Review Summary: On and on, South of Heaven!
Slayer's Reign in Blood, released in 1986, was both critically lauded and commercially successful. This put Slayer in a tight spot when it came time to release a follow-up. Rather than taking the easy way out by making a Reign in Blood duplicate, Slayer takes a different approach. They deliberately slow down their tempo and utilize both toned-down vocals and undistorted guitars. The result: South of Heaven, a masterpiece of the thrash metal genre.
Despite being slowed down and more melodic than Reign in Blood, South of Heaven is just as brutal. Between the screamed vocals, intense drumming, and lightning-fast, frenzied guitar solos, South of Heaven both matches, and often surpasses, the quality of all previous Slayer releases. Slowing down was something Slayer had never done before and have never done since this release, making this album a unique offering in the Slayer discography. Honestly, the slower tempo turned out to be a great move. This allows Slayer to build a haunting and often disturbing atmosphere with each song.
The first track, "South of Heaven" sets the pace for the rest of the album. It creeps in with an eerie riff and minimalist drumming. Then, the vocals kick in. Tom Araya starts out with slow, clean vocals, telling of "an unforeseen future nestled somewhere in time." As the lyrics become more and more disturbing, the sound begins to build, becoming darker and darker. Suddenly, Araya bursts out with the greatest line ever written in thrash metal history: "Before you see the light, you must DIE!" The main riff explodes, and the song truly begins. The title track is riddled with crazy guitar solos and violent drumming; but most of all, it has a dark, bloodcurdling atmosphere. The rest of the tracks on the album are, stylistically, more-or-less like the title track. Some of the songs mainly focus on building a disturbing atmosphere ("Spill the Blood") while other songs are occupied on being as thrashy as humanly possible ("Live Undead").
Slayer are at the top their game instrumentally. The guitar solos are just as ludicrous as they've ever been. Lead guitarists Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King complement each other nicely, as they flawlessly trade solos between one another. Tom Araya's bass playing is a huge step up from Reign in Blood, an album where Araya's bass playing was simple and, more often than not, lost in the mix. Here, the bass is always audible and helps keep the songs together while Hanneman and King shred uncontrollably to their heart's delight. The real highlight of the album, however, is Dave Lombardo on drums. Simply put, the drumming is out of this world. It stands out above all else on every song and produces some of the most incredible moments on the entire album (listen to "Live Undead" and "Read Between the Lies"). Slayer's instrumental improvement cannot be denied on South of Heaven, and would continue into their next studio album, Seasons in the Abyss.
The only major weak point on the album is Tom Araya's vocals. Due to the production, his vocals often become muddled between the pounding drums and chaotic riffs. This is especially present on "Behind the Crooked Cross," a song where his vocals are so quiet that nothing he says can possibly be made out. Despite this, however, Araya's vocals still sound savage as ever. "Live Undead" has Araya delivering one of his signature, high-pitched screams while "Mandatory Suicide" ends with clean, spoken vocals which add to the song's chilling atmosphere. For the most part, however, the vocals on South of Heaven are noticeably less harsh than previous Slayer releases, which is a slight disappointment.
It is unfortunate that South of Heaven is usually disregarded as the worst of Slayer's classic 1986-1990 releases. It really has just as much to offer as Seasons in the Abyss and Reign in Blood. While it doesn't have the technical and lyrical depth of Seasons in the Abyss or the sheer intensity of Reign in Blood, South of Heaven is still enjoyable enough to be considered a thrash metal masterpiece.