Today, Jeff Hanneman would have been fifty years old. The man who helped invent the sound that underlies all of underground death metal did not, as the people around him in the LA suburbs tend to do, waste his life away in repetition. Instead, he forged his own path and we celebrate him for it and the results of it.
Way back in 1983, as now, the holy grail of alienated music was the fusion of any two of its genres: metal, punk and industrial. Specifically there was great interest in using its guitar-based genres to create a new sound. Many people attempted to fuse metal and punk, and many credible sounds came out of it. One path was speed metal, which Metallica unleashed with Kill ‘Em All. Another was thrash, which DRI cut loose with Dirty Rotten LP. But still another was the foundation of death metal and black metal which was introduced by Slayer and refined the following year by Bathory, Hellhammer and Sodom.
Slayer took two things from punk and injected them into the prog-influenced songs structures of NWOBHM: they borrowed the constant tremolo strum, used by punk for drone, and the open drum patterns that allowed guitar to take the lead. Now a new style of music emerged. Rhythm guitar became the lead instrument, rapid-firing changing riffs at the audience while drums framed but did not lead the development. Riffs did not have to perfectly fit the drums which kept going in the background as a kind of timekeeper but not, as in most bands, a way of signaling the guitar to change. Further, riffs became phrasal, building on the longer chord progressions of Black Sabbath to become fully small melodies, developing in response to on another like classical motifs.
Music teachers, who were raised in the rock/jazz idea that drums lead and riffs should emphasize harmonic and a static melodic role, with the primary melodic role and lead instrument (and thus impetus for song “development”) being the voice, found Slayer to be unmusical. The record industry was appalled at this creation that unleashed the demonic side of life in such clarity; they make their money from selling happy illusions, not grim realities translated into elaborately conceived mythologies.
And yet it is this mythological tendency, dating back to “War Pigs,” that saves metal from self-consuming and burning out like hardcore punk. It is not literal; it is imaginative. It turns our focus from ourselves to the nature of power, history, nature and other forces larger than the individual, and then lets us imagine the greatness of participation in those. Where punk turned reality into a protest weapon and source of alienation, metal has turned it into a source of individual desire to do something epic with our lives. Slayer gave that mythological tendency a new voice, not just by singing about demons, vampires and The Holocaust, but by translating the sound of raw power into something you could throw on your bedroom hi-fi and be transported to a different world.
For this reason, Slayer captured the imagination of a generation and continues to enthrall us today. The early albums, which are completely written in horror movie mythology, incite in us a desire to see the hidden possibly occult underpinnings of a society gone insane. The Reign in Blood and afterwards material shows us a more punk-like grasp of all that terrifies us and sends us searching for reasons why, and if not why, how to use such things as war, murder and sadism in some constructive way. Slayer is not protest music; it acknowledges the horror, but doesn’t want to band us together into a drum circle to “stop” these horrors. It recognizes they are eternal. Instead, like the religion it loathed, Slayer drives us to find a way to accept these things as part of life itself, and look for a philosophy that shows us a reason to survive despite all these horrors.
Jeff Hanneman’s influence pervades the Slayer story. He wrote many of the band’s most epic and enduring songs, contributed the mythological outlook, and invented the musical changes described above. While he may be slighted by the Grammy’s, or ignored by a world of people seeking Shakira tunes instead of imaginative but realist metal, to those who can understand his trip — already a naturally elite group — Hanneman’s work is not just a source of wisdom, but of inspiration. In a world asleep, he stayed awake. In a world of imitation, he took his own path. Where most just wanted to participate for reward, he took on life at its most basic level and triumphed. For that reason, we’ll always celebrate his life and work.
An age of distrust.
To summarize the above, Hanneman was not only central to the Slayer sound but to the spirit of metal. At a time when most bands were trying to be more like pop music in order to be popular, Hanneman pushed Slayer to be more realistic and yet more mythological, joining artists such as J.R.R. Tolkien and John Milton in showing us occult doom all around us based on the degeneracy of modern people. His intense riffs, angular chord progressions, blazing solos and most of all spirit and attitude drove Slayer, and through them metal, to be more than just another flavor of rock. They became otherworldly.
The band issued the following statement:
Jeff Hanneman helped shape Slayer’s uncompromising thrash-metal sound as well as an entire genre of music. His riffs of fury and punk-rock attitude were heard in the songs he wrote, including Slayer classics “Angel of Death,” “Raining Blood,” “South of Heaven” and “War Ensemble.” Hanneman co-founded Slayer with fellow-guitarist Kerry King, bassist Tom Araya and drummer Dave Lombardo in Huntington Park, CA in 1981. For more than 30 years, Hanneman was the band member who stayed out of the spotlight, rarely did interviews, amassed an impressive collection of World War II memorabilia, was with his wife Kathy for nearly three decades, shut off his phone and went incommunicado when he was home from tour, did not want to be on the road too late into any December as Christmas was his favorite holiday, and, from the time he was about 12 years old, woke up every, single day with one thing on his mind: playing the guitar.
