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Jeff Hanneman obituary: Guitarist and songwriter with Slayer, one of the biggest thrash metal bands

‘Angel of Death’ referenced Josef Mengele, though the band denied that they were glorifying Nazism

The guitarist and songwriter Jeff Hanneman was a founder member and mainstay of Slayer, the most uncompromising of the “Big Four” thrash metal bands who emerged out of the US in the early 1980s and went on to triumph at the Monsters of Rock and Download festivals in the UK. While their contemporaries, Metallica, became the superstars of the genre, Slayer received even less radio play than the other two heavyweights, Megadeth and Anthrax, but remain the group the hardcore fans and the readers of Kerrang!, Metal Hammer and Rock Sound rate the highest.

Slayer were famously described by fellow guitarist and co-founder Kerry King as the band who “sound like the world is going to end”; their relentless, jaw-dropping assault on the senses was matched by the dark, bleak, lyrical subject matter of albums like Reign In Blood, South Of Heaven, Seasons In The Abyss and Divine Intervention, and their best-known songs, “Raining Blood” and “Angel Of Death”, both penned by Hanneman.

His obsession with the Second World War inevitably attracted controversy, in particular the “Angel Of Death” references to the dreadful human experiments carried out by the German SS officer Josef Mengele at Auschwitz, combined with the SS-like runic shape of the “S” in the Slayer logo, though the band always denied that they were glorifying Nazism.

The tattooed, muscular King, who handled most of their interviews, put up a stubborn defence when I mentioned those accusations to him in the noughties. Hanneman rarely did interviews but explained “Angel Of Death” to the listeners of Los Angeles heavy metal station KNAC in 2004. “I read a bunch of books about Mengele because he was pretty sick,” he said. “That was how ‘Angel Of Death’ came about. I know why people misinterpret it, just because we don’t say Nazism is very bad. They get this knee-jerk reaction to it. When they read the lyrics, there’s nothing I put in the lyrics that says necessarily he was a bad man, because to me, well, isn’t that obvious? I shouldn’t have to tell you that.”

The youngest son of a war veteran who fought on the allied side, despite being born in Germany, he recalled that his two brothers were Vietnam veterans. “There was always war talk. One day my dad was just cleaning out his closet, and he dumped all these medals on me,” he said of the haul of purloined German medals that sparked off an interest in Third Reich memorabilia.

Hanneman met King at 17 at a band audition in Long Beach in 1981. They both liked the same British rock groups – Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden – and began covering their material. Adding drummer Dave Lombardo and bassist/vocalist Tom Araya, they made their live debut at Halloween in 1982. Hanneman also admired the energy of Californian punk rockers the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag and injected the same adrenalin-fuelled aggression into Slayer, whose take-no-prisoners approach turned more extreme. In 1983 they made their recording debut with “Aggressive Perfector”, included on the Metal Massacre III compilation, and signed to Metal Blade, the independent label launched by Brian Slagel, a Californian journalist known for championing Maiden and Metallica.

Slayer’s self-financed debut, Show No Mercy, contained the likes of “Evil Has No Boundaries”, “The Antichrist”, “Die By The Sword”, “Fight Till Death” and “Tormentor”, all written by Hanneman and all portents of what was to remain their stock in trade; over the next year it went on to sell a noticeable 20,000 copies in the US, and as many again internationally. Several tracks featured in River’s Edge, the disturbing 1986 independent film featuring Keanu Reeves and Dennis Hopper and directed by Tim Hunter.

In 1984, Slayer issued the Haunting The Chapel EP, travelled to Europe and survived King’s short-lived defection to Megadeth, sparking off an intense rivalry and raised their profile in the rock press. The better-realised Hell Awaits (1985) showcased Hanneman and King’s blistering guitar runs, or “shreds”, played at dizzying speeds, and the unexpected tempo changes that became another trademark.

Satanist preoccupations were par for the course and didn’t put off Rick Rubin, the founder of Def Jam, a label then synonymous with hip-hop. He persuaded Slayer to sign and produced Reign In Blood, their brilliant distillation of what made thrash such a potent force before grunge. The crisp-sounding album clocked in at a Ramones-like 29 minutes. “We were like, holy shit. Too short!” Hanneman said. “We sat there with Rubin and thought: does it sound great? Yes. Do we all like it? Yes. Fuck it!”

Indeed, Reign In Blood remains one of the definitive rock albums of the ’80s. “Raining Blood” has been covered by Tori Amos, popped up in South Park and is featured in the video game Guitar Hero III: Legends Of Rock, while “Angel Of Death” has been sampled by Public Enemy and features in various soundtracks as well as the British teen drama television series Skins.

The Slayer-Rubin association continued through 10 more albums, among them Decade Of Aggression, the 1991 live set partly recorded at Wembley Arena; Undisputed Attitude, the 1996 collection of punk-rock covers whose revival of Minor Threat’s “Guilty Of Being White” fuelled another controversy; 1998’s “experimental” Diabolus In Musica; their brace of religion-baiting albums, 2001’s God Hates Us All and 2006’s Christ Illusion; and their most recent studio offering, 2009’s World Painted Blood.

Hanneman’s standing among heavy metal guitarists was underlined by the fact that the Japanese guitar manufacturer ESP made a signature model named after him. The guitars he used were decorated with various stickers, including Albert Einstein’s face, the Dead Kennedys and the Oakland Raiders, the American Football team whose shirt he often wore. Another instrument was customised with a modified Heineken beer logo that spelt Hanneman. In typical metal fashion, he and King played in front of a wall of 24 Marshall amplifiers, though some of the cabinets were dummies.

At the beginning of 2010 Hanneman contracted necrotising fasciitis, the rare flesh-eating disease, most likely from a spider bite in a hot tub. Slayer soldiered on with other players, and expected their “bandmate and brother” to return to the fold. He was well enough to play two songs with them at a Big Four concert, also featuring Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax, in California in April 2011, but his health worsened. He died of liver failure at a hospital in southern California.

Jeffrey John Hanneman, guitarist and songwriter: born Oakland, California 31 January 1964; married 1997 Kathryn; died Inland Empire, California 2 May 2013.