slayer were big Iron Maiden fans at their outset, though most felt that by Reign, they had shed the Ren-faire fantasy that peppered their 1983 debut Show No Mercy. Which they had, for the most part — but in much the same way that Iron Maiden took horrific events and turned them into galloping theme-park sing-alongs, devoid of commentary or social statement (think of the wonder and delight with which Bruce Dickinson observes a sacrificial black mass in “Number of the Beast”), Slayer in “Angel of Death” rattled of torture methods without necessarily condemning the actions themselves. Told from the perspective of Mengele himself (“Auschwitz/The meaning of pain/The way that I want you to die,” the song begins), “Angel of Death” does not stop itself from being taken the wrong way. It is intended to be a complete experience of horror, but it also manages to be catchy and utterly powerful and engrossing. It was heavy music that allowed itself to be… wrong — as long as it was powerful and overwhelming.
The horrors of Hanneman’s contributions to the Slayer canon, in a sense, mirrored his own personal pain, as cycles of drug and alcohol addiction and detox provided a grim undertone to his time in the band. In the music of Slayer, Hanneman’s solos are things of tortured genius; whereas so many other heavy metal lead guitarists of his time built intricate solos that took classical themes and made them fast and loud, Hanneman’s mid-song bursts were walls-melting psychedelic terror, sculptures of awful oblivion, the sonic equivalent of chemical warfare.
It isn’t a stretch to hear, in the solo of “Raining Blood,” the screams of a dying victim. The most celebrated of rock’s guitarists are often feted for the human qualities of their tone — for Hanneman, his guitar truly screamed in a literal sense, and it was a thing that was both immensely disturbing and powerfully engaging.
Hanneman and Slayer were labeled neo-Nazis at the time for “Angel,” which suited them fine; the band were cunning sensationalists who forged their burgeoning metal domination in the crucible of late-‘80s societal fears. Serial killers, Nazi death merchants, nuclear armageddon, man’s instinct to hurt and kill — Slayer felt no need to stand against these things, but they definitely used them as powerful totems to feed their infernal machine. By Reign In Blood, and especially with the slower majesty of 1988’s follow-up South of Heaven, Slayer had lined up their sound, their songwriting, and their image into a solid crushing heavy metal doom generator. If heavy metal had, in prior decades, been all about fantasy, fun times, and partying, Slayer ushered in an era of no fun at all. It was, as they later named a compilation box set, the soundtrack to the Apocalypse.
As it turns out, the Apocalypse never happened, which was good business for Slayer, Inc. Each of the four principal members became fabulously wealthy, and Slayer consistently found themselves on the top of the global metal heap, riding out various metal trends as their brand of power thrash became classic and eternal. Listening now to records of theirs from the ‘80s and early-‘90s, Hanneman’s riffs have only varnished with the years, aged into the hard steel buttresses that hold up the church of metal as we now know it. Many will give credit to Hanneman’s early interest in punk rock, and the way that he incorporated the desperate buzz of bands like Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat into Slayer’s dark riff work. And that theory has merit — especially when you consider the similarity between the echo-slathered psychobilly of East Bay Ray’s guitar playing and the Thalidomide burn of Hanneman’s axe spray half a decade later.
Punk was useful for Slayer because it’s frantic beat, when nailed to the band’s Ur-riffage, gave them a sound that managed to be faster and heavier than their contemporaries, who were more concerned with things like hooks and melodies. Metal is a competitive musical genre, perhaps more than most, and Slayer succeeded in no small part because they worked so hard at being the best. Drummer Dave Lombardo labored tirelessly to go from a somewhat sloppy rock drummer with decent chops to perhaps the finest technical metal player who ever lived; and Hanneman and his guitar foil Kerry King spent years turning their early exuberance into a two-headed metal attack that will stand as perhaps, barring Judas Priest’s Tipton and Downing, the fiercest dual guitar act in all of metal.
Hanneman’s wealth allowed him to indulge his World War II fanaticism, filling his home, Lemmy-style, in Nazi paraphernalia; a Knight’s Cross he bought from a fan being a particularly prized item. It was an odd fate for a guy in a band he formed as a teenager, who read some books on Nazis and serial killers and turned songs like “Dead Skin Mask” into anthems that would fill arenas around the globe. This willful morbidity also makes it hard to properly mourn Hanneman — this is a guy, I keep thinking, whom I have seen multiple times perform in front of a projection screen display of graphic bloody surgery footage. He wrote more songs about the inevitability of death than the mopiest of mopey singers ever, and yet his passing before 50 seems not just tragic but oddly unexpected. I suppose that when you see a man up on that stage bludgeoning you to a pulp, as he was wont to do in Slayer, his music really does make him seem invincible.
Slayer themselves always seemed invincible — decade after decade as they toured along, they never seemed like the ‘80s act that they were, because their dominion over all seemed fair and just, like a good king ruling over all. Metal isn’t a democracy, it’s a monarchy, and crowns are passed down, not elected up through votes. This is why no one can replace the majesty of metal’s first few decades, try as they might, as the Big Four (Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax), and the Holy Trinities of ‘70s (Zep, Sabbath, Deep Purple) and ‘80s metal (Dio, Priest, Maiden) continue to dominate our conception of metal as a concept. With the abrupt end to Slayer’s reign, get ready for a time of chaos, as jostling for legacy amongst classic metallers is mirrored by the grandstanding of unworthy successors.
As Hanneman’s funeral barge slowly burns into the horizon, know now that you once lived in a time when Slayer ruled, and that their reign will be the stuff of legend for decades to come. They may not have toppled society or brought about the Armageddon that they sang so heartily in favor of, but they led an ultimately benign campaign to unite metal’s children in dutiful worship to the dark power of heavy music, holding up imaginary bloody swords in fealty to the red glowing god of metal. All hail!