Still Reigning: 10 Years Without Slayer’s Jeff Hanneman
Rock stars — especially those in the metal scene — have a tendency to feel like they’re immortal. As we grow up listening to their music, their sheer ability and bravado can sometimes make them seem like the world bends to their will while they stand on stage, pulling notes out from deep within themselves to create unforgettable pieces of music. So when an artist comes around, inspires you deeply, and then passes, it’s always such a shock to the system.
Ten years ago the metal world lost Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman and in many ways, that loss is still felt to this day.
Having written the music for some of the most influential thrash metal tracks of all time, including “Angel of Death,” “Raining Blood,” and “Seasons in the Abyss,” it’s hard to measure Hanneman’s importance to the genre. His vicious attack on the guitar and biting lyricism shaped the Slayer that excited rebellious youth and terrified parents and religious leaders everywhere. Where Kerry King was chaotic fury at stage left, Hanneman was focused rage at stage right.
I’ll never forget my personal introduction to Slayer and Hanneman’s playing: I was a young teenager just finding his way with metal when my buddy pulled out an old Walkman, handed me some headphones and said something to the effect of “this music is fucking evil, you need to check this shit out.” Still a somewhat religious boy at the time, I was absolutely shocked and terrified by what I’d heard. I was certain I was going to hell for listening to Hell Awaits. But as I munched on some mozz sticks and kept listening, I grew more comfortable with the prospect of eternal damnation if the music was as completely badass and unforgiving as what I’d just been exposed to.
I imagine that’s how most of us got into Slayer — some friend or older relative sat us down and said “listen, kid. This music’s going to change something in you.” Sure, you may have heard Metallica or Megadeth before, but Slayer just hit different. And that was mostly thanks to Hanneman’s approach at writing a riff and attacking the listener. Even during the band’s somewhat forgettable period in the mid to late 90s, Hanneman still managed to maintain that acerbic bite that Slayer always boasted in its music.
The other moment that stands out in my mind whenever I think of Jeff Hanneman is the day he died 10 years ago. At that point, the metal community knew he was going through some shit with an injury sustained from a spider bite. He’d already missed a couple years’ worth of shows and things weren’t looking good. Exodus‘ Gary Holt, an absolute fucking master in his own right, stood in for Hanneman and the show went on.
Still, on that day I was in New York City waiting in line to get into Terminal 5 for a Clutch show. Not exactly the most thrash metal-adjacent act, but a good time nonetheless. As I shuffled in to the bar area, I remember pulling out my phone and seeing the notification: Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman Dead at 49.
Instant feelings of shock and sadness hit at once. I shared the news with anyone who looked like they’d care because it was an important moment in our scene. One of the greats was gone for good and that was that. Within moments, the PA system at the venue switched from jaunty southern rock to the thick, rumbling cacophony that came from Hanneman’s right hand. Furious screams of “SLLLLAAAYYYYEERRRRR” echoed throughout the venue as people bellowed out their own personal tribute to the fallen axeman. From that moment on, in between sets and eventually as we all shuffled out of the venue, concergoers were hit with a barrage of sound.
In the days, months, and years since his passing, metal has moved on from Jeff Hanneman. It had to. Hell, even Slayer moved on and played for another six or so years before hanging it up. And as new artists come and push the envelope into whatever new territory metal finds itself in the future, we’ll always be able to look back at the work Jeff Hanneman put in and remember the riffs.