It was once suggested to Slayer that if they would write “just one mainstream song that could get on the radio,” they would likely sell millions of records and change the commercial course of their career, similar to what had happened to Metallica with 1993’s “Enter Sandman.” Jeff was the first to draw a line of integrity in the sand, replying, “We’re going to make a Slayer record. If you can get it on the radio, fine, if not, then fuck it.”
Almost two weeks ago, Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman died of liver failure in a California hospital. However, like any event involving people who have done important things, his death sent ripples throughout the world.
First, Slayer fans worldwide realized that Slayer is now de facto dead. Formed of the core of Hanneman, Araya, King and Lombardo, Slayer was based on the merging of those talents. It probably cannot survive without any particular one. In addition, although King and Araya made many important contributions, much of the material that gave Slayer character above and beyond its hard and fast style came from Hanneman. Without him, a vital part of the equation will be missing, and it could be one of the parts that made Slayer much more than just their technique.
Second, Slayer is a form of mascot and leader for the underground metal movement. Although this is rarely acknowledge, Slayer was a speed metal (Metallica, Testament, Rigor Mortis) band who used the tremolo strum to make what was musically closer to death metal, evolving from their more “heavy metal” beginnings to an angular and disharmonic nightmare of chromatic riffs and centerless solos. Alongside Bathory and Hellhammer, Slayer invented the modern style of heavy metal, and by their contributed contributions, gave it guidance and a figurehead. When death metal bands got lost in songwriting, they turned to Slayer; even black metal and grindcore bands lift riffs from that vital back catalogue. Slayer is a huge musical force but now is firmly entrenched in the past, not the present.
Finally, Slayer is a symbol of all that is metal, with Hanneman at the front as the innovator of brooding classics such as “South of Heaven” and “At Dawn They Sleep.” His poetic approach to riffs, songs and lyrics made metal rise up from being another genre about personal drama and getting laid, and turned it into a mythological force worthy of J.R.R. Tolkien, William Blake, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker or John Milton. Punk bands wrote about the decay of society, and hard rock bands like Led Zeppelin wrote about Hobbits and Satan, but Slayer put them together in the same way Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” did: a mythology underlying existence that explains the shared perceptual confusion that causes us to cause our own problems.
This is why Slayer is important to metal, and to the larger culture beyond it, and why Jeff Hanneman is more than just an excellent songwriter and guitarist. He is part of what made metal, and what made metal a legend. His passing is the end of an era, and the call to us to begin a new one.
With that in mind, we present a compilation of statements by people involved with music who wanted to speak a few words about the power of Jeff Hanneman, Slayer and the importance of those to metal. Some of the following are cribbed from Faceplant or other websites, but all are authentic:
Growing up in a small, West Texas oilfield town, your options were limited: you became a football hero, a juvenile delinquent, or you turned to some form of escapism. Comics, books and most of all, music were my saviors. They became my bulwark against impending suicide. In my early years, Kiss, Judas Priest and AC/DC were my mainstays. Then around ’79 a couple of older friends introduced me to the “Second Wave of Punk”. The Ramones, Sex Pistols, The Stranglers, DEVO, these became my new gods, but I never lost my love of those heavier bands. Living in rural Texas and years before the internet, you were always a few steps behind. You might stumble across a magazine, someones visiting older brother from college, or just word of mouth. So I slowly became aware of the already in full swing Hardcore scene. I quickly developed an affinity for this new aggression: Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Minor Threat, Misfits and Bad Brains. This, to me, seemed the pinnacle of extreme music.
Even in the middle of nowhere, where few of either existed, I noticed the segregation of Metal vs Punk. Though Metal was a guilty pleasure, being young and stupid I still took pride in ridiculing the Metalheads as often as possible. Around the mid-80’s things took a strange turn. The lines were blurred. I was already a young adult slaving away in an oilfield job, on my first marriage with an infant son. My only connection to underground music came every Saturday night at 10PM courtesy of 2 hour radio show on KOCV, the Odessa college student ran radio station. I don’t remember the name of the show, but I do remember the host, Danny Hardcore, a local skate punk with a penchant for all things heavy. It was then I first heard the insanity of Suicidal Tendencies, SOD, Voïvod and….Slayer. And those lads from Huntington Park, CA basically scared the shit out of me. Faster than anything I’d ever heard, the pentagram logo that shook my Southern Baptist sensibilities, and the insanity surrounding everything you could get your hands regarding their fanatical “Slaytanic” following.
