Slayer – South of Heaven (1988)
The first half of South of Heaven represents Slayer firing on all cylinders, and despite all the strong points of their previous discography may even be the high point of their entire career. The second half? Not so much. This album also showcases Slayer falling off the leading edge of metal extremity and aggression, since they decided to make a more varied (or at least occasionally ‘doomy’) recording instead of exploring the nascent death metal they had helped inspire. I’m not complaining, since it does give the band an opportunity to flex their songwriting muscles in a way we didn’t hear on Reign in Blood.
As something of a stylistic compilation, South of Heaven doesn’t push Slayer’s songwriting as far as Hell Awaits did a few years before, but it also has a marginally better production and arguably makes better use of the enhanced speed and velocity that Slayer had explored by 1988 during its faster sections. It’s still something of an experimental album on the rhythm front, and it also showcases things like Tom Araya trying to actually sing, with mixed results. Araya’s singing voice is flat, to put it bluntly, but it actually works on a track like “Behind the Crooked Cross” that demands some implication of psychological scarring and PTSD to match its lyrical content. Other times, it falls… well… flat; Araya’s screams on previous Slayer albums provided accentuation and dynamics, and with the attempted singing, they seem scarce here (although there’s a good one on “Live Undead”).
In general, the fact that South of Heaven repeats a lot of the ideas developed on previous Slayer albums is responsible for most of its positive and negative characteristics. Those old ideas were quite effective, as you could probably infer from listening to those albums, or the thousands of bands that did similar and were thusly influenced. The weaker tracks, concentrated towards the end as they are, aren’t particularly out of the ordinary, at least for this period. This leads me to believe that Slayer just pushed their weaker tracks to the end of the album in the hopes that the good stuff at the beginning would sell the album. Not something I’d dwell on too heavily, although the different scatterings of strong tracks on previous Slayer albums kind of tempts me to do so on occasion.
Given that Slayer’s ’80s work is one of the high points of metal, though, it’s still a worthy acquisition, but were you really expecting me to say anything else? It’s more Slayer in a similar style to the old stuff and generally well executed, too.
Highlights: “South of Heaven”, “Live Undead”, “Ghosts of War”