South of Heaven
is a curious moment in Slayer
’s career. At first glance when listening to the album, it is the last thing you’d expect from the band, coming off of the heels of the legendary onslaught of Reign in Blood
. Instead of a record that pulverizes with pure speed and force, South of Heaven
is, instead, a much more atmospheric - and even sinister - beast than Reign in Blood
is. The result is an album that absolutely matches its predecessor, if not in raw force, than in sheer quality.
The biggest thing one might note about South of Heaven
immediately is that the songs on this record are generally slower. That
is absolutely NOT to say that the band abandoned forceful speed, because songs like “Silent Scream
” and “Cleanse The Soul” are more than a match for any tune on the preceding album. But in a lot of ways, this album is one of the most genuinely dynamic of Slayer
’s career, in that the band knows when to focus on the mid-paced sections, and let ominous riffs build up the atmosphere, and when to speed up and really punish the listener throughout.
The songs on this album are absolutely among the finest Slayer
has ever written in the band’s entire career. The riffs are absolutely fantastic throughout this record, and these songs are fantastic at being able to shift tempos and sections extremely effectively. It never sounds disjoint structurally; everything falls into place exceptionally well. The title track is an absolute masterpiece, with its ominous intro riff that almost hearkens back to Black Sabbath
in its own way, before eventually speeding up into more bludgeoning, mid-paced riffs for the main verses. It’s one of the best things Slayer
has ever written, and it perfectly sets the mood for the music before the outro segues into violent thrasher “Silent Scream
”, which pummels you into submission with tearing riffs and Dave Lombardo’s absolutely punishing drumming. “Live Undead
” is a really underrated song in its own way, steadily building up from its mid-paced intro before going into frenzied violence. “Mandatory Suicide
” is one of Slayer
’s most formidable songs, being mid-paced throughout, but the powerful riffage and driving pace create the ominous, war-zone atmosphere that the lyrics depict.
One of the most surprising things about South of Heaven
to me is its sheer consistent; none of the songs here are poorly written, phoned in, or even really all that tame. The songs on this record are consistently great, and in a lot of ways this has some of Slayer
’s most unsung songs, particularly the savage “Ghosts of War
”, or the incredibly eerie tone and pacing of closer “Spill The Blood
” (possibly the most underrated closer of Slayer
’s entire career, and a perfect summation of the album as a whole. Even the lesser discussed songs on this record are exceptionally well done, and fit well together. Even the Judas Priest
cover is outstanding, and a brilliant tribute to those masters in its own right. While it undeniably has the Slayer
touch, it is still distinctly faithful to the original version.
The production job on South of Heaven
is as perfectly fitting as any could be. I’ve heard some complain about it being too tinny, but I disagree entirely, The guitar tone is punchy, sharp, and powerful throughout, the drum kit sounds excellent, with crisp and natural tones to the whole kit, and Araya’s vocals are mixed in well; upfront without overly dominating. The performances are some of the best in Slayer
’s entire career, executing these songs with a level of skill and precision you would expect from them. (Dave Lombardo, in particular gives the performance of a career on this album, with brilliant fills and consistently memorable patterns that fit the exact needs of the song whenever they appear) Araya’s vocals are still very good, although at times his somewhat more tuneful delivery doesn’t quite mesh that well. (the aforementioned “Crooked Cross
” song in particular)
Even with that minor quibble aside, South of Heaven
is an absolutely brilliant record, and every bit as worthy of praise as its more lauded successor. Absolutely essential.