I was hooked.
And one of the major catalyst behind this explosion of sound so completely new and unrelenting was Jeff Hanneman. From everything I could learn about him, he was a kindred spirit. I feel totally confident in saying that Metal, Hardcore, Thrash and about 20 other genres of extreme music would not have existed today without Jeff.
When I look back at all of my favorite Slayer songs, I see his hand. Metalheads, especially those that think of themselves as the Stewards of All That Is True, take a particular perverse satisfaction in proclaim everything after “insert favorite here” in the Slayer catalog as shit, but I believe time will tell a different tale. The man will be sorely missed. Whether completely cheesy or in bad taste, tonight I will lift my glass high, raise a toast and give a mighty HAIL to a fallen Hessian who made a difference, and who carved an indelible mark into the history of a music I hold dear.
I am still at a loss for words over Jeff’s passing. Slayer along with Metallica, Raven, Anvil, Venom, Overkill and others were some of the early bands I fell in love with and really got me started into the underground metal scene. The first time I saw Slayer live was in 1985 on the “Hell Awaits” tour at Lamour’s in Brooklyn, NY. They completely blew me away with the speed and intensity of their music. In 1986 I saw them on their ‘Reign in Blood” tour in Trenton, NJ at City Gardens and I dove off the stage during ‘Chemical Warfare” and almost broke my back as I couldn’t walk for over 3 days!!! Slayer has always been one of my favorite bands and hands down in my opinion they are easily the best underground metal live band that I have ever seen and I have been going to shows since 1984. I never met Jeff, but his bands music have been a big part of my life and will be for years to come. Hell when I need some pick me up music at the gym….it is “Hell Awaits” time. I never got to meet Jeff, but his music will live on with me for the rest of my life and Jeff RIP my man and thanks to you and your music for taking me along this incredible ride of underground metal music which will be planted in brain for as long as I live and your band and music were big part of in the beginning and are still a big part today….”FUCKIN SLAYER”…….
– Chris Forbes, Metal Core Fanzine
Thrash Metal lost one of it s best man! The Hell awaits – tour 1985 (where the pic with drunk me is from) was one of the most important tours in our career – thanx for the great memories Jeff! What a loss for the scene! Rest in Piece brother! – Schmier, Destruction
For a lot of us Metalheads back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, Slayer was like benchmark which we set by default and compared (mostly times unjustly) other bands for their intensity,song writing abilities and aggression.The first 5 albums by this legendary band were always placed right on top,any beer table conversation had to veer its way around and come back to Slayer,the reference point always hovered around them and for a lot of kids who were into Hard Rock or Heavy Metal, the threshold moment of crossing over into the heavier,darker and more extreme realms had to be with “Hell Awaits” or “Reign In Blood”. Those who passed the test were branded for life,”Slayer” permanently tattooed on their foreheads,the passing of Jeff Hanneman is the end of an era and unfortunately Slayer never will be the same again,Jeff will forever be immortal in the hearts of the fans, may the riffmeister rest in peace. – Vikram/Dying Embrace, India
Jeff Hanneman shouldered the revolution of heavy music with a unique and original approach on the instrument, influencing a horde of musicians to follow in his tracks at the same time. His riffs, lyrics and songs are some of the band’s best and the genre’s fiercest. His contributions are enormous and should be celebrated and hailed! – Eric Massicotte
What separated Jeff from the rest of the metal pack was his rhythm technique, his songwriting, and that for which he will be most remembered—his riffs. But his frenzied, turbulent solos were also an important part of the package. They weren’t about showing off. They served a greater artistic purpose—to sonically channel the qualities of Slayer’s lyrical content. They were sometimes abrasive, sometimes jarring, and at times disturbing. They had less in common with typical rock-guitar virtuosos than they did with the sonic collages of avant-garde improvisers such as Derek Bailey and John Zorn, the latter of whom is a self-professed Slayer fan who has cited the band as an inspiration. Though Jeff’s wider, more holistic guitar approach didn’t garner the same accolades as some of his more technically proficient contemporaries, Jeff never waivered from his original approach. And the fact that he continued to attack his guitar with relentless abandon—as though he were a linebacker on his beloved Oakland Raiders (whose logo adorned some of his signature ESP guitars)—is without a doubt a big part of why Slayer’s music will always be deemed one of metal’s high watermarks.
