originally published on Metal Hammer Greece, June 2013.
On the 2nd of May  Jeff Hanneman of Slayer passed away. A unique band, whose primary engine were his evil notes and sad riffs. In the following article a holistic view is attempted to the musical - and not only - life of one of the three greatest riffmeisters in the history of thrash metal.
A little while ago I was watching a youtube called "Kerry King Guitar Lesson - Riffs of Doom", while on the credits it said, adding to the confusion, "4 riffs of doom from Kerry King”. Regardless of the word "lesson" being abused, what left me with a bitter impression was that [almost] every riff was written by Jeff Hanneman. No credit whatsoever was given, actually bordering on the complete opposite I would say. Makes sense though. In the public's mind there is no Jeff Hanneman - just. There is the other half of Kerry King, the guitar duo of the respectable name of fucking SLAYER. There were sporadic voices about Jeff's contributions specifically but never emphatically or absolutely, although I foresee this changing. It is about time to tell a few things absolutely, since the data is merciless. Because the list with Slayer's most important songs is indeed merciless. I present it here and I think one would have a very difficult time raising objections regarding its contents, even moreso regarding the conclusion drawn by it. Every song carries Jeff Hanneman's name and Kerry King only co-writes 4 of them. I focus on the band's golden era (conveniently defined as "the era when Kerry King had hair" - up to 1991's Decade of Aggression that is) because that's the period of the band's prime and the undeniable heart of their influence. Take a look:
- Black Magic (Hanneman/King)
- Die by the Sword
- Chemical Warfare (Hanneman/King)
- Hell Awaits (Hanneman/King)
- At Dawn they Sleep
- Angel of Death
- Altar of Sacrifice
- Raining Blood
- South of Heaven
- Mandatory Suicide (Hanneman/King)
- War Ensemble
- Blood Red (this just for Harry!)
- Dead Skin Mask
- Seasons in the Abyss
Observation #1: The trifecta that defines Slayer globally (Angel of Death, Raining Blood, South of Heaven) has been written by Jeff Hanneman.
Observation #2: Those in the know suggest that the songs carrying King's name also, essentially are Jeff's for writing the signature parts, whether it's the harrowing harmony of Mandatory Suicide or the opening riff to Black Magic, while the fatherhood of Hell Awaits was claimed by Jeff himself.
Obervation #3 and conclusion: Jeff Hanneman was Slayer.
Okay, so this last one is a half-truth and too much. The band will always be those four people and it cannot be said for Slayer that one guy is the mastermind behind them, as we say Mille Petrozza or Dave Mustaine. The throne of Thrash Metal belongs to Slayer, the band. It is carved in stone and the throne's back is an eagle with the 4-sword logo in the middle. The fifth sword is leaning on the armrest, dripping blood. However, if one person gets to sit on that throne, there is NO doubt whatsoever that it should be Jeff Hanneman. Look at every song in that list, one by one and think what they mean for Slayer and on the other hand what impact and gravitas they have on metal and contemporary music in general.
I was reading the other night about an underground drum n' bass story, where a couple of DJs put together “Angel of Theft”, a drum n' bass track based on two riffs, those of Angel of Death and Raining Blood (yeah, those two specifically that you think). The Canadian DJ had a metal past, he still had the hots for Slayer (makes sense), he played them for his Brazilian friend, he got hooked immediately and basically that's how they ended up with it. One night, in Vancouver's Commodore Ballroom they played it to the crowd, just for fun. It turned into a slaughterhouse, pits opening up and shoes flying. So, it got stuck to the playlist forever, with the DJs paying their endless respect to Slayer.
Similar respect was paid by Public Enemy, the legendary hip-hop band, who took Angel of Death's bridge and made it the backbone of “She Watch Channel Zero?!”. Officer Down by Stampin' Ground that immediately opens pits worships the same bridge. Mike Patton insists on camera that he does not trust anybody who doesn't like Slayer. Dark Intentions by The Haunted confesses its Hannemanism. That transition on “Deicide” , the entire album and really, the entire death metal universe owe so much to Jeff. Slipknot and System of a Down. Leif Edling on the glorious Embracing the Styx is inspired by Jeff Hanneman. Even Tori Amos, was playing (well, sorta) Jeff Hanneman on the piano. Let it finally be said: What the world calls the Slayer riff, the one that everybody stole, Swedes, Americans and Greeks, is essentially the Hanneman riff. The music that slapped the planet in the face was played by Slayer but was written by Jeff Hanneman.
