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The story of Slayer's Angel Of Death: “That’s the riff that people get wrong, if they’re gonna get any of them wrong!”

Slayer
(Image credit: Chris Walter/WireImage)

We’re so used to seeing atrocities on TV and the internet nowadays that we like to think we're unshockable. It wasn’t always that way, though, and in 1986 a vinyl LP appeared that had the establishment filling its collective drawers in fear. The album in question, Reign In Blood, was the third release by the Los Angeles thrash metal band Slayer and it remains their definitive statement to this day.

There was nothing to do in the car except read, so when I saw a couple of books about Mengele I bought them and thought he would be an evil subject to write about.

Jeff Hanneman

Most of the negative reaction came in response to Reign’s opening track, Angel Of Death, in which late guitarist Jeff Hanneman wrote about the experiments conducted at the Auschwitz extermination camp by Dr Josef Mengele, a Nazi scientist who used the prisoners as his subjects. Sewing heads together, dyeing brown eyes a more ‘Aryan’ blue, torturing people with extreme cold – no atrocity was too much for him and Hanneman saw no reason why he shouldn’t tell the tale in full, terrible detail. 

“At the time I wrote that song, it was before we had tour buses, so we used to drive to gigs,” Hanneman reflected to Total Guitar 25 years later. “There was nothing to do in the car except read, so when I saw a couple of books about Mengele I bought them and thought he would be an evil subject to write about.”

The reaction from the record industry was swift, with CBS – distributor for Slayer’s label Def Jam, to whom the band had recently been signed by owner and producer Rick Rubin – refusing to handle the album.

Geffen distributed Reign the following year, but by then rumours had begun to spread that Hanneman, and Slayer collectively, held right-wing views. Hanneman was justifiably outraged: “When people started calling me a Nazi, I said, ‘Oh fuck off! There’s a guy from Chile [singer/bassist Tom Araya] and another from Cuba [drummer Dave Lombardo] in this band – how can I be a Nazi?’ But the only real problem was that [CBS] dumped us and we couldn’t get the record out for ages.”

We were used to just going in and getting it done. I wish it was still that quick today – it would be much easier!”

Kerry King

Years passed before the furore died down, with the debate fuelled by Hanneman’s interest in collecting Nazi memorabilia, the crowds of moronic racist skinheads who showed up at their gigs and the band’s commitment to writing about warfare, homicide and satanism. 

Another reason for the controversy was that Angel Of Death was amazing. While the riffs were fast and atonal, they were also hooky, meaning that once you’d heard the song, you couldn’t forget it. If it had been boring, no-one would have paid it much attention. Listen to the solo section towards the end for evidence: it’s a truly demented duel between Hanneman and fellow shredder Kerry King. The solos wail and rage over a backing riff that moves from Eb to F to G, not once but twice before cutting into a double bass drum solo. 

“I don’t think we did too many takes of the solo duel,” laughed King. “We were still used to the Metal Blade [Slayer’s previous indie label] recording style, where we’d
work all night, because nobody was in the studio and we could get it cheap. We were used to just going in and getting it done. I wish it was still that quick today – it would be much easier!”

The equipment that Hanneman and King used was the classic 1980s metal arsenal, with both men turning to Marshall JCM800s for amplification. The former was playing a black Jackson Soloist with retrofitted EMG pickups, while King had recently begun an endorsement with BC Rich. His Warlock and Hanneman’s Soloist were both run through MXR distortion and Dunlop Cry Baby pedals, with onboard effects, such as reverb, added by Rubin at the desk. 

It’s not a scale as such, it’s just what Jeff threw together then liked the way it sounded

Kerry King

The song was recorded in Eb, the same as all of Reign’s 10 tracks, with the guitarists performing mesmerisingly fast tremolo picking on all the riffs apart from the iconic groove that anchors the midsection.

That particular riff has been hailed as an all-time classic and it’s based on razor-edged downstrokes. Hear it once and you’ll be humming it all day – it’s Slayer’s version of the pop tune your dad whistles in the shower. “That’s the riff that people get wrong, if they’re gonna get any of them wrong!” chuckled King. “It’s not tricky, it’s just odd notes. It’s not a scale as such, it’s just what Jeff threw together then liked the way it sounded.” 

There are actually two riffs to learn in this section King went on to explain: “When that riff comes in, it’s one guitar, then when the second guitar comes in we play the same riff. Then, during the second section, we’re playing something different.”

Sampled on Public Enemy’s She Watch Channel Zero?!, Angel’s riff is one of Slayer’s most iconic. As with the song and its parent album, these guitar parts are souvenirs from a more innocent time. Rightly or wrongly, it seems Angel Of Death would barely shock anyone but your local vicar these days.

If Angel feels hard to play, don’t be put off. King had some words of encouragement. “All the riffs are fairly doable,” he confirms, “especially the one that begins the song. We just go for it. It’s at ‘go-for-it’ speed, ha ha!” 

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