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Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman dead at 49

Greg Kot

6:22 PM CDT, May 2, 2013

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Jeff Hanneman, a founding member in metal innovators Slayer, died Thursday at age 49.

“Slayer is devastated to inform that their bandmate and brother, Jeff Hanneman, passed away at about 11 a.m. this morning near his Southern California home,” the band’s publicist said in a statement Thursday. “Hanneman was in an area hospital when he suffered liver failure.”

Hanneman had not been touring regularly with the band in recent years because of various health problems. He contracted a skin disease in early 2011 from a spider bite, and was replaced on tour by former Exodus guitarist Gary Holt.

The guitarist, born in Oakland in 1964, formed Slayer in the early 1980s with guitarist Kerry King, singer-bassist Tom Araya and drummer Dave Lombardo. The band’s sound was equally influenced by punk and heavy metal, and blended technical virtuosity with fierce, high-speed tempos. The quartet was in the vanguard of the so-called “thrash metal” movement, which also included Metallica and Megadeth.

The riff architecture created by Hanneman and King was key to the band’s music, with the two playing rhythm-lead lines at opposite ends of the stage with blinding aggression. Hanneman also contributed to the band’s lyrics, which brought the band unwanted attention from would-be censors and moralizing arbiters of taste in the 1980s. Many of Slayer's songs addressed serious subjects – serial killers, nuclear war, the uprising in Tiananmen Square, Nazi death camps, psychopaths, the Apocalypse. Hanneman's “War Ensemble," for example, compared armed conflict to a demented symphony.

Some of these songs blurred the line between condemning evil and identifying with it. The band’s 1986 release "Reign in Blood" – now widely considered one of metal’s masterpieces --  was so laden with explicit imagery that the CBS label refused to release it, and the band was forced to find a new distributor.

Though the notoriety ensured that Slayer would be virtually banned from commercial radio, video channels and some chain record stores, the quartet developed an arena-level following around the world. Increasingly, the band’s 11 albums released between 1983 and 2009 were heard not as thrill-seeking provocation, but as a form of protest music, played with mighty resolve. Unlike some of its peers, Slayer never veered far from its initial sound, which limited its commercial prospects but endeared it to its fans.

As Hanneman’s longtime guitar partner, King, once told the Tribune, "When I put out an album, I want people to say `That's Slayer, they're ticked off at the world, and they sound angry as hell.'"

Hanneman is survived by his wife, Kathy, his sister Kathy and his brothers Michael and Larry.

greg@gregkot.com