Musical education and vision
It's been extensively documented that thrash metal is the fusion of punk and (NWOB) Heavy Metal. Of course Motorhead and Venom are the essential steps of the ladder but nowhere is the historical fact more clear than in the case of archetypical Slayer and Jeff Hanneman specifically. He is the one who took Lombardo with the improbable background (KISS, disco and Led Zeppelin!) and introduced him to the world of punk and merciless hitting, which he honed to perfection in his career. Hanneman's love for punk is amply recorded, starting from the logos on his guitar (with Dead Kennedys standing out) to Pap Smear, the punk band he had with Rocky George (huge guitarist of Suicidal Tendencies) and Dave Lombardo. That band was disbanded on Rick Rubin's advice for the good of Slayer and its legacy, along with the impact punk had on Slayer, is represented on Undisputed Attitude (sadly and historically unfairly, without Dave Lombardo on the drums). It is however worth noting Slayer's contribution for the influence to turn full circle. Many bands that started as hardcore started turning considerably more metal after coming in contact with Slayer and their sound, especially 1986 onwards. Ask D.R.I. [Or buy the excellent and exhaustive book on Crossover and count the Slayer namedrops!]
Jeff Hanneman, however, was not interested in playing punk. He liked the violence and the speed, the punk attitude in music but was not interested in following simple punk structures. "I wanted the speed and the energy of punk but not with plain chords, I also wanted good heavy riffs." Music full of "evil notes and sad riffs" as he put it himself so succintly. This did not happen right away and did not happen so consciously either. When the shaved punk joined the band, he only had a few months experience on the guitar, in contrast to the years of Kerry King. Jeff got stubborn, and decided to step up his practice. He soon realized he has no interest in becoming a virtuoso shredder and followed his own path. His leaps in ability impressed everyone and very soon, in a matter of months, along with the rest of his bandmates, they managed to surprise Bill Metoyer with their tightness during the Show No Mercy recordings. Since then, until Seasons in the Abyss, Slayer in the field of awe-inspiring thrash was only competeting against themselves, regardless of commercial success during those strange years. It is worth noting that Slayer at the time of "Seasons..." was selling the least amount of records in the Big 4 (yes, including Anthrax) and on the other hand sold more tickets to the arenas and emphatically stole the show from any band touring with them, both on stage and merchandise sales. Including Megadeth and Anthrax on the Clash of the Titans tour. And although, as we said, the songwriting superiority of Hanneman is obvious with a little research, his visibility was minimal and the world knew very little about his life, except for his rather annoying obsession with World War 2.
He certainly had no interest in talking to journalists about himself. "I don't get anything out of it, I don't learn something new, I don't hear a funny story, I talk about me and that's boring.". By far the hardest person out of the four to get for an interview, "the most recluse" according to Araya: "Jeff doesn't like all this shit", as he was quoted in the 1991 Metal Forces interview. His obvious boredom for any band promotion activities, as well as his slightly twisted sense of humor, exhuded an antisocial profile, especially exaggerated in the 80s because of the aforementioned obsession. Before Kerry King transformed into a redneck bulldog and took the gold home, Jeff wasn't necessarily the most likeable guitarist in the band. Instead of being remembered in the public's consciousness for Angel of Death's music, he was way more notorious for his lyrics and and the baggage that came with them.
The nazi shit
He was the one who brought all that nazi stuff in the artwork and the band's lyrical themes and he also had nazi symbols on his leather jacket (including a swastika). No matter how cool the Slaytanic Wehrmacht shirt was it evoked uncomfortable connotations. Factor in his blondness and his german descent... "fuck those fascists" was a line you would hear often by people who jumped into conclusions or at least do not forgive levity with this subject matter. Jeff and the band steadily denied the allegations, saying they were just narrating; "I know why people misinterpret it – it's because they get this knee-jerk reaction to it. When they read the lyrics, there's nothing I put in the lyrics that says necessarily he was a bad man, because to me – well, isn't that obvious? I shouldn't have to tell you that."
The truth of the matter is that Jeff's father was a World War II veteran, having fought in Normandy. Before throwing away some nazi medals he had come across during his time over there, he asked his son if he wanted them. The son indeed wanted them and started his collection. Often at the dinner table he would hear war stories by his dad or his two older brothers, who had fought in Vietnam, as well as watching war movies or building model planes and tanks. All this obviously influenced his lyrical themes. When he met Lemmy, they had plenty to share as collectors. At the end of the day, the nazi themes in their songs (Angel of Death, Behind the Crooked Cross, SS-3 etc…) were just another sick and dangerous subject to match the band's extreme music. Starting from satan, the antichrist and all the traditional shockers or Venom and Mercyful Fate, looking for new beauties to talk about, such as necrophiliacs, it only made sense to utilize all the horror-filled history books that Jeff was avidly reading. However, I would like to submit my suspicion that the main culprit for the "do they actually mean this stuff?" doubt is Tom Araya. When you sing those lyrics in that sinister and sardonic face (you can see him smile while at it), well, it's quite natural to be disturbed. We're not gonna cry about the misunderstanding though, "poor Slayer, they accused them of being fascists". Hanneman himself said "you know, I think this whole thing did us good. People thought we were truly more evil and dark than we really are."
