Today would have been the 50th birthday of Jeff Hanneman, who died all too young and unexpectedly last May at the age of 49 of liver failure. The guitarist/songwriter was one of the guiding forces and searing bright lights of the band Slayer, whose no-nonsense and unapologetic approach to thrash music, which they not only were at the forefront of, but also revolutionized, became a sonic calling card to a generation of fans who were the second generation of the heavy metal boom.
Hanneman’s attack on guitar, on a relentless assembly line of high standard songs and albums by Slayer, such as “Chemical Warfare,” “War Ensemble,” and the band’s centerpiece, and possibly the genre’s centerpiece as well, “Angel of Death,” still stands as the kind of blueprint in which countless bands emulated in the sincerest form of flattery and continue to do so today, a true testament to the band and to Hanneman, who wrote that seminal song.
Born on January 31, 1964, in Oakland, CA, the guitarist had a keen sense of using his influences of past, which ranged from the Rocka Rolla era of Judas Priest and The Dead Kennedys to name two, and applied it to his own rapid playing. His tone and tempo were unlike that of any other band at the time or since — he had a dry, enveloping muscular sound in his riffs, which couldn’t be taken at a simple face value, garnering a light listen; this was serious stuff. Slayer isn’t for the meek, never was and never will be. They never dabbled with mainstream success and all the better for it, as they have built a fan and success base on mainly cult and word of mouth through the more than three decades of their existence now, since Hanneman and fellow comrade guitarist Kerry King formed the band back in 1981. Even with their success, the band still flies under a certain kind of radar: At this year’s Grammy Awards, held in LA just under a week ago, the late Hanneman was completely snubbed when he was left off the award show’s yearly “In Memoriam” list that honors those in the industry who have passed. Even though the band had won a few Grammy awards in the past, that still wasn’t enough for some reason to warrant Hanneman’s inclusion on the list.
[Slayer with Hanneman, (L to R): Tom Araya, Dave Lombardo, Jeff Hanneman, Kerry King]
While Slayer can never exist again in its original state, the records will always sound right out of the gate like getting hit with a huge water hose at a riot that’s spraying out daggers. That’s the jackhammer on a planet-sized rock kind of sound Slayer manifests. There’s no way its power can ever be turned down, or quelled, or snuffed by the passages of time. If anything, it’s louder than ever, the adoration and respect and overwhelming support for the legacy and memory of Jeff Hanneman ensures that his amplifiers still blare the loudest sounds in the room, still smash the windows, and bleed the eardrums. Death doesn’t change anything, it just strengthens it somehow.