Review Summary: Dividing both fans and critics, this enduring album might be the heaviest of all time. Forget what you've heard about Araya's "singing" or the slowed-down pace of some of the songs. This is a classic and perhaps the most enduring of the whole Slayer cat
Ahhh...the Slayer album that divided both fans and critics equally. For that reason alone, respect is deserved...especially coming on the heels of the undeniably classic Reign In Blood in 1986. South of Heaven is the album that started my transformation into a fan of the band, as I didn't think much of them at the time of Reign In Blood's release. I just didn't care for what they were creating...until this disc.
Many fans slag this album because they were a) expecting Reign In Blood pt 2 or b) they didn't like the fact that Tom Araya sings on some tracks. Quite frankly, both of these factors are part of what makes this the most creatively diverse and enduring album by the band in my opinion. Indeed, for my ears, South of Heaven is the heaviest album of all time.
Yes, there are other albums with more ridiculous amounts of distortion, more abrasive vocals, yada yada, but the heaviness of this album is amazing in that Slayer are creating relentlessly defiant and agonizing wails using the same warm tube-amp driven guitar tones most people use to create actual melodies. What pass for melodies here are the sounds of absolute hoplelessness as Araya and Co. create a monumental "F*** You" with this album, as if to say "Oh...you want me to sing? Yyyeahhh...ok, I'll sing for you. How's this...you spill the bloooooooood!"
Yep, what many critics have described as Araya sounding "bored" singing on some tracks sounds more to me like a vocalist creating dark, agonizing melodies to match the tone of the lyrics. The pacing of the music allows each horrible syllable of Araya's poison (straight from history and the evening news) to be more clearly understood, only adding to the menace...kinda like the dream/nightmare we all have at some point where we're running away from someone or something but can't run fast enough because our feet are heavy as concrete. The impending menace of this album is much like what I would imagine it would be like to not be able to wake up from the aforementioned dream.
Dave Lombardo is just a monster on this album, whether driving the speedier tracks like Silent Scream or providing relentless power groove on tracks like Behind the Crooked Cross or Read Between the Lies. Y'know, that flat, dry drum sound sure adds to the overall dark emptiness of the album's sound while Lombardo pummels you with impossible fills.
And the guitars...dear God, it sounds as if Kerry King and Jeff Hannemann (RIP) found some guitars that just were not made to create melody. The riffs, licks, and impossibly tonal/atonal solos sound like the guitars are absolutely kicking, screaming and fighting off any attempt made to create melody, resulting the the dark, dismal, empty and indeed evil sound on the whole thing. King and Hannemann's ability to create atonal disharmony and turn it into riffs/solos is unparallelled.
From the opening intro of the title track, through Silent Scream, Behind the Crooked Cross, Mandatory Suicide, Ghosts of War, Read Between the Lies and album closer Spill The Blood, Slayer has created an album that not only exists in its own world, but exists in its own world within the mighty Slayer catalogue itself. This is the album that bridges the gap between Sabbath and Priest and Slayer's own modern and speedy permutation.
Tom Araya himself describes the album as a "slow grower" that most people appreciated later on. If you love heavy music, this is essential listening. It may not grab you right off the bat, but repeated listens will reveal more dynamics and texture than you'll find on any other Slayer disc. I like pretty much everything in the Slayer catalogue from Reign in Blood to the present, but South Of Heaven is the disc I return to with alarmingly more frequency than the rest of the catalogue combined.