The story behind the song: Slayer’s Angel Of Death


If killer reign in blood is the greatest thrash album ever made, then its opening track, Angel of Death, is the greatest thrash song ever written. A cold-eyed dissection of humanity’s capacity for unimaginable cruelty divided into four minutes and 51 seconds of wickedness, it was the LA band’s big statement of intent and the track that made them one of the most notorious bands of their time.

Slayer had signaled their impending greatness with their second album, 1985 Hell awaits. This record mixed regulation-bound Satanism with a love of horror movies about the likes of At dawn they sleep, Necrophile and the classic title track, though with three of its seven songs clocking in at over six minutes, it was positively progressive from what was to follow.

When Slayer started writing the sequel to Hell Awaits, they knew they had the ability to serve up something even better. “Everyone was doing something slow,” said vocalist and bassist Tom Araya metal hammer in 2012. “Kerry [King, guitarist] and Jeff [Hanneman, guitarist] said they didn’t want to do a slow record, they wanted to do something fast. They had no idea it was going to go so fast…”

The need for speed wasn’t the only thing that had changed in Slayer’s world. Since recording Hell awaits, the band had made the leap from their original label, underground bastion Metal Blade, to pioneering hip hop powerhouse Def Jam. As home to LL Cool J and brat-rappers the Beastie Boys, it seemed like an odd choice for a bunch of scowling long hair. But Def Jam boss Rick Rubin was an old-school metal fan who saw something in Slayer’s attitude that fit with his label’s contrarian ethos, and made it his first signing. not hip-hop.

“I first met them at their show at the Ritz in New York. [in September 1985]”, Rick told Metal Hammer in 2012. “I didn’t know anything about them before the show and they blew my mind.

“Here’s a guy who’s doing a hip hop label, who’s so into a metal band that he signed that band to his label,” Kerry King said. “It was a slam dunk for me.”

Rubin’s vision for the new album aligned with that of the band. It boiled everything down to the bone, stripping the songs of unnecessary reverb and presenting them with cold, surgical precision.

This approach certainly suited Jeff Hanneman. The guitarist, whose father served in World War II and returned with medals he salvaged from dead German soldiers, had recently bought some books about Dr Josef Mengele, the Nazi surgeon who performed crude experiments and sadism about Jews and Roma inmates at Auschwitz concentration camp between 1943 and 1045. Mengele’s inhumane actions earned him the nickname “the angel of death”.

Mengele provided Hanneman with lyrical inspiration for a new song he was writing. The guitarist staged a clinically graphic account of the horrors of Auschwitz on a wall of screaming guitars that looked like a grotesque painting of Hieronymus Bosch animated. “Auschwitz, the meaning of pain/The way I want you to die”, began the song, before intensifying the vividly grotesque imagery: “Pumped with fluid, inside your brain / The pressure in your skull begins to push through your eyes.” Hanneman named the track after the moniker Josef Mengele: Angel of Death.

“When Jeff brought the song, we thought, ‘Wow, that’s really cool – he’s the guy who did all these crazy, terrible things,'” Tom Araya said. metal hammer.

For his part, Hanneman insisted that he was not glorifying Mengele’s actions, simply recounting them, documentary-style. “Angel of Death is like a history lesson,” he told the Guardian in 1987. “I had read a lot about the Third Reich and was absolutely fascinated by the end of it all, how Hitler had been able to hypnotize a nation and do whatever he wanted, a situation where Mengele could evolve from being a doctor to being a butcher.

The band entered the Hit City Studio in Los Angeles in January 1986 to record the album that would become reign in blood. Rick Rubin was present, as was engineer Andy Wallace, who gave Angel of Death a sharp edge with a scalpel. They started recording late in the evening and continued until the early hours. “Midnight to three in the morning was the best time to ward off the worst,” said drummer Dave Lombardo. metal hammer in 2018.

Angel of Death itself was recorded quickly – a product of a well-rehearsed band rather than illicit stimulants. (“I haven’t even had a drink yet,” King told Metal Hammer). The song itself opened with a guitar blur, before Tom Araya let out an almighty scream that captured the sheer horror of the subject matter.

“Jeff was, like, ‘We need something here, give a shout,'” Araya said. metal hammer. “I said, ‘What kind of cry?’ They couldn’t really explain it, so I was like, ‘OK…’, and I shouted. When we listened, I was like, ‘OK, I know what to do, let’s do it again.’ We did it a few more times, three or four times in total, but we were like, ‘Forget it, we got what we wanted with the second one.’”

reign in blood ended quickly, with only 28 minutes and 55 seconds. Tom Araya, for his part, wondered if it was long enough. “A full album, contractually, constitutes at least 45 minutes of music. I asked Rick if it was OK. His only response to all of this was, “It’s 10 songs, which makes an album.” There are verses, tracks and choruses. He didn’t have a problem with that, which was really cool.

Rubin could have agreed with reign in blood, but Def Jam’s distributor Columbia Records certainly wasn’t. Label president Walter Yetnikoff — who was Jewish — objected to Angel of Deathconsidering the song anti-Semitic and refusing to release the album unless the track was taken down.

“I didn’t know anything about the world at the time,” Kerry King said. “I thought, ‘That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.'” Tom Araya’s reaction was even more apt: “‘Fuuuuck…'”

The choice Slayer faced was straightforward: remove Angel Of Death from the album, otherwise Reign In Blood would not be released. “We were never tempted to do this,” Araya said. metal hammer. “We felt we had done nothing wrong. They said, “Take that song off the album.” Rick said, “No.” And he went to find someone else to free him.

That “someone else” was Geffen, a burgeoning label founded a few years earlier by music-industry prodigy David Geffen. For Geffen – like Rick Rubin, of Jewish origin – the controversy would work in favor of the group, even if the label avoided affixing its logo on the album, just to be on the safe side.

Released in October 1986, right in the middle of a 12-month period that saw landmark albums from each of the newly christened thrash Big Four, reign in blood cracked the Billboard Top 100 – an accomplishment for a band as extreme as Slayer. Yet the outcry aroused Angel of Death refused to die, especially in Germany – a country still sensitive to its recent past.

Accusations that Slayer approved of Mengele’s actions, or were outright neo-Nazis, persisted long after the album’s release. Of course, the controversy eventually died down. Angel of Death became not only the high point of Slayer’s career, but the gold standard of ’80s thrash metal.

“I know why people misinterpret it – it’s because they have this knee-jerk reaction,” protested Hanneman, who died of alcohol-related cirrhosis in 2013, six years before Slayer pulled down the curtain. on his career. “There’s nothing I put in the lyrics that necessarily says [Mengele] was a bad man, because to me – well, isn’t that obvious? I shouldn’t have to tell you.

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