Originally published on Forbes.com.
The rock band Slayer’s act combines the gory visuals of horror movies, the content of true crime documentaries, the antics of shock art, and the precision of military missiles into fast and angry songs that have been loved by a loyal following for more than 30 years. The band’s best-known album, Reign in Blood, is widely considered to be a thrash metal masterpiece. That was back in 1986, but the band’s trajectory since then has hardly been one of decline. They won two Grammy Awards, in 2007 and 2008, and their 2006 album, Christ’s Illusion, debuted at number 5 on the Billboard chart, their highest chart position ever. All this without getting played on the radio. What’s more, they have mostly kept the same team since their formation in 1981.
Last week the band suffered a blow with the untimely death of their guitarist and key songwriter Jeff Hanneman. To a casual observer, Hanneman was a top-notch guitarist and the writer of controversial songs such as “Angel of Death,” a detached but vivid description of the deeds of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. But those who knew him personally describe him as a laid-back Californian with a playful side. His label mate Stephen Harris, former bassist for The Cult and guitarist in The Four Horsemen, had not spoken to him for two decades. In 2011, Harris, by then a medical student, asked him to sign one of his ESP signature model guitars for a patient. “I told him the guitar is for a kid who has a really hard time socially relating to people,” Harris told me, “But he can play every Slayer song note for note.” Hanneman was moved by the request and happily signed the guitar.
Like Hanneman, the other members of Slayer are more complex than their menacing public image would suggest. Chilean-born singer Tom Araya is a practicing Catholic who runs a family farm with his longtime wife and two children. Guitarist and songwriter Kerry King is a vocal anti-drug advocate. On-and-off drummer Dave Lombardo recorded an album of classical music in Mantova, Italy, Vivaldi: The Meeting, with soprano singers and chamber instruments. One reason Slayer has sustained its reign for so long is this separation between the private person and public persona. The band members do not let the intensity of their subject matter consume them.
What else accounts for Slayer’s longevity?
Defined niche. Lots of bands write about love, partying, and good times. Slayer’s niche was writing about negatives and extremes. Speaking to Ultimate Guitar Magazine, King said, “I think it’s real important for bands like us to exist because not everybody wants to hear the bubblegum pop garbage.” Slayer has a clearly defined product: a visual and sonic assault that provides a release for some, a pump of aggressive energy for others (Slayer is favored among professional athletes and soldiers in combat), and discomfort among the rest.
At the same time, Slayer is careful to set the limits of their content. “We scare people,” wrote Araya in a Slayer tour book, “The persona we project is dark and ominous. Maybe we scare them a bit too much at first. Some people started to make up stories about us. That’s alright. We thrive on controversy… Kids go to see Freddy Krueger slice up a couple of kids in Nightmare On Elm Street. They come to see us for some of the same reasons. We tell little horror stories and instead of watching it in a movie, they feel and hear it.”
Consistent product. Slayer has been the most consistent of thrash metal’s Big Four bands (which includes Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax). Their albums are slight variations on a few major components: speed, atonality, angry vocal delivery, and dark lyrical content. Slayer’s consistency has been partly in response to fan backlash whenever they’ve tried to change their sound, like when they slowed down their tempo in South of Heaven or softened their sound for Diabolus In Musica. By responding to their fans and sticking to their core strengths, Slayer were able to weather the 1990s, a low point in the history of heavy metal.
As King told Ultimate Guitar, “A Slayer record or a Slayer show to me is almost like a guarantee: you know that if you like Slayer, then you’re going to dig it all. And we’ve always come through and done it.”
Understanding teamwork. In their three decades together Slayer evolved into a high-performance working team. King and Hanneman have a unique approach to guitar playing, where they alternate playing lead and rhythm. In 2004, Guitar World ranked the team as number 10 on its list of the 100 Greatest Heavy Metal Guitarists of All Time. King reflected on their working method, “There is nothing like ‘I need more leads than you’ or ‘I have to have the same amount of leads as you’. It’s just if somebody is working on the leads that they know they’re going to do and they’ve run out of leads to do then we’ll work it out.” Their collaborative spirit shows up in King’s use of “we” rather than “I.”
The band has provided its members an opportunity for growth. Araya did not write songs when he joined Slayer, but the band nurtured him as a songwriter and lyricist. The band functions as a democracy and prides itself on its open communication. As Hanneman pointed out, the democratic method works because even if he was outvoted, at least he knew that his opinion was heard.
Ultimately, the secret of Slayer’s teamwork is that throughout its various adventures and misadventures, the members saw themselves as a single entity and were fiercely loyal to each other. As Tom Araya said “The four of us – we try to make sure we’re all together. ‘Cause if one person stumbles, it takes a while to catch up.”
A memorial service for Hanneman will be held later this month.