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With “South Of Heaven” Slayer made its foray into more melodic and midpaced territory. After the clusterbomb that was “Reign In Blood” it was wise of the band to slow down and once again pen more elaborate material. Having pushed the speed/thrash metal genre in terms of speed and overall intensity “South Of Heaven” sounds more controlled and distills the band’s sound into a crunchy whole. This comes at the price of being less confrontational and the integration of a less savage vocal style. Produced with Rick Rubin at Hit City West in Los Angeles “South Of Heaven” was the last album to feature Araya’s falsetto and the first to have Araya play bass guitar with a pick instead of his previous finger picked style. This album marks the beginning of Slayer’s second era, and it is the one but last recording to feature original drummer Dave Lombardo.

slayer-classicAs history would note Kerry King (lead guitars) was going through a dry spell in terms of creativity due to his then-recent marriage and moving to Phoenix, Arizona. Thus Jeff Hanneman leads the charge with King only contributing to three songs. Contrary to King the writing style of Hanneman is more involved and compositionally more ambitious. There is a greater focus on leads/solos, and in architecture and composition this record is closer related to “Hell Awaits” than to its more urgent sounding direct predecessor. This is perhaps not all that surprising since “Hell Awaits” was also written in its majority by the technically more refined guitarist Jeff Hanneman, with King contributing to three tracks and having sole writing credit for the truly vicious ‘Praise Of Death’. As it stands Hanneman is responsible for the classics. For all albums up to this point Hanneman wrote the lion’s share of the material, with the exception of “Reign In Blood” which was written almost in its entirety by Kerry King resulting a more straightforward experience.

In contrast to the preceding records Slayer opens with the title track, and much like “Hell Awaits” it has an extended, nearly minute-long opening. ‘South Of Heaven’ is a moderately paced piece that slowly builds towards its climax. Despite the slower overall pace the band manage to sound incredibly evil, and the goofy satanic lyrics are actually full of powerful imagery. Even though the tempo is still high, it is much slower than on the previous records. Overall “South Of Heaven” is faster than “Hell Awaits” but this is mainly due to the leaner riff construction and Lombardo’s breakneck drumming. Araya’s vocals are much more subdued, and not nearly as unhinged as on prior records. ‘Live Undead’ stands out in the sense that it feels like a “Show No Mercy” b-side that was rewritten to fit the band’s current, much slower interpretation of its sound. ‘Behind the Crooked Cross’ sounds like Slayer trying to one-up Metallica’s thematically similar ‘Leper Messiah’. ‘Mandatory Suicide’, a protest song against war, is one of the album highlights, along with the title track – and both have become perennial live staples in the band’s setlist. For good reason, both are the strongest cuts the band has ever penned.

The change in style is further emphasized by moving the lyrics into more socio-political territory dealing with warfare, organized religion and serial murder instead of the band’s previous subjects of horror, and goofy Satanism. ‘Silent Scream’ is a pro-abortion song, ‘Behind the Crooked Cross’ and ‘Read Between the Lies’ deal with the ills of organized religion, while ‘Ghosts Of War’ and ‘Mandatory Suicide’ describe the horrors of war and the general absurdity of the situation. ‘Live Undead’, ‘Cleanse the Soul’ and ‘Spill the Blood’ are more of the usual Slayer horror fare, and ‘South Of Heaven’ combines religion and horror in what, arguably, is the best Slayer track up to that point.  Tom Araya’s falsetto appears for the last time in ‘Live Undead’ and he takes songwriting credits for the lyrics to ‘South Of Heaven’, ‘Silent Scream’ and ‘Ghosts Of War’ while contributing material to a further three tracks. “South Of Heaven” is a team effort on part of Hanneman and Araya, with the latter making his presence felt in the vocal slot. “South Of Heaven” is the first to include spoken vocals, appearing first in ‘Mandatory Suicide’.

The second half of the album is notably weaker than the opening half. ‘Read Between the Lines’ and ‘Cleanse the Soul’ are two straightforward cuts reminiscent of “Reign In Blood”, but not nearly as convincing. Of the two ‘Cleanse the Soul’ is the superior. The Judas Priest cover of ‘Dissident Aggressor’ is a nice touch since Slayer has always been very inspired by these famous Brits. The album ends on a lownote with ‘Spill the Blood’ as, unlike in the past, the song never reaches the adrenaline-fueled high marks of prior records. In all “South Of Heaven” is departure on several fronts for Slayer. Gone is the constant high tempo, and much of the corny satanic lyrics have been exchanged for more realistic subjects. Despite all that the dueling solos of Hanneman and King are still intact, and they form the meat-and-bones of this record. The follow-up record “Seasons In the Abyss” would do this new sound more justice, as the band had eased into its creative paradigm. As it stands “South Of Heaven” is nice change of pace for US thrashers Slayer.

