South of Heaven

South of Heaven

After breaking the thrash speed barrier with 1986’s Reign in Blood, Slayer had no choice but to slow its roll on South of Heaven. Released in 1988, the album may not have given listeners whiplash, but it’s far more sinister than anything the band recorded prior. Written largely by guitarist Jeff Hanneman, South of Heaven is the only Slayer album on which the band deliberately did something different. As they’ve said in interviews, they knew they couldn’t top Reign in Blood for sheer speed and ferocity. They made up for it with atmospheric malevolence. The title track sets the menacing tone with an evil opening riff before the inevitable plunge into hell—the earthly one. Vocalist Tom Araya describes the descent of mankind (“Chaos rampant, an age of distrust”) in the pre-chorus, but delivers the forgone conclusion in the opening verse: “Before you see the light, you must die!” Wipe away the vocals, and the song is downright cinematic. “South of Heaven” would’ve been a killer soundtrack to Child’s Play, Pumpkinhead, Monkey Shines—or any of the other horror flicks that hit the big screen that year. Drummer Dave Lombardo’s dizzying drums ride high in the mix here, but in no way obscure the sheer unholiness of the guitars. Lyrically, Slayer revisits the horrors of war on “Behind the Crooked Cross,” “Ghosts of War,” and “Mandatory Suicide,” the latter of which also features one of the album’s most diabolical riffs. “Read Between the Lies” continues the band’s anti-religious crusade, while a ripping cover of Judas Priest’s “Dissident Aggressor” pays tribute to guitarist Kerry King’s favorite band. And “Spill the Blood,” the slowest song on the album, spins a tale of demonic possession with Slayer’s first recorded instance of non-distorted guitars. It’s the dawn of their slow-and-sinister era, one that would continue on 1990’s Seasons in the Abyss.

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