Slayer’s fourth album, South of Heaven was released when their sound and status were well-established, and it was conceived as a conscious effort to avoid slipping into cliché or repetition. With their reputation for blistering tempos there was nowhere to take them but down, and they combined this slowing with a more textural approach to the arrangements, incorporating some less flat-out heavy sounds, and Tom Araya introducing more timbral range into his vocal delivery.
The result was not that fondly received by their hardcore fans, or indeed by the band themselves. Kerry King regards his performance as lacklustre, and the general consensus from within the Slayer camp is that it was a bit of a detour. It’s instructive to compare the band’s trajectory with Metallica, who also released their fourth album in 1988: …And Justice For All was also a consciously progressive effort, which added layers of complexity to the band’s established thrash practice. They followed it up with The Black Album, a huge commercial success which brought them a mainstream metal audience and made them one of the world’s biggest bands. It’s very well made, but it’s an uncreative slab of hard rock, devoid of the musical radicalism which characterised their earlier recordings, and to which they would never return. Slayer followed South of Heaven by returning to the balls-out thrash-punk extremism of their youth, and they’ve stuck with it ever since.
South of Heaven is not lacking in heaviness, and it’s not entirely lacking in fast tempos either, but it’s more varied and inventive than Slayer’s usual work. I don’t mean to imply that they were usually a beetle-browed speed machine: they were always the most musically interesting of the Big Four thrash bands. King and Jeff Hanneman seemed to egg each other on, both in terms of writing absolutely crushing riffs, and of spinning out creatively restless guitar solos that were almost avant-garde in their approach to texture and tonality. South of Heaven has all that, but it has an understated menace as well, a more ominous feeling than can be found in the band’s other albums—you can hardly call it ‘threatening’ when the apocalypse is right here and right now!
I don’t think the band has changed its view of this record, but their fanbase certainly has. It is now frequently cited as one of their finest releases, and one of the crowning achievements in the thrash era. Although Slayer never really built on the foundations they laid with this record, I don’t think of it as a detour or a dead end. They did what they needed to do then to keep things fresh, and they never again made any conscious decisions about what sort of record they were going to make—they just kept on being Slayer. South of Heaven is a fascinating, immersive trip into a spookier, more nuanced world than the one they usually inhabit, and revisiting it intensively over the last few months has been a real pleasure.