Review Summary: Slayer's best album so far, and extremely enjoyable for any fans of metal. One of the best thrash albums of all time, and definitly a classic.
Call them what you want, but for many years Slayer have been near the top of the Thrash Metal genre. They pretty much made the bible of Thrash “Reign in Blood”. Or did they? True “Reign in Blood” is everything you want from Thrash metal, extremely fast, very aggressive, tons of solos, kick a** songs, and non-stop heaviness. But I think “Reign in Blood” isn’t as great as people say, I think Slayer’s premier album is really “South of Heaven”. Now it’s true “Reign in Blood” is a 35 minute heart attack but it has its flaws. Many of the songs have the same structure, the solos aren’t that different, each song is only 3 minutes at the most, and Araya’s vocals at many times could be better. Here’s why “South of Heaven” surpasses “Reign in Blood”, and should be put in the class of the best Thrash albums out there.
Heaviness, Slayer never lacks it. They’ve been around for 25 years, each of them older than my parents and their putting out tracks that still blow you away. “South of Heaven” is no exception. Many songs on this album are longer yes, but they don’t ever lose that heaviness factor. Take for instance “Ghosts of War”, a three minute track. For Slayer that’s quite awhile, but they keep the heaviness the entire time. The shredding never ends through out, keeping a steady lighting quick pace and balls out riffs. There’s not much more to say about the heaviness factor, just like many Slayer albums it comes early and often, and pretty much every song on “South of Heaven” is heavy enough to make even your parents air guitar a little…a little.
Speed, another thing that Slayer’s sound never lacks. “Reign in Blood” is pretty much a non-stop roller coaster and speed is what makes it great. “South of Heaven” is basically a taller, and longer, yet just as fast roller coaster. Take the album title track “South of Heaven”, one of the titans among the greatest tracks in Thrash history. It is the longest track on the album, and the first. It’s just as “Angel of Death” is to “Reign in Blood”. Except I think “South of Heaven” tops it, just take intros for example. “Angel of Death” goes right into the quick and heavy pace of the song, signaled by a very loud screech by Tom Araya (vocals, bass). With “South of Heaven” we have something very different. “South of Heaven” has one of my favorite intros of all time, with a god-like riff that could send chills down even Satan’s spine. It repeats that same riff, getting heavier and faster as it goes along, until about two minutes in, then after a quick drum sequence is followed up by Araya beginning to sing in a more “listener friendly” tone than just a loud screech. Once the intro is over the song never looks back, in transition through choruses and verses the speed never falters, nor does the heaviness. You even get that long awaited solo like getting to the center of a tootsie roll, and it comes in at about 4 minutes into the song, finally closing out the song with distortion. The song begins slower and ends slower, but throughout most of the song until the distortion ending the song stomps on the gas pedal and never looks back going full throttle.
Intros, definitely a huge step up from “Reign in Blood”, and really make each track that much better in “South of Heaven”. A couple of tracks that come to mind are “South of Heaven” (As I talked about before), “Spill the Blood” and “Mandatory Suicide”. “Reign in Blood” seems like those endless re-runs of shows you’ve seen before that you only watch when you’re alone and there is nothing else on. Each song just threw you right into the thick of the riffs and vocals and everything. On “South of Heaven” the intros make the songs more interesting. It shows off a catchy and creative heaviness, starting the listener off with a fresh song, not just one big 35 minute long song.
Lyrics are a part of Slayer’s sound that has been very edgy and controversial throughout their career. Thoughts of Slayer being Nazi’s or Satanists have steered some listeners away. In “South of Heaven” the lyrics are the usual gore-filled imagery of dead bodies and hells are rampant in “South of Heaven”. Slayer have been big on not changing throughout their career, and lyrics are something they aren’t going to change either. So maybe they lose a few fans to “kids bop” or “Now that’s what I call music infinity” but they don’t appeal to those types of listeners. Slayer really do what they want and just make good music, and at times as a Christian myself the lyrics might have been a little hard to listen to but that’s not really the point of the music. It’s to be just as they’ve been for the entire 25 years they’ve been around and not change their style and just to be great. The lyrics really don’t bother me, and are very creative, to say the least.
Instrumentally “South of Heaven” includes some of Slayer’s best work. The guitarists would be a good place to start with. Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King are an excellent guitar duo, and show it on each and every Slayer album. “Reign in Blood” and “South of Heaven” are different in terms of guitars. “South of Heaven” has extremely quick riffs as well as “Reign in Blood”, but there is one key difference… the solos. Yes with every song by Slayer that solo is always somewhere in the song. In “Reign in Blood” as I said before the solos almost sounded repeated and almost annoying at times. Yet in “South of Heaven” the solos are more complex, just as loud and fast and pretty different compared to “Reign in Blood”. Other than the solos Hanneman and King do a very good job in both albums, lacing each and every riff at light speeds at the right place at the right time. With “Reign in Blood” the guitar work might be a bit more frenzied but it’s still great guitar work. When it comes to guitars you have to include the bass. Tom Araya is the bassist and vocals; he’s definitely a huge contribution to Slayer’s sound. The bass itself does not go unheard at any point in “South of Heaven”. Araya’s bass shreds just as much as the guitars, and helps add that brutal heaviness in the mix instead of just frenzied guitars. His bass lines help add a crucial backbone to Slayer’s sound. He puts a more gruesome feel to the music that helps the listener visualize the hellish lyrics instead of just listen to them.
Continuing on with the instrumental work we come to the drummer of Slayer, Dave Lombardo. His drumming is pretty similar in “Reign in Blood” and “South of Heaven”, basically more symbol oriented than the usual double bass pedal for most metal bands. His drumming is the backbone to Slayer’s speed, his drumming isn’t very technical but it doesn’t need to be. Slayer is not a technical metal band at all, they are Thrash Metal. So Lombardo just plays as quick as possible and gets the job done. The last key instrumental part of Slayer’s sound is the vocals. Araya has a very different voice compared to most metal bands. Most metal bands have a sloppy yell or grunt that can get very annoying. Araya uses a mix of both styles, making his style unique. In “Reign in Blood” Araya uses his high pitched scream more, but in “South of Heaven” he uses a more calm yell, and shows off a pretty wide range of vocals. From softer vocals that grow into a loud yell to screaming high pitched vocals during the apexes of songs. Araya’s vocals on “South of Heaven” are amongst the cleanest and easiest to hear when it comes to most metal bands.
So there you have it, mostly all the aspects that make “South of Heaven” a classic Thrash Metal album, and why it should be considered Slayer’s best instead of “Reign in Blood”. “South of Heaven” is a very enjoyable album, and showcases Slayer at their best. I would recommend it to anyone looking to get into the metal genre, and most definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to venture out deeper into the Thrash Metal genre.