Review Summary: Red means stop, yellow means slow down. Green means headbang like no ones watching.
In 1988, Slayer were an established metal act. Tours upon tours, albums sold by the boatload. Deservedly so most would say. Many bands would cave to complacency and do what is expected. But rather than resting on their laurels, and making "Reign In Blood II: Electric Boogaloo", they decided to take a different route. A much different route. "South of Heaven" is a slower side to Slayer, with occasional bursts of sheer violence and mayhem. The songwriting is much improved over "Reign In Blood", and they've gone back to doing what they do best. Being evil.
Saying "South Of Heaven" is slow would be absurd. Compared to "Reign In Blood", there is certainly a change of pace. "Reign In Blood" was insanely paced, with each songs purpose being to smash your cranium with speed and aggression. The approach is much different this time, with the decision to go back to songwriting first, speed second. Tracks like "Ghosts Of War" and "South Of Heaven" utilize speed changes to enunciate tone of the song. When the intro to "Silent Scream" kicks in after the toss and turn devilishness of "South Of Heaven", the sheer impact it leaves is immense. You'd be hard pressed to find a person who won't move any limb or body part to that song, as it is the epitome of "headbanging music". Speed was utilized to great measures on "Reign In Blood", and is used to great effect here as well. Except rather than all fast, or all slow, the ebb and flow of the music is more intriguing and aesthetic than previous works.
After the more mainline approach to lyricism on "Reign In Blood", it was decided somewhere to go back to being evil and purely Satanic, and to an even higher degree. The album art just screams evil, with a demolished church in ruins and inverted crosses everywhere. The lyricism here is evil, but on an almost scholarly level. Whereas "Hell Awaits" was certainly geared toward a certain theme, the theme is more eloquently approached here. "South Of Heaven" is debatably meant to be one of two things. Hell, or if directionally accurate, the southern direction from Heaven would be Earth. It's an ominous apocalyptic entendre, and a good indication of how well the lyrics are written here. Rather than the stock "666 Hail Satan and the evil one", you have "Empty altar awaits its victim, Stained glass windows black,
Candles burn the midnight oil, Incense fills the night". (Cleanse The Soul) These lyrics are almost poetic, and illicit a visual response that is in accordance with the music. Slayer's lyrics would become more watered down as time went on, but "South Of Heaven" is lyrically their best work, and some of the best thrash metal lyricism ever heard.
In summation, "South Of Heaven", while slower and more eerie, is a well crafted masterpiece, with intense lyrics, superb riffing, and overall gleaming performances from all four members. The reign would not last forever, but this and their previous works at the time are not only their best work but some of the most classic works in heavy metal history. Slowed down, they are still immensely evil, and that says something for a band who created a name for being as fast and ferocious as they come. One word of advice. Remember to headbang in time with the music. No one likes a sloppy windmill.