Indeed, on stage the band exuded hate and unbridled energy. As did Jeff, with his relentless headbanging, always enjoying his riffs. Then, drained and relieved from the outburst, he would chill watching his favorite sports (hockey and american football), having a beer; a simple, pleasant (?) dude. That 20 year old, holding his beer, exclaiming "did you get that? Bravo!", laughing and applauding Lombardo who catches the bacon someone threw at him with his mouth during the Ultimate Revenge interview in 1985. The guy who laughs describing all the weird stuff handed to him by disturbed fans of the band. "they give you this upside-down cross with all that shit on it... you think I'll put that in my house? I don't think so, haha!" The guy who hated travelling and much preferred the warmth of his home. But also, the Jeff that cried in the arms of Robb Flynn in a moment of weakness and vulnerability, in 1995, when he was really scared about his ability to keep playing, after some trouble he had with his wrists. You should read Flynn's tribute to Jeff, it's really worth it. The same is true for Alex Skolnick's article for a serious analysis of Jeff's musical contributions. If, however, a passing problem with the wrists took him to that place, it is natural to surmise that the huge damage inflicted upon his hand by the virus and the consequent surgeries, must have οvercome him and pushed him deeper into his substance abuse.
Jeff's health problem was announced in February 2011. He had been infected with the Necrotizing fasciitis virus, after being bitten by a spider. On April 23rd, the world saw the extent of the damage with their own eyes, when he got on stage the Big 4 concert in California to play the final two songs with Slayer, with his arm bare.
That was to be the last live appearance of Jeff Hanneman. Tom Araya and Kerry King had been saying that Jeff wanted desperately to return to the stage, although both were reserved regarding his ability to play. In the end, he only showed up in the encore, playing his own Angel of Death and South of Heaven for the last time in his life in front of an audience and then returned to invisibility, away from the band. After a longer absence from the commons and with his replacement Gary Holt having "nothing is more permanent than the temporary" vibes [old Greek proverb], on May the 2nd 2013, Great Thursday in the Orthodox calendar, the news came completely unexpectedly. Death due to liver failure.
Everyone was shocked because they thought that even if he didn't play again on a professional level, at least he had avoided the dangers of the lethal virus. On the same day however, people close to the band mentioned Jeff's problems with alcohol abuse that had worsened the past years. The liver damage was probably cirrhosis and that wasn't due to the virus, which was confirmed a few days later. Of course the damage on his hand by the virus extended beyond his hand, psychologically. But now we can only assume how a man, not the most extrovert, felt in the last days of his life. I do note however the negative impression made by the detached and distant handling of the subject by Kerry King, whose file is already dirty with the Lombardo case. None of that matters anymore anyway.
Jeff Hanneman, at just 49 years old, has passed away. And along with him, the secret, awesome, sick ingredient of Slayer.
R.I.P. Jeff Hanneman. R.I.P. Slayer.
We won't dwell much on Show No Mercy, even if Jeff's name can be found on every song except for the self-titled and Evil Has No Boundaries. Most songs were co-written with Kerry King. Here, a green Hanneman, with just 2 years of experience playing the guitar, works closely with Kerry King and learns from him. Of course, the talent cannot be contained, either in the aggressive darkness of Black Magic's opening riff (clearly Jeff's), or the perfection of Die by the Sword (listen to the ultimate version on Live Undead) and the classics Fight Till Death and Tormentor that are exclusively his compositions.
Things start to become more clear on Hell Awaits. Apart from the self-titled track, where the story goes it's essence belongs to Jeff, there is also At Dawn They Sleep with the Hanneman riff dominating and sits sqaurely among the top three of this titanic album. Which also features the name of Hanneman on every single track, except for Praise of Death. Completely his, along with At Dawn They Sleep are also Necrophiliac and Hardening of the Arteries. It is fair to say however, that in the unholy Metal Blade discography (including the amazing Live Undead album), at least from an outside perspective, you cannot say there is a Hanneman dominance. But all this will change, like history, on Reign in Blood.
Angel of Death and Raining Blood: The crown jewels of thrash metal and the sealing of the band's kingship. Absolutely perfect, absolutely unsurpassed, absolutely timeless, absolutely influential. One of those moments when music is no longer the same but still remaining so shockingly awesome that even a souless person gets it. Both penned by Jeff Hanneman. These two songs alone would be enough to induct their author in the pantheon of Greats. The most shocking finding though is that they are just the tip of the iceberg of his overall legacy.
