Slayer - South of Heaven

South of Heaven

Released 1988 on Def Jam
Reviewed by Dog 3000, 24/02/2004ce

1. South of Heaven
2. Silent Scream
3. Live Undead
4. Behind the Crooked Cross
5. Mandatory Suicide
6. Ghosts of War
7. Read Between the Lies
8. Cleanse the Soul
9. Dissident Agressor
10. Spill the Blood

Tom Araya - vocals, bass
Kerry King - lead guitar
Jeff Hanneman - lead guitar
Dave Lombardo - drums

Slayer was one of the pioneering bands in the Claifornia speed-metal movement of the 1980's, along with Metallica and Megadeth. But unlike those bands, Slayer went whole hog for The Devil Thing (their first album cover featuring a goat-headed guy with a sword and a pentagram.) But unlike Venom (their obvious inspiration) these guys were super-tight at the most frantic tempos, and pretty much every song was frantic. You might say they peaked with their third LP "Reign in Blood" (which is such a widely-hailed masterpiece of the thrash subgenre that it doesn't seem right to call it "Unsung," hence this review instead -- but if you have even a passing interest in metal, you definitely need that one!)

I do recall when "South of Heaven", their fourth full-length, came out in 1988 there was some dissapointment and cries of "sell out" from the headbanger faithful. Because not every song is lightning-fast and the subject matter was starting to get more "serious." Slayer maturing? In a way, yes. Instead of the obsession with the usual devil-metal topics (sacrificing virgins, necrophilia, serial killers, nazis) starting with this record they started to basically write songs about Death. Which is still, after all, one of society's biggest taboos. And these are very graphic songs about death, and also the reasons people die and why they kill. Which in fact makes them very political! (In 1990 their single/video "War Ensemble" was the only tune relating to war that was getting any substantial airplay on MTV -- the song is about air force pilots bombing civilians.)

Musically, I have always thought this was one of Slayer's most underrated albums. As far as the "slower" tempos, it's all about tension-and-release. I think it's a natural and wise move to incorporate some of this after the all-out blitz of "Reign in Blood" (what were they gonna do, just play FASTER?) But the thing that really puts it ahead of the pack for me are King & Hanneman's guitar solos. These guys are so far beyond any kind of blues-based riffing (ala a Jimmy Page) or the classical-inspired stuff (Yngwie & Van Halen), they are spraying the sonic canvas with a streaks of notes and waves of amp racket like a couple of leather-clad Jackson Pollocks! Really radical stuff, like bebop yadig! And I can't say enough about Lombardo the drummer either: before I saw them live I suspected they might actually be using a drum machine, he's so friggin perfect at such ridiculous tempos. But nope, he really does play like an army of robots (nowadays he's in the Fantomas band with Mike Patton & Buzz Osborne.)

The opening title track is a masterpiece of building tension: starts with slowish creeking crypt-door riffage and takes a good 3 minutes just to get to the first chorus & guitar solo, and even then it feels like they're holding back the whole time. It climaxes with abstract expressionist guitar "soloing" into a withering double-blast of sustained feedback from a few dozen marshall amps (like a massive EKG flatlining) which segues straight into . . .

"Silent Scream" which is bashing fastly now at the usual Slayerific tempo. It is sort of an anti-abortion song (much like the Pistol's "Bodies") though it is hard to know how seriously one should take lines like "silent scream, crucify bastard son!" Especially in context, since the next tune "Live Undead" is "Night of the Living Dead" told from the zombie's point of view, and they treat it with the exact same level of seriousness! ("a cannibal's desire feeds the fire that burns in your head / intense pain eats away at your brain.")

The next sequence of songs is where it gets really good. "Behind the Crooked Cross" is a real stomper with a great lyric about being conscripted into Satan's Army of the Damned. Or is it a broader metaphor for being caught in the web of powers beyond your control (like serving time in an army or school or factory?) "Time melts away in this living inferno / trapped by a cause I once understood / blind obedience carries me through it all / do only what is expected of me / March on through the rivers of red!"

"Mandatory Suicide" carries on a similar vibe of an oppressive lack of choices in the face of certain death, doing for the cannon-fodder infantryman what their earlier classic "Angel of Death" had done for victims of the holocaust. "Murder at your every footstep, a child's toy sudden death . . . ambushed by a spray of lead, count the bulletholes in your head . . . blood's cheap, it's everywhere . . . mandatory suicide, massacre on the front line."

Flip to side 2 (remember we still had cassettes & vinyl back in 1988!) and the "war trilogy" concludes with "Ghosts of War" which takes the previous imagery of undead zombies and dying soldiers and combines them: "once forgotten soldiers come to life / fallen mercenary, dormancy is done / not content with wars we never won. . . Rise, ghosts of war!" Again it's cheesy on the surface, but I can't help but read it as a deeper metaphor for the "forces of history" driving nations into conflict.

"Read Between the Lies" is Slayer's take on Evangelical Christians, popular subject matter for Evil Heavy Metal bands in those days. "Praise the lord, Praise God is what you wish to sell / but there is no Heaven without a Hell!"

"Cleanse the Soul" is something of an outlier. It's fast & thrashy, but the "hey let's have a human sacrifice" subject matter seems pretty cheesy compared to the heavier themes that dominate this album. Almost sounds like an outtake from one of their previous records (not that there's really anything wrong with that.)

Slayer's cover of "Dissident Aggressor" is the rare case of a band taking a classic and remaking it as well as, if not better than, the original. It's especially fitting too since Judas Priest was the prime originator of the kind of double-lead-guitar metal that Slayer has perfected. Two ways they top the original: 1) since Araya can't sing opera anyway, the high shrieky vocal bits are replaced with high shrieky guitar bits, which sounds way more heavier; 2) the guitar solo during the bridge is the absolute exemplar of the blurred squalls of sonic abstraction that pass for "lead guitar breaks" on this record!

The finale "Spill the Blood" is another exercise in dynamic tension, almost like a "ballad" if you will, with for the first time ever on a Slayer record (gasp!) a guitar tone that does NOT sound loud & distorted (if not exactly nylon-stringed classical stuff.) Fans of Metallica-style prog/thrash melodrama will find plenty to love about this one. Except in this song the singer's going on about how you should kill yourself and give him your soul, "now smell the stench of immortality!"

When I hear this album I want to never cut my hair again. This is the fuckin' ROCK, dude. You can't play it loud enough!

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