One of the most important albums in thrash metal history, 1986’s Reign in Blood was the record that propelled Slayer into the big time, while throwing down a spiked gauntlet for all contemporary and future thrash practitioners. Released 30 years ago today, the Rick Rubin–produced LP packed an hour’s worth of ferocious riffage into just 28 minutes and 58 seconds.
Reign in Blood was also mired in controversy even before it hit the streets, thanks to the presence of its brutal opening track, “Angel of Death.” Penned by Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman, the song – about the medical experiments conducted by infamous Nazi physician Josef Mengele on prisoners at the Auschwitz concentration camp – caused Columbia Records to nix the record’s scheduled April 1986 release.
Columbia, the distributor for Rubin’s Def Jam imprint, was already put off by the album’s lurid cover art, a Hieronymus Bosch–like tableau that featured demons sporting erections and Pope mitres; but the lyrics of “Angel of Death,” which opened with the lines, “Auschwitz, the meaning of pain/The way that I want you to die” were the final straw. “My shareholders are all Jewish!” exclaimed label president Walter Yetnikoff, who envisioned a massive outcry over the song, and insisted that it be removed from the record.
“All of a sudden, the record company doesn’t want to release the album because of this song,” Slayer bassist and vocalist Tom Araya recalled in a 2012 interview with Teamrock.com. “When Jeff brought in the song, we thought, ‘Wow, that’s really cool – [Mengele] was the guy that did all those crazy, terrible things.’ Then all of a sudden we discovered that people had a problem with that. We were, like, ‘Fuuuuck. …'”
When Rubin refused to remove the song, Columbia simply washed their hands of the whole thing, allowing Rubin to take the album to Geffen Records. But Yetnikoff hadn’t been wrong to be concerned – when Reign in Blood was finally released in October via Geffen, many listeners and reviewers immediately interpreted “Angel of Death” as pro-Nazi.
“Yeah, ‘Slayer are Nazis, fascists, communists’ – all that fun shit,” Slayer guitarist Kerry King told Decibel in 2006. “And of course we got the most flak for it in Germany. I was always like, ‘Read the lyrics and tell me what’s offensive about it. Can you see it as a documentary, or do you think Slayer’s preaching fucking World War II?'”
Hanneman, who died in 2013 of alcohol-related cirrhosis of the liver, always denied that “Angel of Death” contained any pro-Nazi content. “I feel you should be able to write about whatever you want,” he told The Guardian in 1987. “‘Angel of Death’ is like a history lesson. … 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 hypnotize a nation and do whatever he wanted, a situation where Mengele could evolve from being a doctor to being a butcher.”
Now considered a thrash classic, “Angel of Death” made its live debut on Halloween 1986, during the band’s second encore at the Moore Theatre in Seattle. The song has served as Slayer’s set-closer since 1988 – the same year that Public Enemy sampled its half-time riff for “She Watch Channel Zero” – and has appeared on the soundtrack of films ranging from Jackass: The Movie to the 2005 Iraq War documentary Soundtrack to War.
Still, the darkness of the song’s lyrics – and the dispassionately vivid way that they’re delivered – continue to make “Angel of Death” the subject of controversy, even 30 years after its release.
“I know why people misinterpret it,” Hanneman told KNAC.com in 2004. “It’s because they get this knee-jerk reaction to it. … 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.”