Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman — mourning a musician fixated on death

The digital wake for founding Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman — who died on Thursday at the age of 49 — has proven how strange it is to mourn a musician whose life’s work fixated on death.


Guitarist Jeff Hanneman of Slayer died of liver failure. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Fans took to social media to declare “#HellAwaits”  — referring to the band’s 1985 album “Hell Awaits” — in 140-character eulogies that somehow managed to feel warmhearted. On the excellent metal blog Bazillion Points, Hanneman was fondly remembered as “grumpy, withdrawn, and antisocial,” a guy who once spent 30 delighted minutes “watching people trip over a sidewalk pothole on the streets of Manhattan.”

These aren’t the usual warm fuzzies that come pouring out when we lose a trailblazing artist, but the disorienting nature of the discussion feels true to Slayer’s gift for scrambling our senses. Hanneman’s band will most likely be remembered for its sensational lyrics about violence, mortality and the blood encrusted pits of h-e-double-hockey-sticks, but the  true legacy of Slayer’s frenetic music is its ability to approximate the confusion of danger — that blurry, breathtaking space between life and death.

And Hanneman’s playing had plenty to do with that. A Washington Post review of Slayer’s 1986 triumph “Reign In Blood” called the band’s guitar work “impossibly fast.” We’ve excavated that review from the archives — read it below.

November 23, 1986

By J.D. Considine

As raw as Megadeth might seem, the band is frankly commercial in comparison to Slayer. This California quartet, due in at the Warner Theatre Dec. 4, is perhaps the most notorious of the new metal bands. Some of that notoriety stems from its unrelenting musical ferocity, but as “Reign in Blood” (Def Jam GHS 24131) demonstrates, the real reason Slayer strikes fear into the hearts of parents and police is its lyrics.

Where other metal extremists favor the haunted-house school of verbal shock tactics, Slayer’s approach tends more toward the charnel house. From “Angel of Death,” an account of Nazi physician Josef Mengele, to the self-explanatory “Raining Blood,” the songs virtually drip gore. Reading through the lyric sheet, it’s not hard to guess where the Parents Music Resource Center gets the lyrics it likes to quote.

That said, though, it must be noted that there’s little if anything in the way of advocacy here. “Angel of Death,” in fact, is as disturbing an indictment of the horrors of Auschwitz as you’re likely to find in pop music.

More to the point, the sound of the band, though often bracing, is hardly celebratory. Instead, its impossibly fast guitar work and quadruple-time drumming present adolescent frustration translated into the heaviest of metal. Even when Slayer passes within spitting distance of convention, as on “Epidemic,” there’s an undercurrent of rage that goes well beyond the brutish intensity of the playing.

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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