Jeff Hanneman and Slayer, “Raining Blood” (1986): One Track Mind

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Aside from the venerable opening riff of Metallica’s “Master of Puppets,” there may be no more recognizable melody in thrash than the main riff of Slayer’s “Raining Blood,” the sort-of title track of their landmark Reign in Blood album. Play it in a room full of metal fans, and be prepared for a roar of approval to go up.

One of the men responsible for that moment, founding guitarist Jeff Hanneman, passed away on Thursday at the age of 49 due to liver failure. In recent years, Hanneman had struggled with his health, having to sit out tour dates with the band. “Raining Blood” was one of the two most memorable songs co-written by Hanneman on that 1986 album, the other being the almost as recognizable “Angel of Death.”

In the ’80s, Hanneman and fellow guitarist Kerry King blazed a new path in thrash as part of the group of artists now known as the Big Four. Slayer held down the more extreme end of the thrash genre, leaning more toward shorter, faster and more vicious compositions.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Slayer, Metallica, Anthrax and Megadeth made up the legendary Big Four in the 1980s — but they weren’t the only ones to put out great thrash albums. We explore.]

The two had an interesting relationship, with King drawing most of the press, while Hanneman quietly wrote some of the band’s best material. The sound blended the duo’s blazing leads with the thundering drums of Dave Lombardo and the tortured screams of bassist/vocalist Tom Araya. Slayer tread darker paths lyrically than most of their contemporaries, and the high-speed fretwork of the King-Hanneman tandem became a favorite among metal fans.

At just about three and a half minutes, “Raining Blood” is the second longest song from Reign in Blood — “Angel of Death” being the longest — and it was about the closest thing to the kind of “epic” song others in the genre were trying to create. What it lacked in length, it more than made up for in atmosphere and power.

The song opens with an ominous guitar note and thunderclap. Then it’s Lombardo’s drums that provide the triplet thunder beats until Hanneman and King harmonize on that big main riff that’s sure to bring fans to their feet. That’s followed by a galloping thrash riff for a few seconds before things descend into crazed, but controlled chaos. Araya roars onto the scene, then it’s back to that riff and a very hummable chorus that relies more on chugging, heavy guitars than speed. Then more chaos as King and Hanneman offer up dueling leads before the sudden ending in the same thunderclap that started the song.

There’s probably no better example of what the band was all about in the 1980s than this song. Yes, they wanted to be faster and heavier than everyone else in the genre. They still do, in fact, having refused to compromise and alter their sound as so many of their contemporaries have over the years. But they also were not afraid to deliver a catchy, memorable and, yes, even hummable hook, much more often in the form of a Hanneman or King guitar lick than a vocal.

Most likely, Slayer will soldier on — as they have during Hanneman’s illness, and as they have with often-estranged drummer Lombardo. But without the guy who wrote staples like this one, “South of Heaven” and “Seasons in the Abyss,” it won’t ever quite be the same.

Fred Phillips

Fred Phillips

Fred Phillips is a veteran entertainment writer with a love of hard rock and heavy metal. He has written music reviews, columns and feature stories for several newspapers, Web sites and a national wire service, while running a stand-alone site called Hall of the Mountain King in various places and incarnations since 1997. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelse reviews.com.
Fred Phillips
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