Review Summary: Forget Reign in Blood - this is Slayer's definitive album.
Slayer met their critical peak in 1986 with their studio album Reign in Blood. With ten short, fast chunks of pure evil, they helped define thrash metal as it is known today. In fact, many can hardly think of metal without thinking of pentagrams, death, or the occult. Slayer (along with bands like Venom) gave metal a deathly vibe that inspired many bands to follow in their footsteps, trying hard to sound progressively darker. So, could a band that created one of the heaviest, most sinister albums of all time create another album epic? The answer: yes. And Slayer does it very well in 1988's South of Heaven.
If one were to listen to all Slayer albums in order, the first thing he or she would notice about this record is that it's significantly slower than the previous ones. The band members themselves acknowledged that they had qualms about lowering the raging tempos, but while some fans may not enjoy the relatively low aggression in some of the tracks, it is hard to deny that Slayer's move was a good one. Yes, they sacrificed speed, but in turn, they sound much more haunting - frightening, even - on South of Heaven. The album opens up with the title song, whose riff, while bearing some resemblance to that of "Raining Blood," carries a presence of its own that few metal bands could produce. It starts to open up, and Dave Lombardo kicks in with some of his best drumming. It's not as mindlessly rapid as his earlier work, but shows creativity and finesse. Over the guitar, Tom Araya starts singing (yes, singing) melodically, ending the intro with the vicious, sarcastic "before you see the light, you must die!" and the song finally reveals its heaviness through the work of Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King. This song can possibly be compared to being in a descending elevator with Hell itself being revealed to the listener.
"South of Heaven" segues into the next track quite nicely, a fast-paced bite of thunder called "Silent Scream." Songs like this and "Ghosts of War" will probably appeal to more traditional Slayer fans, as they are at the classic speedy tempos of older work. There are also songs of moderate tempos such as "Live Undead." It's this variety that makes the album so appealing. Listening to Reign in Blood was exhilarating the first few times, but the repetitive nature of the tracks wore out rather quickly, at least to my ears. South of Heaven has musical surprises and shocks in ever corner, like a house of horrors. It captures every bit of Slayer's technical ability in myriad ways.
For starters, it is worth noting that the solos by Hanneman and King are a bit more creative on this album. No, they're still not that good, but Slayer has always preferred for their solos to sound strained and horrific (to imitate human screams) rather than virtuosic and technical. Here, they do explore some different areas, such as in "Spill the Blood," which is surprisingly atmospheric and varied, and actually does include some tuneful elements. The rest of the guitar work is also much more experimental, with a rhythmic introduction in "Behind the Crooked Cross" and an acoustic-sounding starter in "Spill the Blood." However, the driving force through this album is the drumming. It's simply superb. There is not a single track which has anything below a spectacular drum line, which is both rhythmic and sophisticated. "Behind the Crooked Cross" features some of Lombardo's best drumming, which is ever-present and retains some of the feelings from Reign in Blood. This is also the case with "Read Between the Lies," which combines the fast undertones of thrash metal with the diversity of more classic heavy metal.
Speaking of classic metal, it is worth noting that on the record is a cover of Judas Priest's "Dissident Aggressor." Of course, since Tom's vocal range could not match that of Halford's, the high-pitched wails in the original track are replaced by loud guitar bends. However, the cover is a good one, and is very distinctly Slayer-esque. No, they did not write the song, but added their own style to it, and it's definitely worth a listen. Or ten.
Lyrically, Slayer hasn't changed much. Araya pens some of the lyrics, but the overarching themes in Slayer's music (death, the occult, religion) are still the same. In "Mandatory Suicide," Araya roars about war, declaring "lying, dying, screaming in pain. begging, pleading, bullets drop like rain/Mines explode, pain sheers through your brain, radical amputation, this is insane." Perhaps the themes covered are somewhat more mature and realistic than those in Reign in Blood, Hell Awaits, or Show No Mercy, however; "Silent Scream" possibly talks about abortion, and "Ghosts of War" about... what else? Either way, Slayer is still being Slayer here, controversial and dark as all hell. No pun intended.
So, how does it stand with Reign in Blood? Well, that album has gone down in history as one of the most influential albums in metal history. Sadly, South of Heaven is often forgotten as an album for this reason. However, musically and lyrically, it surpasses Reign in Blood. Tom's vocals range from wretched yells to melodic singing, Kerry and Jeff work together fantastically, both complimenting each other, and Dave roars away on his drums. The only instrument that isn't so present here is the bass guitar. That being said, South of Heaven captures all one needs to know about Slayer - the force, the music, and the pure evil that helped them attain the prominence in heavy metal they have.