South of Heaven is the fourth full-length album from Slayer. Released in July 1988, this record was met with a mixed reaction from fans and media alike. After the speed-fest that was Reign In Blood, the guys made a conscious decision to slow things down. The result was not perfect, but it was a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, Slayer's creative juices were soon to dry up, in the coming years. For whatever the songs may lack in intensity or darkness, they make up for by being far more well-developed than many of the tracks on the previous album. Brilliant or not, at least the ideas are developed and filled out, being taken to their logical conclusion.
For me, this album came at a time when I didn't analyze music to such a severe degree. It never crossed my mind that it wasn't as dark as Hell Awaits or as energetic as Show No Mercy or as brutal as Haunting the Chapel; To me, it was simply another Slayer record. It was there to be enjoyed as yet another piece of the puzzle. As a matter of fact, this may have served as my introduction to the band, though it wasn't fully digested until some later time, by which I'd dug deeper into their albums and become more familiar with the early releases.
The title track begins with a haunting melody, imbuing the listener with a sense of dread. It slowly builds up, creating tension. The vocals seem a bit cleaner, yet filled with evil as Tom says:
"Before you see the light, you must die!"
The pace is fairly relaxed, especially for a Slayer record. The doom aspect that was present on Hell Awaits has returned, yet in a different form. This is still dark, by comparison to the output of their Thrash Metal peers, but it is pretty tame when laid side-by-side with their earlier works. As the opening song of the album, it serves well to set the tone and let listeners know what to expect. The riffs and lyrics are very memorable and it all does well to add another dimension to the Slayer sound.
"Silent Scream" arises from the feedback that ends the previous song. Here, the pace has quickened and the intensity has increased. The vocals are somewhat restrained, having a rather calm feeling. The solos are decent enough and the whole thing comes off pretty well. The idea may be somewhat rehashed, but the delivery is adequate enough and it fits well at this point of the album, providing variation in the tempo.
The pace changes, yet again, as "Live Undead" begins. One of the great things about this album is that the riffs are easily distinguishable from each other. It takes mere seconds of a song to identify which one it is. This one is more mid-paced, possessing some nice double bass and solos. However, it's when the song speeds up a bit that the genius comes through. One of the best moments of the record comes around the 2:13 mark, as Tom returns to the high-pitched screams of earlier years. Of course, the lyrics have long ago lost the power and darkness that they once held, but they have not deteriorated so far as to be bereft of any quality.
"Laughing as you eternally rot
Searching for human flesh and life's blood"
"Behind the Crooked Cross" returns to the Nazi theme, explored previously in the song "Angel of Death". The vocal delivery is a bit flat, sounding a little too clean for some tastes. Regardless of this, the riffs are very memorable and the song moves along well enough. The pace picks up, after a minute or so. To compare the musicianship of South of Heaven to Reign In Blood is to have no real comparison at all. Where the former lacks power and intensity, to some degree, the latter was filled with too many half-developed ideas. Lyrically, this is another anti-Nazi song, which seems to have been fashionable at the time. The lyrics are memorable and easy to sing along to, if that's your wish, but they're quite tame when thinking of older songs.
"March on through the rivers of red
Souls drift, they fill the air
Forced to fight, behind
The crooked cross"
Side A ends with "Mandatory Suicide". This one begins with another easily identifiable riff and even the drumbeat could not be mistaken for being the work of anyone other than Dave Lombardo. This song is nothing groundbreaking, but it's good for headbanging as you're driving down the highway at 90 mph. It's no wonder that this was a good seller for the band, as it is very catchy. By this point, it is obvious that the band has truly loosened their grip on most all Satanic or occult imagery in favour of a morbid fascination with war. This was, of course, present from the very beginning, but it took a few albums to usurp the throne as the dominant theme.
Side B starts out with "Ghosts of War". I've always heard that this song was supposed to be a 'sequel' to "Chemical Warfare", especially something about the intro. Maybe I'm listening to it wrong, but I never really got that. Perhaps, it's like those paintings that you had to stare at with your eyes blurred to really see. At any rate, this song doesn't hold a candle to its predecessor, but it's pretty decent in its own right. At this point of the album, Tom's vocals seem to have gotten a little rougher, thankfully. The speed and intensity of the song is much more in line with what Slayer fans were probably expecting from this record. About halfway through, it slows down, but the mid-paced riffs are quite similar to those found on their debut album, possessing a lot of feeling. Following this, there's a thrash break that is designed for maximum headbanging during live shows, more than likely.
"Read Between the Lies" is up next. It picks up from where the previous song left off, keeping a sense of continuity throughout the album. Much like all of their Thrash Metal peers, Slayer had to write a song regarding the lame televangelists that were quite popular in the mid-to-late 80s. Whether it's Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Testament, et cetera... it's difficult to think of a band that didn't approach this topic, in some manner. To me, it almost seems too easy of a target. The song is as solid as the rest, but the lyrical concept leaves something to be desired. Of course, this song features one of the only references to Satan:
"They claim your trip to heaven's nearby
You may believe it but Satan wouldn't lie"
That is quite weak when compared to earlier albums that contained the terms 'Satan', 'Hell' or 'Lucifer' in every single song. It just seems that the approach is watered-down. Pointing out the hypocrisy of a televangelist isn't quite the same as depicting scenes of demons and ghouls killing priests and burning down a church.
"Cleanse the Soul" maintains a fast pace, fitting in perfectly. Again, the cleaner vocal style takes a little time to get used to, but it works. This is one of the shorter songs on the album, but it still manages to forge an identity of its own. Oddly, as with some of the other songs here, this one works best in the context of the record as opposed to standing out on its own. The tracks, here, are like links in a chain. Alone, they don't do so much, yet they stand together to create something unique.
Next up is the Judas Priest cover, "Dissident Aggressor". Priest was one of the main influences on Slayer, in the early days. This is more easily heard on Show No Mercy, but this cover song pays tribute to them adequately enough. They, easily, take the song and make it their own. Interesting to note that they exchanged high-pitched vocals for a similar sound from the guitar.
The album comes to its conclusion with a song that was a favourite of mine for some time; "Spill the Blood". The intro is eerie and sets a ghoulish tone. As the guitars and drums kick in, the song remains mid-paced, though picking up the speed by a fraction. The clean vocal delivery, here, almost sounds lifeless as if Tom Araya is in some sort of trance. In this case, it kind of works to the benefit of the atmosphere that the song is attempting to create. In this piece, there are flashes that are reminiscent of earlier works, in terms of darkness. However, it does not quite reach the heights (or depths, rather) of the old records. Lyrically, this song possesses some of the more interesting ideas expressed on the album.
"Spill your blood, let it run on to me
Take my hand and let go of your life
Close your eyes and see what is me
Raise the chalice, embrace forevermore"
South In Heaven is unique within Slayer's catalogue. It represents the only time that the band truly attempted to add depth to their sound. Apparently, it took some time to grow on their fan base, but it would seem that this was the last of their classic era. The album that followed belongs to this era as well, though it seemed to be more of a mixture of all the releases that came before it. Though this record may not hold up to such scrutiny as this, it is actually a very good album. When not compared to the earlier works, it is easily enjoyable and features many memorable songs. There is a great deal of variation between tracks and a dismal feeling that is carried throughout most of the album. This one is highly recommended for those looking for something beyond the full-speed approach of Reign In Blood.