Name-dropped as an inspiration by everyone from pop singers to hardcore punks and virtually every metal band that’s existed since the mid-1980s, possessed of an instantly identifiable sound, there are few groups to have had such an influence on music over the last 30 years than Slayer. Always playing a major role in the band’s notoriety was guitarist Jeff Hanneman, who died on May 2 from liver failure after a protracted battle against an aggressive form of bacterial infection. While perhaps a less prominent figure than frontman Tom Araya and his more outspoken guitar partner Kerry King, Hanneman was a chief architect of their fearsome style and a prominent songwriter, penning many of their best known songs.
Joining King and drummer Dave Lombardo in Slayer in 1981, with Araya completing the line-up the band quickly came to the attention of Brian Slagel from Metal Blade Records. While Iron Maiden and Judas Priest were the group’s metal inspirations, it was perhaps Hanneman’s love of hardcore that played a big role in the development of their musical approach as the fastest and heavist act on the west coast thrash scene. By 1986, their dark and fearsome thrash style reached critical mass on the Rick Rubin-produced Reign in Blood, still the most vicious and heaviest thrash album of all, led off by one of Hanneman’s most outstanding legacies, ‘Angel of Death’, and closed by another, ‘Raining Blood’. The album is a watershed moment in metal music history that will never be surpassed and a direct stepping off point between thrash and more extreme variations of metal.
As his lifelong fascination with warfare and military history informed many of his lyrics, his mastery of dissonance was a hallmark of Slayer’s sound, an element that gave the band’s music a true sense of menace; his chaotic lead guitar playing held an air of melody that both contrasted and embellished King’s. While many of his songs were completed alone, such as ‘Angel of Death’ and ‘Psychopathy Red’, a partnership with Araya produced some of band’s most recognised, including ‘War Ensemble’, ‘Seasons in the Abyss’ and ‘Dead Skin Mask’. The accusations of Nazi sympathies that often dogged Slayer were inflammed mainly by themes in a lot of Hanneman’s songs – ‘Behind the Crooked Cross’, for example – some of which carried over into their imagery, but the guitarist, whose father fought against the Nazis, always dispelled any such claims with the simple observation that such subjects were merely interesting things to write about.
Jeff Hanneman’s music career came to a sudden and horrific end in early 2011 when a spider bite on his arm led to necrotising fasciitis, a bacterial infection that rapidly rots away body tissue; with extensive surgeries including multiple skin grafts he was able to gain re-use of his arm and he made a final one-off appearance with Slayer for their encore at a Big Four show in Indio, CA in April 2011 but ongoing treatment and complications meant he was never to play with the band again. He died from liver failure in a hospital near his home on May 2, 2013 at the age of 49.
As a member of Slayer since its foundation and a major song writer on all the band’s albums, he inspired literally thousands of musician across the rock world. His contribution to the world of music cannot possibly be understated.