(This is the sixth installment in an extensive series of posts by TheMadIsraeli devoted to a retrospective analysis of the discography of Slayer, and today’s subject is the band’s 1988 album South of Heaven. Links to the preceding installments are at the end of this post. Our plan is to continue posting the remaining Parts on a daily basis until the series is completed.)
After the commercially successful Reign In Blood shoved Slayer into the limelight of blasphemous metal recognition, I think a lot of longtime Slayer fans, the OG’s, wondered what the band would do next with their newfound widespread recognition. Would they keep making albums like Reign In Blood, focused on the aggression, the endurance, and the speed that album seized upon so hard? Apparently much to the shock of a lot of people at the time, South Of Heaven would see the band do a complete 180. This album proved to be controversial among those who jumped on board with Reign In Blood, but I’m under the impression that the fans who’d been around since Show No Mercy loved it. I also love this album.
South Of Heaven is Slayer returning to their roots, and in a lot of ways it’s their best song-writing record. It’s not the band’s fastest album, but it includes many of Slayer’s best riffs and best songs, and showcases the guitar talents of King and Hanneman at just about their all-time best. It’s technically impressive, ambitious, and even epic in some parts, and hooks you from beginning to end. The album is tempo-diverse, and diverse in other ways as well, while still maintaining that militant and surgical brand of ferocity the band had become known for.
“South Of Heaven” is one of my favorite opening songs up to this point in the band’s discography. It and “Hell Awaits” are just about equal. “South Of Heaven”, though, breaks from Slayer tradition. Instead of being a ferocious, fast-as-fuck assault with tempo changes and tons of riff exhibitionism, it’s a fantastic riff-driven, mid-paced, gloomy kind of song. The intro riff is iconic, and justifiably so — dark, foreboding, and sinister. It’s much of what Slayer wanted to accomplish in one riff. The song is a mid-paced death march full of that intro’s same moodiness and brooding. I fucking love it.
Despite being a fantastic song, “South Of Heaven” almost serves more like an intro itself, because the transition into “Silent Scream” is flawless. “Silent Scream” is a classic Slayer track for a reason, and the reason is that distinctive verse riff. It’s so deliberate, evil, and to-the-point, as well as memorable both in melody and in rhythm. It’s one of my favorite Slayer songs of all time (and I’m also a huge fan of the killer Vader cover). Further, “Live Undead” calls back to the song-writing style of Hell Awaits with its killer groove, snappy riffing, and a climax speed explosion to mark its solo section that would ignite any moshpit.
I didn’t want to do a song-by-song here, but it’s almost impossible not to. “Behind The Crooked Cross”, with its more hardcore/punk kind of pacing and a grimy main riff, is a joy, and something different from the band, while “Mandatory Suicide” is a fantastic revisiting of that militant, mid-paced, moody kind of writing found on the title track which opened the record. And don’t even get me started on “Ghosts Of War”. The callback to the outro of “Chemical Warfare” (it’s the exact same riff)… that ugly, mangled, evil-as-fuck verse riff, full of small technical flourishes… and that climactic mid-paced riff flex/solo section and breakdown… it’s PURE fucking Slayer. It’s so definitive.
I know a lot of people tend to malign this record because of how much slower it is in its pacing, but I wholeheartedly believe South Of Heaven is one of Slayer’s S-tier records. There isn’t a forgettable song on here, it’s all killer no filler back-to-front, and is unapologetically bleeding piss-and-vinegar attitude, radiating darkness and hatred in equal measure. This album slays.
Also, that cover of Priest’s “Dissent Aggressor” is too good. It’s Slayer channeling their attitude into the classic pioneers that inspired them so heavily. It’s a cover done right.
Oh yeah, and “Spill The Blood” is a top 3 Slayer album closer.
For previous installments in this series, check these links:
PART 1 (Intro)
PART 2 (Show No Mercy)
PART 3 (Haunting the Chapel)
PART 4 (Hell Awaits)
PART 5 (Reign In Blood)