Thrash Thursday (Special Friday Edition, Volume 2): Happy Birthday, Jeff Hanneman; May You Rest in Peace

May I should call it “Thrash Thfriday”.  That was stupid.  Anyway…

Today (January 31) would be Jeff Hanneman’s 50th birthday, if he hadn’t died last year from liver failure.  Hanneman was a founding guitarist (along with other guitarist Kerry King) of Slayer, who formed in Huntington Park, California (a suburb of Los Angeles) in 1981.  They played their first gig on Halloween that same year.  In their early days, their live performances consisted of a lot of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest covers; they were approached by Metal Blade Records founder Brian Slagel after he saw them playing Maiden’s “Phantom of the Opera” live, and he asked them to record an original song for his upcoming Metal Massacre III album.

“Agressive Perfector” kicked off the 1983 compilation, and Slagel signed the band to his label shortly thereafter.  They released their debut album, Show No Mercy, in 1983; Hanneman wrote or co-wrote the music to 8 out of 10 songs, including modern day fan favorite “Die By the Sword”.   Like many of their contemporaries, Slayer’s first album doesn’t sound a lot like what Slayer became.  The speed and agression are there, and the dark imagery is right up front, but overall, the sound owes more to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal than does their later work.

1984 saw the release of the Haunting the Chapel EP, which indicated something of a new direction for Slayer – the 3-song effort was darker, faster, and heavier than its predecessor.  In 1985, the band released what I consider to be the first of the Three Absolutely Essential Slayer Albums, Hell Awaits.  This album is a mean, bottom-heavy, evil motherfucker of a record, and includes Hanneman’s first really great songwriting credit, from a musical standpoint (“At Dawn They Sleep”).  Kerry King has indicated in interviews that he and Hanneman were very into Mercyful Fate at the time of this recording, which accounts for the longer, more progressively structured songs, as well as for the extra touch of Satan in the lyrics.

After the release of Hell Awaits, Slayer signed with Rick Rubin’s Def Jam Recordings and recorded what is widely considered their best work, as well as an all-time thrash metal masterpiece, 1986’s Reign in Blood.  Hanneman’s songwriting matured fully on this album, most notably on the amazing opener “Angel of Death”, inspired by the atrocities commited by Nazi physician Josef Mengele.  Hanneman’s lyrics to this song, which describe some of Mengele’s surgical atrocities at the Auschwitz, have been the cause of untold amounts of controversy, ultimately leading many people to accuse the band of Nazi sympathizing.  In truth Hanneman had always been fascinated with World War II, his father having served with the Allied Forces.  Regarding the controversy over the song, Hanneman stated in an interview that “[there was] nothing I put in the lyrics that says necessarily he (Josef Mengele) was a bad man, because to me – well, isn’t that obvious? I shouldn’t have to tell you that.”

After recording what was, at the time, certainly one of the fastest heavy metal albums ever recorded, Slayer threw the metal world a curveball and slowed way the fuck down on their next album, 1988’s South of Heaven, which is the third and final of the Three Absolutely Essential Slayer Albums.  Hanneman wrote the music to two of my favorite Slayer songs, both of which appear on this album – the opening title track, and the chilling closer “Spill the Blood” (to which Hanneman also wrote the lyrics).  Fun fact: Rolling Stone magazine gave South of Heaven one star out a possible five stars, with the reviewer calling it “a cacophony of genuinely offensive satanic drivel that will probably win over a couple of thrash fans who’ve already lost their hearing anyway”.  As if we needed more proof of Rolling Stone‘s utter fucking uselessness.

1990 saw the release of the band’s last great album, Seasons in the Abyss.  I call Seasons a “great” album, but honestly I consider it to be really good; I only think it’s great compared to what came after.  The three best songs were co-written by Hanneman and singer/bassist Tom Araya (the closing title track, the opening anthem “War Ensemble”, and the slow, dirge-y ode to the original psycho, Ed Gein, “Dead Skin Mask”).

After Seasons, original drummer Dave Lombardo left (replaced by Paul Bostaph, who has also played with Testament, as has Lombardo), and the band’s output in the 1990s, while better than most bands, was spotty.  I judge Slayer by a harsher standard, because they set such a fucking high standard to begin with, y’know?  That is not to say that the band wasn’t still capable of writing great songs.  The creepy, atmospheric “213”, with music by Hanneman and lyrics by Araya (213 was Jeffery Dahmer’s apartment number), is one of the album’s standout tracks.

My main problem with what Slayer began to do after South of Heaven is noticeable on “213”; Tom Araya began to simply shout in a monotone, forsaking his earlier combination of screaming, shouting, squealing, wailing, and, in a few cases (see “Spill the Blood” for a good example), actual singing.  In short, vocal dynamics pretty much went out the window.  This may be a natural by-product of Araya getting older; I don’t necessarily expect a metal singer to always sound the same, forever and ever and ever, but I do think that when a metal singer has a style as formidable and commanding as Araya’s on Reign in Blood and South of Heaven, they shouldn’t fuck with it quite as much as he did.

In 1996, the band released an album of early hardcore punk covers that I consider to be the best thing they’ve done without Dave Lombardo.  While Undisputed Attitude was comprised mostly of covers, it did feature a few original songs, namely “Gemini”, written by King and Araya, and two songs from a hardcore side project called Pap Smear that Hanneman put together with Lombardo and Suicidal Tendencies guitarist Rocky George in 1984 – “Can’t Stand You” and “DDAMM (Drunk Drivers Against Mad Mothers)”.  They also inadvertently introduced me to the hardcore version of D.R.I. (with the song “Violent Pacification”), as prior to this, I had only heard D.R.I.’s post-crossover stuff.

To be perfectly honest, I’m very, very tired, so I’m gonna wrap this up for now.  It kind of got away from me anyway.  I’ll finish another time.  The point?  Happy 50th birthday, Jeff Hanneman.  The fact that you are dead sucks, but your music will live forever, even if Slayer is something of a punchline these days.  At least you’re not a Metallica-caliber punchline.

Anyway, thanks for reading, and remember: no matter what life hands you, always stay heavy.  Jeff Hanneman would’ve wanted it that way.


One thought on “Thrash Thursday (Special Friday Edition, Volume 2): Happy Birthday, Jeff Hanneman; May You Rest in Peace

  1. Pingback: I’ve Changed By Staying the Same: A Thing About Thrash Metal Logos | Stay Heavy

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