On June 6, 2006, a new holiday was born in commemoration of the 6/6/6 of the date. Inspired by the American political movement National Day of Prayer, this new holiday was dedicated to the most extreme of metal and was called the “National Day of Slayer.” Since others outside the USA wanted to participate, it soon became the Inter-National Day of Slayer, and has been celebrated enthusiastically every year since.
This year, sobering news hit: On May 2, 2013, founding guitarist and major songwriter Jeff Hanneman of Slayer died from arachnid-induced liver failure. While Slayer re-camps and tries to figure out this situation, the International Day of Slayer team decided to recognize the obvious: Slayer is an emblem of metal just like metal is a symbol for not letting your sense of reality get stolen away by social pressures. As a result, the team re-dedicated the International Day of Slayer as a generalized heavy metal holiday, focused on Slayer as a symbol.
In addition, the same group is launching a new project called the Hessian Association for Identity Legislation (H.A.I.L.) whose goal is to get heavy metal recognized as a legitimate cultural group much like most religions, ethnicities, lifestyle choices and national cultures. We are metalheads, and we are legion worldwide, and we are a culture separate from both the mainstream and the counter-stream. We are going our own way… the most intense way, the way of reality and the way of METAL!
“Hessian” is old-school California thrasher slang for headbangers, metalheads, metal fans, threshers, heshers, etc. It’s derived from the Hessian mercenaries who came over to fight for the British during the Revolutionary War and were both feared and known for their long hair and wild eyed combat tactics. Someone — probably a cynical history teacher — saw the similarity and the name has stuck ever since.
Check out the H.A.I.L. website at www.hailmetal.org and visit the International Day of Slayer while you’re at it. Keep the horns high and the celebration loud, and we could have our own Hessian nation spread out across the globe in no time at all.
Kids of the 1980s were flatfooted out of luck when it came to heavy metal. The newspapers of the time all condemned it as leading kids to Satan, drug abuse, and promiscuous sex. Politicians mentioned it as a sign of the moral decay of our society, and the general view was that metalheads were dirty, stupid, incompetent and probably sociopathic.
But then, much as the 1960s were 20 years behind that time, 20 years and change passed…. and suddenly the kids of the 1980s were the good workers, family people, responsible adults, etc. of the 2010s. Time warps forward and catches up with itself, and suddenly the past is not so misunderstood. It is in fact a platform on which we stand to look at the light of the future.
Some of this involved sad events. The early death of Jeff Hanneman spurred a lot of soul-searching on the part of metalheads. When the wise elders you’ve always counted on to be there for you, and to figure out the hard stuff, are suddenly gone, you realize you’re the elder now. There’s nothing between you and the cold horizon of the cutting edge. Many people recalculated lives in the blue light of early morning, hiding out in bathrooms and attics where they felt for a few moments the world would not discover them.
Mixing Black Sabbath’s sludge with the guttural roar of Motorhead and adding the jackhammer speed of thrash kings Slayer, death metal bubbled up the 1980s via the decidedly nonmainstream metal underground tape-trading scene. The style then splintered into so many subgenres—black metal, doom metal, stoner rock, grindcore, post-metal—only a metallectual could keep track of them.
Those of us who have labored for years at describing metal find this gratifying; the world is not only awakening to metal, but taking its origins seriously. This is generally seen as a sign of trying to figure out its significance and place within society, which is far different from the “pushing back” of the past. We’re getting the same treatment The Beatles did, just thirty years later and in a lower-key mode.
Along that vein, a new book called Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal has just been released, and this podcast interviews the writers and metal musicians to peer into metal history. These are nascent efforts, and “definitive” may be premature, but like previous metal books they are a good start toward where we’d like the study of metal to be.
But that was always the point. Slayer wanted to point out that society was based on lies, and our falsehood and pretense made us oblivious to the real and important things going on around us every day. This in fact has always been the message of metal, from Black Sabbath waking up the hippies to Motorhead shocking the world with excess. While this sounds like a mission of destruction, it is in fact a mission of belief in life, and enough love for life’s importance to care about telling the truth.
This fits in with our world’s acceptance of Hessianism. Putting our heads in the sand and chanting kumbaya has failed. Putting our heads down and earning money and hoping we can buy our way out of the decay has failed. Reality is still with us, and it’s bigger than society. In fact, if you know the cliche, “Think outside of the box” — society, or the social process itself, is the box and metal is what sets it aflame and casts us out into the cold and terrifying but thrilling night, full of potential and hidden wonders.
