Slayer – Jeff Hanneman’s Demise Sounds the Band’s Death Knell

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The decade from the turn of the millennium, 2000 – 2010 was a pretty good one for Slayer. They abandoned any nu-metal pretentions they may have tried out in the later 90s and returned to what they did best – Slayer as an unapologetic thrash band, doing what they did best.

The albums from this period were up to scratch, and even had old-school 80s Slayer fans nodding in approval. Then, founding guitarist Jeff Hanneman got sick in a freak occurrence, suffered with his mental health, and passed away, all within a period of only 2 years. It would prove the beginning of the end for the band. Get the full story with The Hawk right here.

It’s no secret that the 90s were not a happy time for thrash bands, even the very best of them. The reasons have been well rehearsed. Grunge came along with its own attitude, and pushed aside many established metal bands. And thrash? The genre had never been ‘fashionable’ as such, always a niche aimed at more hardcore metal fans. But even they started to lose interest, and thrash looked limp, like a balloon left lying on the floor a couple of days after the end of the party. Just about inflated, but wrinkled and sagging all over.

Metallica weren’t even pretending to fly the flag any more, having moved into the commercial mainstream. Megadeth and Anthrax kept plugging away, but without ever really hitting the heights musically anymore.

Even Slayer were struggling to stay relevant. They released ‘Divine Intervention’, which was great, maybe even their strongest and most consistent album since the legendary ‘Reign in Blood.’

But then that was followed up by 2 stinkers. The punk covers offering ‘Undisputed Attitude’ (1996) emphasizes the early punk influences of the band, especially Jeff Hanneman.  It starts out well, with the band giving some of their favourite punk songs the full Slayer treatment. But interest quickly wanes – it doesn’t really fell much like an authentic Slayer record, just something they might have thrown out to pass time.

But it’s still better than the diabolical ‘Diabolus in Musica’ (1998). This was the era of nu-metal, with Slipknot, Limp Bizkit, Korn, Soulfly et al giving it the full angst-ridden treatment. But nobody wanted to hear that from Slayer. (Spoiler alert – The Hawk was in this camp, and is unlikely to be writing about those other bands any time soon. You know what you’re here for!)

Take ‘Stain of Mind’. Radio friendly main riff? Check. Downtuned guitars? Check. Hip-hop-style scratching? Check. Mid-tempo sluggishness? Check. Sounds anything like you hope or expect from a Slayer number? No f***ing way.

It’s hard to over-state how high the hopes were at the time for this album among thrash fans who longed for a return to what they had first fallen in love with. This plainly wasn’t it. People used words and phrases like ‘groovy’ and ‘euro-metal’ to describe it. Slayer shrugged off the criticism as they always do, but it probably wasn’t really what they wanted to hear. 

And so it’s no exaggeration to say that by the turn of the millenium, plenty of people were asking whether the whole genre wasn’t already a footnote in history, never to return. Thrash kings like Slayer and Megadeth were pandering to fashion trends instead of ploughing their own furrow, and the music suffered for it.

Was there any future? Slayer seemed pre-occupied with putting together a 20th anniversary box set – a sure sign of nostalgia setting in. The live show was still great, and a tour with peak Pantera would have been an obvious highlight. But could they put anything relevant on record?

The answer would come in the form of ‘God Hates Us All’ (2001). That’d be 9/11/2001, to be precise.

You couldn’t make it up really. Here are Slayer planning their back-to-basics thrash comeback album, centred around the theme of raging about all the unfairness and shit that happens to people in this world. Nothing supernatural or Satanic in the subject matter, just generally putting the world to rights. Anytime they ran dry on inspiration, they’d just turn on the TV and watch a news show.

Most Slayer material is angry; this was to take it to a new, head-exploding level. They literally held a listening party the day before the planes hit the Twin Towers, with the record due to hit the shops the very day. God Hates Us All indeed.

Some people thought Kerry King was a modern day Nostradumus, using songs about diving fury and payback to predict what would happen that day, though he didn’t buy it. And while it would be a bit much to call the release timing fortunate, the themes of the sky falling in followed by feelings of intense anger and revenge certainly struck a chord at the time. ‘Payback’ became a favourite among troops in the subsequent Gulf War.

Musically, the album fulfilled the promise of a return to thrash for Slayer, with no gimmicks, and that made it a satisfying comeback. ‘Disciple’ even got a Grammy nomination, though was pipped to the award by Tool. But at least it meant that the immediate existential questions about thrash, and whether bands like Slayer had a future were put to one side.

Even more so when on a triumphant tour, drummer Paul Bostaph had to withdraw because of injury, opening the way for Slayer legend Dave Lombardo to return to complete the shows. The fans loved that.

And even, even more so when they followed up with the stronger yet ‘Christ Illusion’ (2006), now with Lombardo back in the chair on a permanent basis, his third stint with the band.

