(Or, to quote my sister when I showed her the CD I'd just purchased: "Why don't they just call it 'Hell'?")
Thriller was not an album. It was a cultural phenomenon. I lived through the MJ days, so if you missed out, you can trust me when I tell you that everything you've ever read and/or heard about how massive the man and his music were back in the 1980s is the gospel truth. Everyone loved Thriller. It sold tens of millions, owned the 1984 Grammy Awards, and singlehandedly changed the "M" in MTV from music to Michael. Could any artist fathom the amount of pressure he felt to follow all of that up?
Yes. Slayer could.
Oh, I've lost you already. The eyes are rolling, the tongues are clucking, the cries go up, Oh what is to be done with this Trapper Jenn and her hit-hungry hysteria? While it is true that Reign In Blood has not sold millions, nor received multiple industry hosannas, or been remixed by Will.I.Am, it did mark a major milestone for metal music. Up to that point in time, no album had been that unrelentingly heavy, in both subject matter and delivery. Slayer proved themselves A-1 flesh-rippers, simultaneously inspiring awe and envy in their peers. Every band that heard it knew they had to top it, someway somehow.
Did Slayer themselves ever feel that same urge?
South of Heaven sent a sizable jolt coursing through the metal community as an eager audience absorbed what was the same and what was different. Ten songs like before, but a running time eight minutes longer. Rick Rubin behind the boards yet again. Larry Carroll on the cover yet again, with demons lurking in orifices.
But…the Slayer m.o. has shifted from slaughter to smolder. Everything sounds a bit mellower (save for Dave Lombardo's drumming), a bit more thoughtful, a bit less willing to bludgeon first then ask questions.
Slayer themselves are not huge fans of this album, Kerry King in particular. In addition to some beefs with the songs themselves, he was/is a vocal non-fan of Tom Araya's performance behind the microphone, which went from growling and screaming to singing. Reading about Kerry's attitude surprised me a bit, since he was recently-wed at the time, and it's been my experience that newly-married people tend to enjoy stuff way too much. Then I did some history, and discovered his connubial bliss meant he was not as involved in the songwriting for South of Heaven, resulting in the first Slayer album to not feature a song solely written by King. And of course he was divorced several years later. So the enmity isn't precisely a mystery, then.
Certified gold five years after release. People are the legitimate shittiest.
"South of Heaven"--After switching it up on the last record, Slayer return to kicking off the proceedings with updates on the current status of Hell. (Still hot, still eternal, still got more soul than it can control.) The unnatural amplification of unnatural desires clouds the air, as ever.
Slayer News also confirms the existence of an afterlife! Lamentably, going from alive-alive to dead-alive is the only transmigratory experience we'll get. So be careful what you wish for. You might just get Slayer.
"South of Heaven" progresses at a relative snail's pace, but that is one motherfucker of a shell on its back, no? There is no need for the "fight or flight response" in Hell, but the desire to do both is strong throughout. The last forty seconds are a drone that submerges bodies and subsumes spirits. Turn me on, dead guys. On and on.
"Silent Scream"--Dave Lombardo quit Slayer in 1986, over growing financial concerns. He was coaxed back into the fold by Rick Rubin in time for the next record, and there was much rejoicing. Because what you hear is not a wooden stick striking plastic skins. That is a golden scepter crashing against the sides of a granite obelisk. That is a king taking his bejeweled head-piece to a servant's bare backside. That is Piggy being murdered by his conch.
Speaking of kids who need to die…
The Silent Scream is the title of an anti-abortion propaganda video released in 1984. It became a sensation among people who were really sad and uncomfortable at the thought of women practicing bodily autonomy. The major selling point of this sexist shit-show was ultrasound footage that purported to show in-process abortions. Most chilling of all, the viewer is treated to the sight of a fetus with its mouth contorted into an "open-mouthed scream," proving beyond the silhouette of a suspicion that fetuses feel pain thus abortion is murder thus do what the Lord wills, you insane sluts!
