Slayer has announced that guitarist and co-founder Jeff Hanneman died today after suffering liver failure. Hanneman was 49 years old, and had been through many medical maladies of late—including a bout with necrotizing fasciitis stemming from a spider bite that forced him to bow out of a tour in 2011. The band posted the following statement on its website: “Slayer is devastated to inform that their bandmate and brother, Jeff Hanneman, passed away at about 11AM this morning near his Southern California home. Hanneman was in an area hospital when he suffered liver failure. He is survived by his wife Kathy, his sister Kathy and his brothers Michael and Larry, and will be sorely missed.”
Hanneman and Kerry King co-founded Slayer—recognized as one of metal’s “Big Four” along with Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax—in 1981. The group’s breakthrough was in 1986’s Reign In Blood, for which Hanneman wrote or co-wrote two standout tracks, “Angel Of Death” and “Raining Blood.” He also wrote the music for many other Slayer fan favorites, including “South Of Heaven,” “Mandatory Suicide,” and “Seasons In The Abyss.”
Growing up in Southern California, Hanneman listened to a lot of punk music, later saying that the genre’s speedy tendencies helped influence Slayer’s aggressive style. He met King in 1981, when King was auditioning for another band. The two quickly hit it off and recruited Tom Araya, starting out by playing Iron Maiden and Judas Priest covers at parties, and eventually becoming known for its punishing style and Satanic references, like pentagrams and inverted crosses. Eventually, the band was spotted by Metal Blade Records’ Brian Slagel, who asked the group to record a song, “Aggressive Perfector,” for a compilation. That song started gaining traction and the group soon signed to the label.
Slayer’s first album, Show No Mercy, debuted in 1983 and moved about 40,000 copies worldwide, earning the band a solid underground following. In 1984, following the release of the Haunting The Chapel EP, King left the group temporarily to join Dave Mustaine in Megadeth. King lasted only five shows before angering Mustaine; that bad blood led to a longstanding rift between the two acts.
In 1984, Hanneman formed the punk group Pap Smear on the side, playing with Dave Lombardo and Suicidal Tendencies’ Rocky George. While the group intended to record, they never released anything—likely because producer Rick Rubin advised against it, saying, “This is the kind of thing that breaks bands up.”
While 1985’s Hell Awaits helped Slayer gain even more fans, it was 1986’s Reign In Blood that truly broke through. It was the group’s first record for Def Jam—where it was the first and only thrash metal act on the label—and its first with Rubin. It saw Slayer abandoning its proclivity for longer, more intricate songs and muddy production, opting for shorter, brutally blasting thrash tracks. As far as the lyrics and cover art, however, it stuck to its Satanic imagery, resulting in the record not being released by Def Jam’s distributor, Columbia Records and receiving next to no radio airplay. Still, that only endeared Slayer more to fans, and eventually Slayer’s aura of being metal’s arguably most extreme band helped Reign go gold in the United States.
While the 1988 follow-up, South Of Heaven, wasn’t quite as well received, 1990’s Seasons In The Abyss, received plenty of critical adoration. The record debuted at No. 44 on the Billboard 200 and spawned the group’s first-ever music video for its title track, filmed in front of Egypt’s Giza pyramids.
In 1991, with thrash metal at its peak of popularity, Slayer co-headlined the European Clash Of The Titans tour with Megadeth, Suicidal Tendencies, and Testament. It was eventually extended to the U.S., where the group played again with Megadeth, but also with Anthrax and Alice In Chains.
In 1994, Slayer released its highest-charting record to date. Divine Intervention peaked on the Billboard charts at No. 8, thrilling audiences with songs about Jeffrey Dahmer, the Holocaust, and government corruption. In 1996, partly in response to the group’s rising popularity, Slayer was sued by the parents of Elyse Pahler, who claimed the group’s Satanic messages were responsible for the murder of their daughter by three fans of the band. The Pahlers claimed their daughter was drugged, strangled, stabbed, trampled, and raped, all as a sacrifice to the group, arguing that, were it not for the music and “intentional marketing strategy” of Slayer, their daughter would still be alive. The suit was dismissed in 2001, with the courts citing the group’s First Amendment rights as one of many reasons the case wouldn’t go any further.
In the late ‘90s, Slayer fell victim to the nu-metal trend, with 1998’s Diabolus In Musica widely panned for its murky production and, as The New York Times put it, “wearying sameness.”
Things didn’t get much better for the group’s next record, God Hates Us All, which had the unfortunate distinction of being released on Sept. 11, 2001. Though the album earned the group its first Grammy nomination, Slayer had trouble touring post-9/11, which made it difficult to secure flights to Europe.
Slayer’s last release was 2009’s World Painted Blood, though the group has reportedly been recording off and on for the past couple of years—a process further delayed after Hanneman’s previously mentioned battle with necrotizing fasciitis, which forced the group to stop writing until he’d recovered. Since contracting the disease, Hanneman’s participation in the group had been fairly minimal: It cost him parts of his arm, and had only played a few songs at a handful of shows since. For the new, still ostensibly in-progress album, King said he’d been writing and recording the guitar parts himself, but that he would happily let Hanneman return whenever he wanted.