Nowadays metal bands becoming controversial because of their look, blasphemous lyrics, or graphic-infused artworks is nothing that would raise any eyebrows. However, things were very different in the 80s, and you can ask the guys from Slayer about that. The band's raw, aggressive sound and often graphic lyrics earned them a reputation for being both groundbreaking and unsettling. And among their extensive discography, one song stood out for its particular 'infamous' nature: "Angel of Death."
Released in 1986, the track is a blistering thrash metal anthem that delves into the horrific atrocities committed by Nazi physician Josef Mengele at the Auschwitz concentration camp. The song's lyrics, written by guitarist Jeff Hanneman, vividly describe Mengele's experiments on innocent victims, leaving no room for ambiguity or glorification.
Upon its release, "Angel of Death" sparked a firestorm of criticism, with some accusing Slayer of sympathizing with Nazi ideology, and certain critics misinterpreting the song's focus on Mengele as an endorsement of his actions.
In a recent interview with Metal Hammer, drummer Dave Lombardo was asked if he ever understood why people suggested Slayer was condoning Nazism. He expressed his confusion at the accusations, emphasizing that the song's intent was not to glorify Mengele's atrocities but rather to expose them.
"People just seemed to be getting it all wrong and it didn't make sense to me; it's a song, and nowhere did it give off this idea that fascism was cool. Tom Araya, was talking about this guy who performed these horrible surgeries on innocent people – really stupid, horrific things. You shouldn't need to read the lyrics to understand we weren't condoning those things.”
Despite the accusations, Slayer continued to rise to prominence in the '80s thrash metal scene, alongside Anthrax, Megadeth, and Metallica, collectively known as the "Big Four." However, that's not to say Lombardo didn't see how the rise of death metal was somewhat challenging Slayer's reign of heaviness and ferocity: “Well, we'd watch a lot of those bands from side-stage anyway. I remember whispering to Hanneman, 'We're better', or 'We're faster', ha ha!"
"It wasn't necessarily arrogant, but it was inspiring if we watched a band that couldn't deliver the ferocity we were because it made us feel amazing, like, 'Oops, failure!' It was a youthful approach – you want to be better than the guy before you, you want to blow everyone away, and that was our mantra.”