Having created one of the most legendary thrash albums ever with 1986's great Reign In Blood (which was also the band's first truly good album; search your feelings, you know it's true...), the pressure for Slayer to deliver with their follow-up record was overwhelming, and I'm sure a lot of fans just wanted Reign In Blood: Part II, with the same sort of short, simple, fast, punk & hardcore-influenced songwriting of the first one.
Fortunately, the band knew they'd never be able to out-do Reign in intensity, and didn't wish to stagnate creatively, so they took a divisive, out-of-left-field approach with South Of Heaven, which is obvious right from the first moments of the title track; instead of an "Angel Of Death"-like blast of guitar shredding, we get a slow, clean, echoing guitar line that's almost leisurely in tempo, but what it lacks for in heaviness, it more than makes up with sheer evilness and spine-chill factor. A big change right off the bat from Reign In Blood's approach, I know, but next to "Angel...", it really is the more original, memorable way to start off an album, and the song keeps going strong with Dave Lombardo's highly-fluid, newly-groovy drumming (some of the best of his legendary career), Tom Araya's taunting, venom-infused vocalwork, and the way the track keeps a compelling, ever-building tension and pressure to its pacing, never fully opening the valves so to speak, unlike RiB's non-stop, half-hour thrashjaculation (as awesome as that was, though).
It's a great summation of the differences between Reign and SoH, though not every song here is as toned-down in tempo, since "Silent Scream" immediately kicks in afterwards with an unbelievably-furious pummeling of riffing & double-bass drumwork. If you were a fan hoping to hear more blisteringly-fast material on South Of Heaven, then there's no way you won't like "Silent Scream", as this one doesn't let up for a single millisecond, and may even have THE most intense solo the band has ever recorded. Whew! I need to smoke a cig just thinking about it, and I don't even smoke!
Next up is "Live Undead", which is one of my top Slayer songs, and a great meeting-point between the sensibilities of the title track and "Silent Scream", as it begins with an ominous, slower guitar line, and keeps the tempo down in its first half (ala "South Of Heaven"), but then lets loose with a relentless shredfest during its second half (ala "Silent Scream"), making two very different tastes work wonderfully together. It's a great pleasure here to marvel at how well Slayer gradually keeps cranking up the tension of the song, and keeps melding in the layers of the overall masterpiece.
So all in all, South Of Heaven begins with an absolutely stellar trilogy of songs, but with the tepid "Behind The Crooked Cross", the album hits its first speed bump, with riffs that fail to hook and a very inadequate, ill-advised attempt at clean "singing" by Araya, who just sounds kind of bored here. C'mon dude, you know you can't sing! It's why you're known for shouting (and a little for falsettos), duh. "Mandatory Suicide" is a little better (love that opening riff), but only a little bit; like "Crooked Cross", it too, suffers from clean singing and an overall lack of intensity.
Fortunately, despite an annoyingly-muted intro, "Ghosts Of War" gets the album back up to speed, both figuratively and literally. It still isn't quite as good as the opening trilogy, but it'll more than do, especially coming after those last two duds. "Read Between The Lies" is on the same level of quality, and "Cleanse The Soul" is even better, so I have nothing but good to say for them, and while the Judas Priest cover "Dissident Aggressor" is somewhat unnecessary (no space-y synth intro, and I know Tom can do falsettos, so why is he letting the guitar shriek for him here??), "Spill The Blood" still closes out the album well with more deliciously evil opening guitar and compellingly-slow pacing.
So, I more than understand all the SLAYYYERRR! fans who were let down by South Of Heaven, as I myself was disappointed by certain songs, but the other, good-to-great songs here ensures the rating of 4 that you see. And even with the songs I don't like that much, I still have to give Slayer credit for taking risks and forging new creative paths for themselves, especially with the rabid fanbase Reign In Blood's style created. Hell, if this whole thing was as good as the opening trilogy, we'd be looking at an album that would rival even the great Master Of Puppets, so, even if I didn't like anything here outside those first three, I would still have positive feelings towards Heaven. It isn't quite as satisfying as the raw, unrestrained aggression of Reign In Blood, nor as sure-footed as the overall fast/mid-tempo balance of Seasons In The Abyss, but South Of Heaven will always have a special place in my heart as Slayer's ugly little duckling that could.