Tom wrote the words, with all the references to "sacrific(ing) the unborn" and "electric circus wild deep in the infants mind." Considering he's an non-lapsed Catholic, I ain't surprised. I don't actually care that much to start ranting. No, really, any time a man shares his opinion on abortion all I hear is Charlie Brown's teacher.
Luckily for me I can listen to "Silent Scream" without gritting my teeth. Turns out trumpet doesn't go so bad with thrash metal, first off. But mainly it whisks me right back to 2007, at the 9:30 Club, when I saw Slayer play live for the first and only time. "Silent Scream" was on the setlist that night, and it inspired some of my most intense headbanging. Thinking about that show always gives me the happy thoughts. Some guy near me was miming air-chords and air-solos to every song. That is dedication, kids.
"Live Undead"--Zombies are so overhyped. I'll cower quicker at a quacker apocalypse (the wood ducks will try and fool ya--don't let 'em fool ya).
Time to take a nice bite down on a nicer slice of human layer cake. My appetite isn't even ruined when the sounds of frantic flesh beating against wood and metal hit my ears, running concurrently with the terrified shrieks of…some…one? Thing? Oh, the days I believed claustrophobia was the fear of Santa Claus. Such innocent times.
This "new" sonic template fits Slayer well. Start out slow and seething before ratcheting up the madness.
"Behind the Crooked Cross"--Jeff Hanneman's song entirely, and he apparently never cared much for it. It does smell faintly of "Here's another song about Nazis since the last one went over like bacon pancakes," but it doesn't smell at all like bacon pancakes. You would have been executed for even suggesting such a food-mash in the 1940s.
"Mandatory Suicide"--One of the most-loved songs on South of Heaven*, but to my ears the one that has aged poorest. When it comes to Big 4 condemnations of government-ordered open-air massacre, "Mandatory Suicide" simply doesn't match up to Metallica's "Disposable Heroes." Repeated listens reveal two glaring flaws:
--The song lacks both lyrical and musical gravitas, that presence of puissance which elevates good to great.
--The outro, where the listener finds out Tom Araya's speaking voice is as snoringly sapless as his "Slayer voice" is sumptuously sinister. Oh, the days I believed in Santa Claus.
"Ghosts of War"--MOAR WAR.
The first nineteen seconds are a buried-in-the-mix reprise of "Chemical Warfare"'s final riff. Brilliant idea. From the twentieth second on, shit is bonkers as a comically oversized fruit crashing through the roof onto some piano-plonking poindexter.
I especially adore every exhilarating second of the chorus. Imagine the sight of your most hated enemy's head spontaneously combusting, multiply it by a thousand, then divide that by a hundred. There you are.
"Read Between the Lies"--Song #3,578 of the "Evil Evangelist" craze that swept through metal music in the 80s. Wherein Slayer take the riff they usually reserve for the bridges of their songs and use it instead for the verses. It's okay, just weird. I keep thinking there's ninety seconds of the song I'm missing out on.
"Cleanse the Soul"--Thank you, Kerry King's rabid hatred of this track, for introducing me to the phrase happy riff. (He means the part beginning at six seconds, not the dun-DUN!! dun-DUN!!) I find this to be a raucous delight. I would never kill scores of people in a church, not when there's so many abandoned buildings still standing, but I can see how hagiographic art is a fetish for some people.
"Dissident Aggressor"--Decent, ultimately unnecessary Judas Priest cover. Treat yo'self to the original.
"Spill the Blood"--Jeff's songs tend to be real creepy sons-a-bitches. Tom's whining only heightens the ghoulish atmosphere. Dave is still snapping bones, this time to ward off the tempter. Kerry is…on his honeymoon, I think.
Time has been kind to South of Heaven. Enjoyed not as a follow-up to the so-called "heaviest album ever," but as a stand-alone work in a monumentally accomplished discography, it proves to be a flawed but worthwhile listening experience. Let the fires from down below melt away the constrictive steel of expectation.
*The promo CD single didn't hurt notoriety either. The officially-released T-shirt with this design is assumed rare by many and goes for exorbitant amounts at online auctions.