If you’ve ever seen Slayer live, you’ve felt exactly what propelled the band’s popularity past those of Venom and other classic-metal influences. In fact, prior to Hanneman and his bandmates’ groundbreaking albums—including 1986’s bar-setting Reign in Blood—many believed metal could never reach such levels of popularity and fan dedication. Before Slayer, metal had never had such razor-sharp articulation, tightness, and balance between sound and stops. This all-out sonic assault was about the shock, the screams, the drums, and—again, most importantly—the riffs. And it was Hanneman who brought so many of the band’s timeless riffs.
– Alex Skolnick, Testament
The only other band that completely changed my life. Without Venom or Slayer there would be no Kult ov Azazel or any of the music I have created since my teenage years as they were the first two bands I discovered and I was a rabid fan. As crazy as it will sound those two bands molded me into who I am today. I can remember walking around my Bartlett neighborhood with a ghetto blaster and blaring this album at top volume. Even listening to this brings back a flood of those memories. – Julian Hollowell, Kult of Azazel, Von
I need to shed some more life on one of the greatest guitar players that has walked this earth and that has truly inspired what i do today.Jeff Hanneman R.I.P. I walked off stage in Paris France on Thursday night to find out that one of my hero,s was no longer with us.He was the heart soul and attitude that was Slayer.Many people would often ask to describe my guitar playing and i would say Hanneman meets Denner.He was the real deal not this rock star poser type unlike Mr King.Slayer dies for good with Jeff and i have not stopped thinking these past few days while in Europe how much his music has meant to me.Last night Johnny from Unleashed made a honorable toast to Jeff Hannaman and i tell you it really chocked me up.Not many greats in the world today and he was one of the rare breed that created his own path in this life.Long live Jeff Hanneman his spirit lives on forever. – Alex Bouks, Incantation, Goreaphobia
Foundational speed/death metal band Slayer have released a statement including medical information about the death of guitarist Jeff Hanneman, who passed away from liver failure. From the statement, it is unclear whether there is a single cause of this failure, or whether as in many cases moderate alcohol consumption plus medications and stress eventually became fatal.
“We’ve just learned that the official cause of Jeff’s death was alcohol related cirrhosis. While he had his health struggles over the years, including the recent Necrotizing fasciitis infection that devastated his well-being, Jeff and those close to him were not aware of the true extent of his liver condition until the last days of his life. Contrary to some reports, Jeff was not on a transplant list at the time of his passing, or at any time prior to that. In fact, by all accounts, it appeared that he had been improving – he was excited and looking forward to working on a new record,” said the band on a posting to internet data dump Facebook.
Luckily, it seems as if this was a rather sudden affliction and did not involve long and boring suffering. However, as he had been improving and getting ready to work on more Slayer material, it doesn’t sound like alcohol was the only factor here. Rather, it seems like poor health and medical stress may have contributed to this condition, which then lay dormant until it could ambush. The band also released a lengthy statement of reminiscences as they struggle to say goodbye to their founding member, collaborator and friend:
KERRY: “I had so many great times with Jeff… in the early days when we were out on the road, he and I were the night owls, we would stay up all night on the bus, just hanging out, talking, watching movies… World War II movies, horror movies, we watched “Full Metal Jacket” so many times, we could practically recite all of the dialogue.”
TOM: “When we first formed Slayer, we used to rehearse all the time, religiously, 24/7. Jeff and I spent a lot of time hanging out together, he lived in my father’s garage which was also our rehearsal space. When he got his own apartment, he had an 8-track and I would go there to record songs I’d written, not Slayer songs, other stuff I’d written. At a certain point, you still have the band but you start your own lives outside of the band, so that 24/7 falls to the side, you don’t spend as much time together as you once did. I miss those early days.”
KERRY: “He was a gigantic World War II buff, his father served in that war, so when Slayer played Russia for the first time – I think it was 1998 – Jeff and I went to one of Moscow’s military museums. I’ll never forget him walking around that place, looking at all of the tanks, weapons and other exhibits. He was like a kid on Christmas morning. But that was Jeff’s thing, he knew so much about WW II history, he could have taught it in school.”
TOM: “We were in New York recording South of Heaven. Jeff and I were at the hotel and we had to get to the studio – I think it was called Chung King, a real rundown place. So we left the hotel and decided to walk, but then it started raining. We walked maybe five blocks, and it was raining so hard, we were totally soaked, so we decided to get a cab. Here we are, two dudes with long hair and leather jackets, absolutely soaked, thumbing to the studio. No one would stop. We had to walk the entire way.”
TOM: “Jeff was a lifeline of Slayer, he wrote so many of the songs that the band will always be known for. He had a good heart, he was a good guy.”
The band also announced that there will be a celebration of Hanneman’s life “later this month” and that along with family and friends, the public will be invited to attend.