The Story Behind The Song: Slayer’s Angel Of Death

(Image credit: Chris Walter/WireImage)

If Slayer’s 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 parcelled up in four minutes and 51 seconds of viciousness, this was the LA band’s grand statement of intent and the track that made them one of the most notorious bands of their era.

Slayer had served notice of their impending greatness with their second album, 1985’s Hell Awaits. That record mixed regulation-issue Satanism with a love of horror movies on the likes of At Dawn They Sleep, Necrophiliac and the classic title track, though with three of its seven songs clocking on at over six minutes, it was positively proggy compared to what came next. 

When Slayer began writing the follow-up to Hell Awaits, they knew they had the capacity to serve up something even better. “Everybody else was doing something slow,” singer and bassist Tom Araya told Metal Hammer in 2012. “Kerry [King, guitarist] and Jeff [Hanneman, guitarist] said that they didn’t want to do a slow record, they wanted to do something fast. They didn’t realise it was gonna be that 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 jump from their original label, underground stronghold Metal Blade, to pioneering hip hop powerhouse Def Jam. As home to the likes of LL Cool J and brat-rappers the Beastie Boys, it seemed like a strange choice for a bunch of scowling longhairs. But Def Jam boss Rick Rubin was an old school metal fan who saw something in Slayer’s attitude that fit in with his label’s against-the-grain ethos, and made them his first non-hip hop signing.

“I first met them at their show at The Ritz in NYC [in September 1985],” Rick told Metal Hammer in 2012. “I knew nothing about them before the show and they blew me away.”

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

Rubin’s vision for the new album dovetailed with the band’s own. He would boil everything down to the bone, stripping the songs of unnecessary reverb and presenting them with a cold, surgical precision.

That approach certainly suited Jeff Hanneman. The guitarist, whose father  served in World War II and had returned with medals he’d picked up from dead German soldiers, had recently picked up a couple of books on Dr Josef Mengele, the Nazi surgeon who performed gross and sadistic experiments on Jewish and Romani inmates at Auschwitz concentration camp between 1943 and 1045. Mengele’s inhuman actions earned him the nickname 'The Angel Of Death’. 

Mengele provided Hanneman with lyrical inspiration for a new song he was writing. The guitarist set a clinically graphic retelling of the horrors of Auschwitz to a wall of screaming guitars that sounded like a grotesque Hieronymus Bosch painting brought to life.  “Auschwitz, the meaning of pain/The way that I want you to die,” began the song, before ramping up the vividly grotesque imagery: “Pumped with fluid, inside your brain/Pressure in your skull begins pushing through your eyes.” Hanneman named the track after the sobriquet Josef Mengele had been given: Angel Of Death.

“When Jeff brought in the song, we thought, ‘Wow, that’s really cool – this was the guy that did all those crazy, terrible things’,” Tom Araya told Metal Hammer

For his part, Hanneman insisted that he wasn’t glorifying Mengele’s actions, merely retelling them, documentary-fashion. “Angel Of Death is like a history lesson,” he told the Guardian in 1987. “I’d read a lot about the Third Reich and was absolutely fascinated by the extremity of it all, the way Hitler had been able to hypnotise a nation and do whatever he wanted, a situation where Mengele could evolve from being a doctor to being a butcher.”

The band entered 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 scalpel-sharp edge. They would start recording late in the evening and carry on until the early hours. “Midnight to three in the morning was the best time to conjure the most evil,” drummer Dave Lombardo told Metal Hammer in 2018. 

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

“Jeff was, like, ‘We need something here, do a scream,’” Araya told Metal Hammer. “I said, ‘What kind of scream?’ They couldn’t really explain it, so I’m, like, ‘OK…’, and I did this scream. When we listened back, I went, ‘OK, I know what to do, let’s do it again.’ We did it a couple 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 was wrapped up quickly, clocking in at just 28 minutes and 55 seconds. Tom Araya, for one, wondered if it was long enough. “A full album, contractually, constitutes at least 45 minutes of music. I asked Rick if that was OK. His only reply to any of that was, ‘It’s 10 songs, which constitutes an album. There’s verses and leads and choruses.’ He didn’t have an issue with it, which was really cool.”

Rubin might have been fine with Reign In Blood, but Def Jam’s distributor, Columbia Records, certainly weren’t. Label president Walter Yetnikoff – who was Jewish – objected to Angel Of Death, viewing the song as anti-Semitic and refusing to release the album unless the track was pulled.

“I didn’t know shit about the world at that point,” said Kerry King. “I thought, ‘That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.’” Tom Araya’s reaction was even more to-the-point: “‘Fuuuuck…’”

The choice Slayer faced was blunt: remove Angel Of Death from the album, or Reign In Blood wouldn’t come out. “We were never, ever tempted to do that,” Araya told Metal Hammer. “We felt we hadn’t done anything wrong. They said: ‘Take that song off the album.’ Rick said: ‘No.’ And he went and found someone else to release it.”

That ‘someone else’ was Geffen, a fast-rising label founded a few years earlier by music industry whizz kid David Geffen. For Geffen – like Rick Rubin, of Jewish descent – the controversy would work in the band’s favour, even if the label steered clear of putting their 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 thrash’s newly-christened Big Four, Reign In Blood cracked the Billboard Top 100 - some achievement for a band as extreme as Slayer. Yet the outcry over Angel Of Death refused to die, not least in Germany – a country still sensitive about its recent past. 

The accusations that Slayer were endorsing Mengele’s actions, or were out-and-out neo-Nazis, hung around long after the album’s release. Of course, the controversy did eventually abate. Angel Of Death became not just the high-water mark of Slayer’s career, but the gold standard of 80s thrash. 

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

Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.