(Lombardo even played an impromptu cameo with Metallica at the Download festival after Lars Ulrich had to pull out because of illness during this period. Metallica with Dave Lombardo on drums? What might have been!!!

AND, they celebrated the 20th anniversary of ‘Reign in Blood’ by playing the whole album back to back on tour, complete with 150 liters of fake blood raining down onto the stage. All that liquid played havoc with the audio and recording equipment, but eventually they managed to engineer a usable track. Imagine having been there, though. Venue owners were not thrilled about cleaning up after these shows, but like the fans could care!

Happy times. By now, the questions about whether Slayer could ever match ‘Reign in Blood’ had mostly faded away, and people were prepared to take the new stuff on merit. And although ‘World Painted Blood’ (2009) didn’t quite hit the same heights as the previous 2 records, it was still strong and proved that they still had it in them, proving the doubters wrong again.

But that was as good as it got in the post nu-metal era. In 2011, Jeff Hanneman was spending time at a friend’s place in LA, and hanging out in the hot tub out in the yard when he felt a bite on his arm. Was it a spider? Some other insect? Nobody was really sure, but Hanneman certainly had cause to worry by the time he returned home  a week later and showed the wound to his wife.

The arm was bright red in colour, and had swollen to, like, triple the normal size. His wife persuaded him to go to the doctor the next day, where the flash eating disease Necrotizing Fasciitis was diagnosed.

This is a rare but serious flesh eating infection, sometimes spread by spider bites, and if not promptly treated, can result in areas of infected flesh being surgically removed, or even whole limbs amputated. Indeed, Hanneman’s doctors seriously considered removing his arm, before backing off and treating him with heavy duty antibiotics instead.

He partially recovered, but struggled to play the guitar – he could only jam for a bit at a time before becoming exhausted. After a while, he stopped turning up to rehearsals altogether. Prevented from doing the thing he loved most, Hannemann spiralled into depression and hit the booze hard.

Harder, you might say. Slayer had always been a band up for partying, and everyone liked a knock back a few. Nothing unusual there on the metal scene. But if Jeff Hanneman had always been a serious drinker, it got worse in 2008 after his father died.

Then worse again following the infection. Hanneman’s wife worried he has spinning out of control, but didn’t want to confront him in the circumstances. As for the band, they were never what you might call best buds. They got on well enough on tour, or during recording, but tended to go their separate ways the rest of the time. Gary Holt from Exodus had already been lined up to fill in for any shows that Hanneman couldn’t manage. Contact between them all was sporadic at best.

Hanneman couldn’t pull himself out of the downward spiral. His liver gave up the ghost because of alcoholism, and he died on May 2nd 2013, a couple of years after being bitten.

Nobody seemed to have had a clue how bad things really were, until they heard of his sudden death, and that was that really in terms of the future of the band. Dave Lombardo had been fired yet again right before Hanneman’s death, so Paul Bostaph came back, and Gary Holt stayed on as replacement guitarist. And yes, they managed one more album, the relatively forgettable ‘Repentless’ in 2015.

But it just didn’t feel right. Only 2 original members left, and they were pushing 50 years of age. Slayer had always said they knew they could not go on for ever, because of the physical nature of their shows. Tom Araya had had issues with his back and neck. old father time was literally tapping them on the shoulder.

A farewell tour began in 2018 and even that was disrupted when Holt had to pull out to be with his dying father. Another replacement had to be found. The tour managed to conclude, and then the band went their separate ways – not disbanded as such, just with no more plans to record or perform. Shortly afterwards, Kerry King’s wife Ayesha quickly put the kibosh on talk of a swift comeback on her social media.

Not a chance in hell.

Ayesha King on the prospects for a Slayer reunion.

And that’s how things stand today. At the time of writing, Slayer remain firmly on hiatus, possibly never to reform. There’s been the usual speculation of course, and plenty of talk abut individual projects in the meantime. But no more Slayer.

And as far as The Hawk is concerned, that’s for the best. From a standing start, but always building momentum, Slayer became thrash kings of the world in the 1980s. Then they beat the odds once by coming back successfully in the 2000s, with another great decade. The chances of doing that again are slim, and receding with every year that passes.

We’ve already commented on here in the past about how classic heavy metal bands are getting old, and in some cases, dare we say past it. As far as The Hawk is concerned, I don’t think I could bear to see ‘old man Slayer’ hobbling around on stage, no matter how high nostalgia levels get.

So with that in mind, let’s play out with a Jeff Hanneman penned track from ‘Christ Illusion’ – one of his best ‘comeback Slayer’ numbers. Thanks Jeff – it may be over now, but you gave us a hell of a ride.

What do you think? Is there any hope for a Slayer comeback at this stage of their (and our) lives? Or should they leave us with the memories? And what are your favourites from Slayer’s post-nu-metal era?

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