5 out of 5
Label: Def American
Produced by: Rick Rubin
The somewhat split opinions regarding South of Heaven – from the band, from critics, from fans – is understandable: it’s a definite (and purposeful) change from what came before, and, frankly, from what would come after. Not that it was outright rejected at the time, more that it seemed to have been met with bipolar takes – some of it was great, some of it wasn’t. Its over-time inclusion in the holy trinity of Slayer classics (this, Reign in Blood, and followup Seasons in the Abyss is equally apropos: it is insane that stuff released at the tail end of the 80s sounds this good, and this developed. And, to my ears, South of Heaven is the pinnacle of that impressiveness. Reign in Blood is the undisputed king of thrash; it’s not exactly that SoH tops that, its more like a twin star to it: you can’t beat Reign’s fury, and for South of Heaven, Slayer then tapped in to this fusion of hard rock, sprinkled with country rock (this is Scissorfight years before they existed…), and then managed to keep a solid base of intense thrash and Hellish imagery fueling the thing along.
Seasons would peel this move back a bit, trying to effectively balance out the two sounds, but it’s almost too polished for my tastes, whereas South is utterly terrifying and powerful throughout. The mix still sounds raw, and Rubin’s production sharpness is there, but studio trickery is kept to a minimum, allowing for some devastatingly unique solos, drum fills, and bass lines to all find their place across the disc’s 36 minutes. Araya’s lyrics are still searching for a new anchor, having abandoned some of their previous serial killer / war crimes influences, but instead of this watering down his vocals’ impact (which, again, personal opinion, is how I responded to Seasons in the Abyss), it’s leaned in to on the songs: their deep compositions and switches between sludge and wild thrash allow for Araya’s words to be more open-ended, similarly giving more value to his ranging between metal screams, thrash, and talky-singing.
It’s 2018. This was released 30 years ago, and it still blows the doors off of the majority of thrash / metal records released since.