Perhaps the most stunning moment of the ceremony:
The only truly quiet moment came when a letten sent by Hanneman’s wife, Kathryn, was read to the crowd. It was both a love letter to her husband, and a lifelong thank-you card to the Slayer devoted, who made Hanneman’s life what it was. “May you continue to reign in heaven,” she wrote.
For all of its darkness, metal is a vision of light. It is clarity, freedom from lies, but even more, an ability to see the possibility of life before we cover it with our fears of being insufficient, inequal, victimized or just coming up short. Metal is bravery, the kind of bravery that comes of worship of life itself. I hope she’s right, and there is a metal heaven, because it won’t be the static place of the storybooks. It will be a land of constant adventure, of ever-greater quests and challenges, and it will be a place where stout hearts reign for eternity.
While Israel has developed a number of bands in its time, including the time-honored (and all-around good guys) Salem, much of us do not realize how much metal has found a place there. As recent news articles illustrate, the Holy Land is welcoming unholy metal with open arms. Not only that, but Israel is finding a unique voice for itself in heavy metal music.
The first event in this chain is that Dave Lombardo is teaching master classes in Israel, both covering drumming and “his Hispanic background, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Sephardic metal.” Read the rest of the article for a short interview with Lombardo where he discusses fleeing Communism in Cuba, his fascination with heavy metal and the origins of Slayer.
From the lighter fare department comes this story about IDF soldiers who, tired of being awakened by loudspeakers from nearby towns, retaliated with the best weapon in a metalhead’s arsenal… metal! Anyone who fights back against the noise and piety of society by using metal is probably on our wavelength. Specifically, blasting “For Whom the Bell Tolls” from Metallica’s Ride the Lightning should get any metalhead excited.
Finally, Israel’s Orphaned Land is set to release All Is One, and have started by streaming a video for the new song “Our Own Messiah.” The album, recorded in Israel, Turkey and Sweden, “strengthens the Orphaned Land message of unity through music,” and includes over 40 musicians who were used to flesh out the sound with additional choir, violin, viola and cello voices. For more information, visit the Orphaned Land website.
In addition, Orphaned Land are launching their 2013 tour with the following dates:
5.29 – Teatro Odisseia – Rio de Janeiro / Br
5.30 – Hangar 110 – Sao Paulo / Br
6.1 – Roca ‘n’ Roll festival – Varginha / Br
6.7 – C.C.Niza – Lima / Per
6.8 – Teatro Alianza Francesa – Medellin / Co
6.9 – TBA – Bogota / Co
8.9 – Brutal Assault Festival / Cze
8.10 – Artmania Festival – Sibu / Ro
8.16 – Summer Breeze Festival – / Ger
9.20 – Colmar – Le Grillen / Fr
9.21 – Lille – Le Splendid / Fr
9.22 – Tongeren – Sodom Klub / Be
9.24 – Aschaffenburg – Colossal / Ger
9.25 – B – Matrix / Ger
9.26 – Hamburg – Rock N Roll Warehouse / Ger
9.27 – Kobenhavn – Amager Bio Uniting The Powers Of Metal / Dk
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.
Damn good albums need damn good album covers. Kerry King of Slayer once mentioned how the band’s music makes it sound as though the world is about to end, and artist Larry Carroll’s visual representations are not far off the mark. Carroll started collaborating with Slayer in 1986 and has painted four of their album covers so far. Some of those albums are among the best in metal, and so, I would argue, are the covers.
Carroll says he usually makes a collage out of drawings and photographs. This was before Photoshop was born, hence Carroll used a good ol’ Xerox machine to multiply, resize or otherwise manipulate the individual pieces. The coffins in Seasons in the Abyss are a good example.
At the time of painting the Reign in Blood cover, Carroll was doing political illustrations for various newspapers, and had not done album covers before. Producer Rick Rubin contacted Carroll, who was left with more or less free reins, building upon “a rough idea of something about a goat’s head”. Once finished, however, it turned out that his unique style was not an obvious choice for Slayer. But once the mother of one of the band members commented that the painting looked “disgusting”, any doubts seem to have melted away (in a living inferno).
