‘South Of Heaven’ was probably the most difficult album to record ever, not in any sort of technical way, but in terms of what Slayer would face on its release. ‘Reign In Blood’ dropped Slayer right in the middle of a catch-22 situation. If they tried to top that album, more than likely they’d crash and burn. Conversely, if they tried something different, it might be seen as a sell-out. The easiest solution would have been to retire.
History now tells us Slayer didn’t retire, and while ‘South Of Heaven’ was a change of direction, very few saw it as a sell-out. It is an album of contradictions, slower and heavier than its predecessor, at once simpler and more complicated, and overall more challenging.
From the first notes of “South Of Heaven”, it’s apparent Slayer has undergone a transformation. The band controls the title track is like a wild animal handler, reigning in his charge on a short leash. At any moment, this wild beast could break from its bonds, free to rampage uncontrolled on a killing spree. Tom Araya barks with a spiteful vitriol not heard before, placing more emphasis on his vocals than in the past. The King/Hanneman guitar duo grinds and churns, while drummer Dave Lombardo takes the simple rhythm of the song and wrings its neck. The overall effect is like a menacing storm, roiling and brewing, preparing to unleash devastation on the helpless land below.
The lightning strikes on second track “Silent Scream”. It blasts off with all the trademark ferocity of ‘Reign In Blood’. Lombardo’s pummelling double kickdrums underpin a simple main riff, which is adorned with an oddly discordant guitar duel where Jeff Hanneman abuses the tremolo more than Kerry King does. Abortion was never so much fun.
“Live Undead” combines the building menace and thunderous destruction of the previous two songs, leading to an insane thrash-out in the second half of the song, cut up with seven incredible solos. No one else could have delivered a song like this in the 80s.
Tom Araya almost sings melodically on “Behind The Crooked Cross”, without sounding any less threatening. The song describes the life of someone forced to fight or an army or nation, while not really understanding why. While the true meaning of the song is never made clear, the crooked cross is more than likely the Nazi swastika, but it could well apply to any number of misguided crusades or campaigns throughout history, justified by the cause of Christianity.
“Mandatory Suicide” is a dark, brooding anti-war song, where Araya shows more vocal versatility. He punctuates many of the statements with a growl, similar to the style used by Testament vocalist Chuck Billy. It ends with a flat, emotionless monologue which describes a scene of intense horror and death from a thoroughly detached viewpoint.
“Ghosts Of War” sounds a lot like “Angel Of Death Part 2”, featuring a similar riff, but then backs off in intensity, bringing forth a heavier riff and allows Lombardo the space to pound away to his heart’s content.
Television evangelists were fair game for pretty much every thrash band of the 80s, but few ever pinned them down quite so squarely as Slayer, except perhaps Holy Terror. “Read Between The Lies” has a feel of utter disgust at the manipulation and deception employed to fleece the vulnerable and feeble minded. Like the demonic priests of the Inquisition, do the ends really justify the means, if it’s done in God’s name?
The inclusion of a cover of Judas Priest’s “Dissident Aggressor” is a little unusual. Sure, it’s given the full Slayer treatment, and fits the album perfectly, and must surely have scared the shit out of Tipton, Downing and crew, but why not another Slayer song?
“Spill The Blood” is one of the heaviest songs Slayer has ever written. The acoustic intro sounds like it could have come from the soundtrack of “The Omen”, and provides a stark contrast to the crushing riffs and massive percussion of the main body of the song. Araya wails like never before, a soul tormented, becoming the tormentor. The controlled aggression, unleashed with restraint and deadly accuracy, is a fitting finale to an incredible album.
There is a small revisionist sector which sees ‘South Of Heaven’ as a sell-out album. After all, it went gold in the US, and sold thousands upon thousands of copies the world over. And shock, horror, Slayer actually used verse-chorus song structures. What were they thinking? Hindsight is supposed to be 20/20, but it rarely ever is, because the vital context of the time is missing. That ‘South Of Heaven’ sold well was quite a surprise because in 1988, outside Metallica and Megadeth, thrash albums hardly ever broke six figure sales. Real metal was still dominated by the old school of Maiden/Priest/Osbourne, while the glam ladyboys of Guns ‘n’ Roses, Motley Crüe and their ilk were at their peak. Sure, there was harder music than Slayer available at the time, but albums by Necrophagia, Death, Repulsion and Carcass weren’t exactly filling prime space on record store shelves either. As for the song structures, they don’t mean shit. They are a method of putting a song together, nothing more, nothing less, and not a concession to the mainstream.
The shift in Slayer’s sound between ‘Reign In Blood’ and ‘South Of Heaven’ added some much needed variety to the band’s repertoire, without which their output may have become stagnant. A combination of these two albums led directly to the massive success of ‘Seasons In The Abyss’ in 1990. ‘South Of Heaven’ saw one of thrash’s leaders breathe some life back into the genre’s rotting corpse.