Altar of Sacrifice: Enter to the realm of Hanneman. Archetypical thrash metal, the kind that was immitated by countless thrash metal bands and is still immitated today. Classic Hanneman riff. Aggression and speed to the limits, truly relentless, with the switching of riffs and grooves stealing the show. Deicide's debut owes a lot to this song.
Postmortem: To those souless wimps who cliam that Reign in Blood is a two-song album, the first response should be that there never was a more worthy song to prologue Raining Blood. It is impossible for the lucky ear that will listen to the album for the first time, with no knowledge of the hits, not to be crashed by the super-heavy groove of the verse and the speed insanity of the bridge. And just imagine what awaits them when those thunders are heard. Do you wanna die?
South of Heaven: The Reign in Blood songs ended the speed race that was burning in thrash metal. Even if you managed to play faster (no easy feat at all) how can you look directly in the eyes at what follows those nightmarish "ta-ta-ta"'s by Dave Lombardo? Jeff Hanneman provides the answer with this riff-definition of evil. With an annoying consistency Slayer scares you shitless the moment the needle touches the vinyl. A riff so damn A riff so intimidating that made even Dave Mustaine, at the height of his egoism, stop flirting with some girls and turn his attention towards the Clash of the Titans stage, where Slayer, once again, sent the rest of the Titans to fight for the silver medal.
Mandatory Suicide: the second best song on the album if you ask me and I think I am in the majority. While Kerry King co-signs the composition, the song is once again, dominated by the Hanneman riff, the one that made everyone mumble "only Slayer...". Sickeningly brilliant. The album (South of Heaven) was rather divisive at the time, with some underwhelming moments (and an unecessary Priest cover - Forbidden schooled them a few years later) but it still remains the favorite Slayer album for a lot of people. Entirely composed by Hanneman, except for 3 songs, which were co-written by King.
War Ensemble: Another song that cannot be missing from the list of the most important songs by the band. Introduced a legion of people to their universe, with the intimidating fills by Lombardo in the intro, Araya screaming "WAAAR!" in the middle but mostly because it's a thrash metal gem worthy of Hanneman's class.
Blood Red: Not necessarily one of their biggest songs, despite being a non-negotiable masterpiece. I include it here because it is so characteristically Hanneman-ian as well as perfect and because this is the song that made Harry Karao see true darkness. [Harry is one of the most respected journalists that passed through Metal Hammer Greece].
Dead Skin Mask: South of Heaven's hell confined in the dungeon of Silence of the Lambs. Somehow Jeff Hanneman repeats his triumph with another masterpiece. Slow, dark and mentally ill, it is impossible to even consider that the Hanneman riff is a trope. On the contrary, the atmosphere embodied in that magnificent cover, oozes from the music. Only Slayer...
Seasons in the Abyss: Someone called this the radio-friendly version of Slayer. Jeff Hanneman though hated happy, optimistic music, lethally boring to his ears. Here be those sad riffs that for two Sabbathian minutes hypnotize the listener until the great verse leads to the addictive melody of the chorus. A perfect song that showcased the fact that if Slayer wanted they could have done incredible things in the new 90s landscape. They opted for raw and dry violence instead.
After Lombardo left and the band's course in the 90s, I personally lost my faith in the band, especially after the misplaced Diabolus in Musica, which I consider to be the nadir of Jeff Hanneman's (and Slayer's) career, as it is the album that he has composed exclusively by himself, except for one song. Since then, a fanatic Slayerhead may contend that Hanneman never lost his gift, citing Disciple, with the emblematic "God Hates Us All!" chorus or Psychopathy Red. Didn't we mention he's written almost everything?
Appendix:Title inspired by Robb Flynn's article: "[Jeff said] he liked more evil notes or sad riffs."
February 10, 2011 (published two days before the spider bite)
Ιn a recent interview with Australia's Loud magazine, King was asked why he thinks SLAYER has outlasted so many other artists. "Well, the front three people never changed, and I think that's important," he replied. "You've gotta have a nucleus of people where you never wonder who is going to be onstage. As far as a band thing, I think that's important. I don't mean that as a shot on MEGADETH, but at the end of the day, MEGADETH is Dave Mustaine and that's it. It's whoever Dave decides to play with on this record."
He continued, "Could you imagine watching SLAYER without me, Jeff or Tom? It just couldn't happen! That's something to be said there, 'cause we're all irreplaceable.
"The last few years I've noticed people in bands are almost interchangeable. I've seen some of my friends stay home because their wives were going to have a baby and they'd have somebody replace them when they play live, and I think… how can you fuckin' do that?"
Kerry King recognising good music when he hears it:
"I played "Raining Blood" for Kerry on my little 8-track, and Kerry was like, “So.” And I’m like, “Dude, c’mon this is cool. Fuckin’ Dave [Lombardo] loved it. Tom [Araya] loved it. Kerry was the only one that was like, “Huh, what?” Of course he loves it now."