And sure enough: there is something nauseating about Carroll’s Slayer covers, as though they were depicting the sickest aspects of society of the 1980s. Not only could modern life come back to us in dreams as collages of twisted, disproportionate human shapes with pope hats and erect penises (cf. RiB), but the netherworldly use of colour in Carroll’s paintings was one of a kind. Black and red are the classic colours of blood/fire/death – Carroll’s black strokes are high-contrast burns reminiscent of coal or oil – but to this Carroll added revolting tints of green, brown and yellow, a fitting backdrop to the fires of mental hell.
But rather than depress us, Carroll’s paintings are majestic. Carroll shows that he, like Slayer, is fascinated by death, and, like some fallen Lucifer, makes a stroll south of heaven an enticing exploration of potential.
Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote that there were three kinds of authors: those who write without thinking, those who think as they write, and those who write only because they have thought something and wish to pass it along.
Similarly, it is not hard to produce a decent heavy metal album. You cannot do it without thinking, but if you think while you go, you can stitch those riffs together and make a plausible effort that will delight the squealing masses.
But to produce an excellent heavy metal album is a great challenge. It’s also difficult to discuss, since if you ask 100 hessians for their list of excellent metal albums, you may well get 101 different answers. Still, all of us acknowledge that some albums rise above the rest.
South of Heaven is to my mind such an album because it hits on all levels. Crushing riffs: check. Intense abstract structures: check. Overall feeling of darkness, power, evil, foreboding and all the things forbidden in daylight society: check. But also: a pure enigmatic sublime sense of purpose, of an order beneath the skin of things, resulting in a mind-blowing expansion of perspective? That, too.
Slayer knew they’d hit the ball out of the park with Reign in Blood. That album single-handedly defined what the next generations of metal would shoot for. It also defined for many of us the high-water mark for metal, aesthetically. Any album that wanted to be metal should shoot for the same intensity of “Angel of Death” or “Raining Blood.” It forever raised the bar in terms of technique and overall impact. Music could never back down from that peak.
However, the fertile minds in Slayer did not want to imitate themselves and repeat the past. Instead, they wanted to find out what came next. The answer was to add depth to the intensity: to add melody — the holy grail of metal has since been how to make something with the intensity of Reign in Blood but the melodic power of Don’t Break the Oath — and flesh out the sound, to use more variation in tempo, to add depth of subject matter and to make an album that was more mystical than mechanical.
Only two years later, South of Heaven did exactly that. Many fans thought they wanted Reign in Blood: The Sequel (Return to the Angel of Death) but found out that actually, they liked the change. Where Reign in Blood was an unrelenting assault by enraged demons, South of Heaven was the dark forces who infiltrated your neighborhood at night, and in the morning looked just like everyone else. It was an album that found horror lurking behind normalcy, twisted sadistic power games behind politics, and the sense of a society not off course just in politics, economics, etc. but having gone down a bad path. Having sold it soul to Satan, in other words.
The depth of despair and foreboding terror found in this album was probably more than most of us could handle at the time. 1988 was after all the peak of the Cold War, shortly before the other side collapsed, but Slayer wasn’t talking about the Cold War. For them, the problem was deeper; it was within, and it resulted from our acceptance of some kind of illusion as a force of good, when really it concealed the lurking face of evil. This gave the album a depth and terror that none have touched since. It is wholly unsettling.
Musically, advancements came aplenty. Slayer detached themselves from the rock formula entirely, using chromatic riffs to great effectiveness and relegating key changes to a mode of layering riffs. Although it was simpler and more repetitive, South of Heaven was also more hypnotic as it merged subliminal rhythms with melodies that sounded like fragments of the past. The result was more like atmospheric or ambient music, and it swallowed up the listener and brought them into an entirely different world.
South of Heaven was also the last “mythological” album from Slayer. Following the example of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” Slayer’s previous lyrics found metaphysical and occult reasons for humanity’s failures, but never let us off the hook. Bad decisions beget bad results in the Slayer worldview, and those who are happiest with it are the forces of evil who mislead us and enjoy our folly, as in “Satan laughing spreads his wings” or even “Satan laughs as you eternally rot.” The lyrics to “South of Heaven” could have come from the book of Revelations, with their portrayal of a culture and society given to lusts and wickedness, collapsing from within. (Three years later, Bathory made the Wagnerian counterpoint to this with “Twilight of the Gods.” Read the twolyrics together — it’s quite influential.)