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On “Reign In Blood” Slayer finally came into its own in terms of identity and lyrical themes. Whereas the band’s first two records dealt mostly with horror, and goofy (if not downright comical) depictions of Satanism, here the lyrics are more grounded in reality, as they deal with real-life horrors as World War 2 atrocities, insanity and serial murder. Debuting on this record is legendary artist Larry Carroll, who would provide the artwork to the next two albums after this.  In all “Reign In Blood” is the penultimate Slayer album: concise, to-the-point and not a single note or riff is wasted. This is where speed – and thrash metal became so extreme it spawned a new genre: death metal.

slayer-1991-martytemmewireimageIn terms of production this is the first truly good sounding Slayer album, and every instrument is balanced evenly. The rhythm guitars possess a lot of crunch, Tom Araya’s bass guitar can still be heard, and Dave Lombardo’s drums aren’t overly processed. With producer Rick Rubin behind the knobs the band’s sound is streamlined and simplified for greater impact. Only three songs on this record surpass the three-minute mark, of those three two bookend the record. “Reign In Blood” is custodian to 5 classic songs and many of the shorter songs laid the template for the emergent death metal genre in terms of architecture, intensity and lyrical themes. This is the one but last album to include Araya’s falsetto and the first chapter of Slayer’s most-known era, spanning the next two records “South Of Heaven” and the much-publicized “Seasons In the Abyss”. It is the transitional record between Slayer’s faster-than-thou first era, and its more deliberately paced and melodic second era. It is simultaneously an end and a beginning for the band.

The record opens with the controversial ‘Angel Of Death’, a song about human experimentation during World War 2 at the hands of infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, and Araya’s opening scream pretty much sets the tone for the album. This is Slayer at its most poignant, direct and straightforward. It is no wonder the song sparked such controversy, as the opening line dryly imparts the macabre scene: “Auschwitz, the meaning of pain. The way that I want you to die.” If that weren’t enough to make the average music fan flee in terror, the band piles on an additional set dressing line with the graphic “slow death, immense decay. Showers that cleanse you of your life.” Slayer was no stranger to controversy even in its early days, but this song (and what the mainstream press thought it was about) took things to an entirely different level.

‘Piece by Piece’ and ‘Necrophobic’ are two short cuts that on any other Slayer album probably would have been one longer song. All it seems to miss is a bridge to connect both song ideas. Despite both songs brief length they are very effective in what they set out to do. Nothing is ever wasted, although Rubin could have merged both songs and have the band write an additional song in the studio, the songs work the way they are.  Many of the shorter songs work due to the unique alchemy of guitarist duo Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King. Both have conflicting styles of leads/solos, and the constant dueling between Hanneman’s technically refined and melodic style versus King’s more direct and screaming style of solo’ing forms the highlight of many songs on this album.

Following those are two loved live staples with ‘Altar Of Sacrifice’ and ‘Jesus Saves’, the latter being the second instance of Slayer dealing with more earthly and socio-political subjects, in this case organized religion. Both tracks are more melodic and dynamic than the cuts that preceded them. The band then burst through another three short tracks before finally settling into the much slower ‘Postmortem’. At long last, the now classic title track arrives with ‘Raining Blood’. ‘Raining Blood’ (which sounds phonetically similar to the title the band choose for the record) opens with about a minute of thrashing brutality only to ease into a falsely atmospheric break. This break is only accentuated by a deceptively simple pattern of resounding kickdrums by Lombardo that are vintage Slayer. It is something the average metalhead is able to hum instantly. The song lasts little over 4 minutes, but in actuality the song is barely 3 minutes long if you consider that the ending consists of about forty or so seconds of simulated rain sound effects.

For the first time does the earthy production matches the band’s grittiness and intensity. This album tends to be described as “chaotic” or “random”, but it seems to be neither. “Reign In Blood” is mostly an album obsessed by speed and brutality, and more than half of the album sacrifices songwriting in name of speed and brutality. Since there are about three well-developed songs the record goes by in a blur of screams, wailing solos and cymbal crashes. “Reign In Blood” is rightly remembered for its then-unheard levels of speed and intensity but despite its legendary status the record isn’t without its faults. The mid section of the album consists of nothing but half-conceived ideas, but not actual songs. Slayer’s 2-minutes-or-less outbursts greatly enhance the aggression, but all of these seven cuts could have used some additional writing to make them fully developed songs. Discounting these 2-minute cuts you are left with less than 15 minutes of actual worthwhile songs – and this feels diametrically opposed to the preceding “Hell Awaits” with its longer, slower paced songs that were steeped in technically refined songwriting.