Most of all, South of Heaven was a step forward as momentous as Reign in Blood for all future metal. We can create raw intensity, it said, but we need also to find heaviness in the implications of things. In the actions we take and their certain results. In the results of a lack of attention to even simple things, like where we throw our trash and how honest we are with each other. That is a message so profoundly subversive and all-encompassing that it is terrifying. Basically, you are never off the hook; you are always on watch, because your future depends on it.
Slayer awoke in many of us a sense beyond the immediate. We were accustomed to songs that told us about personal struggles, desires and goals. But what about looking at life through the lens of history? Or even the qualitative implications of our acts? Like Romantic poetry, Slayer was a looking glass into the ancient ruins of Greece and Rome, onto the battlefields of Verdun and Stalingrad, and even more, into our own souls. Reign in Blood broke popular music free from its sense of being “protest music” or “individualistic” and showed us a wider world. South of Heaven showed us we are the decisionmakers of this world, and without our constant attention, it will burn like hell itself.
I remember from back in the day how many of my friends were afraid of South of Heaven. The first two Slayer albums could be fun; Reign in Blood was just pure intensity; South of Heaven was awake at 3 a.m. and existentially confused, fearing death and insignificance, Nietzschean “fear and trembling” style music. It unnerved me then and it does still today, but I believe every note of it is an accurate reflection of reality, and of the charge to us to make right decisions instead of convenient ones. And now with Slayer gone, we have to compel ourselves to walk this path — alone.
And so, after a long time of thinking he was immortal, we have to say goodbye to Jeff Hanneman and hope that all the doubters are wrong and there’s some metal Valhalla where he’s drinking Heineken and exploring all those solos that he did not have the energy on earth to discover.
In the traditions from which I come, the way we handle death — which we handle badly, if at all — is to describe the meaning of the life. This enables us to get away from the person, who is either nothingness or eternity per the rules of logic, and instead look at what they fought for.
In other words, what drove them to engage with life and reach out every day, which are things most people don’t do. Most of us just “attend” to things, like jobs and families, and hope for the best. The giants among us are driven onward by some belief in something larger than themselves or than the social group at large. They are animated by ideas.
For Jeff Hanneman, the idea was both musical and a vision of what that music should represent. He peered into the dystopia of modern times with one eye in the anarchistic zone of the punks, and the other in the swords ‘n’ sorcery vision of a metalhead. When he put the two together, he came up with something that makes Blade Runner and Neuromancer seem gentle.
Having seen this, he came back.
“I have seen the darkened depths of Hell,” the chorus begins. For Hanneman, his sin was too much sight. He saw the failings of his present time, like a punk; he saw how this fit into the broader concept of history, like a metalhead. Putting the two together, he saw darkness on the horizon encroaching and assimilating all it touched.
To fight back, he created music for people such as himself, youth adrift among the ruins of a dying empire. He created music that made people not only want to accept the darkness, but to get in there and fight. Not fight back necessarily, but fight to survive. He helped us peel away social pretense and reveal our inner animals which have no pretense about predation and self-defense, unlike civilized people. Hanneman prepared us for the time after society, politeness and rule of law fail.
This was, in addition to the shredding tunes, his gift to the world: a vision of ourselves continuing when all that we previously relied on has ended. Like all visionaries, he was before his time, and like many, did not live to see his vision realized. However, for millions of us, he gave us hope.
It is also worth noting that Slayer renovated heavy metal in such a way to set its highest standard. In any age, Reign in Blood, South of Heaven and Hell Awaits will be a high point for a genre. They fought back against the tendency of metal to become more like the rock ‘n’ roll on the radio, and to lose its unique and entirely different soul. Hanneman and his team pushed forward the frontier for metal, and pushed back the assimilation by rock music.
In the wake of Hanneman’s death, we are without a king, so to speak. The elder statesman role passes to a new generation, and they must find in their souls the bravery and fury to create much as Jeff Hanneman did, a standard and a culture based in a vision that surpasses what everyone else is slopping through. We are poorer for the loss of Jeff Hanneman, but our best response is to redouble his efforts, and push ourselves forward toward a goal he would respect.