Whether someone had been following Slayer since the beginning of their career or had recently been indoctrinated with Reign in Blood (1986)—there would be no reason to think that they might tone down their speed to a noticeable extent. Sure enough, South of Heaven (1988) would be a significant change for the band–both in terms of musical styling and lyrical content. While the casual listener might have been somewhat surprised, the disenfranchised would have certainly had their collective voice channeled through the twin guitars of Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman, accompanied by what Metal Edge magazine once described as the “voice of hell”, Tom Araya. South of Heaven would be Araya’s coming out party as it were. The frontman would prove himself as a formidable lyricist who focussed his creative talents on the real world, and not the Satanic imagery and excess that was often associated with other metal acts from the time period.

If South of Heaven could be described in a single analytical term, it would be deconstruction. Almost everything that had been commonly associated with Slayer is conspicuous by its absence. The unrelenting speed and ferocity which had been a huge part of the band’s sound was now replaced with mid paced songs and a stripped-down production that contributed to the album’s unique aesthetic. If Hell Awaits (1985) had placed the listener at the very gates of damnation, then South of Heaven depicted an atmosphere of pessimistic dread amidst the masses of humanity existing in a misanthropic dystopia. Even the album’s cover art seemed to signify this outlook—as it appeared to be inspired by the work of Heteronymous Bosch. As many have said throughout the years, truth is always stranger than fiction. South of Heaven is a testimony to the macabre that manifests within reality.

The somber introduction of the opening title track establishes the new landscapes that Slayer are taking their listeners upon. As a song, “South of Heaven” implies a deeper concept that exists within the album as a whole. In the era of Satanic Panic, it would be easy to assume that “South of Heaven” simply refers to hell. While this assumption is correct, it takes on a whole new meaning in terms of Slayer’s lyrical content. The hell which Slayer describes is no longer inhabited by demons, fire, and the tortured cries of sinners, but the real world in which we exist. South of Heaven is where Slayer disembarks from the Satanic imagery that had been associated with them in favor of depicting something much darker. This had certainly begun on Reign in Blood, with “Altar of Sacrifice” being the final trappings. Araya’s lyric of “Never-ending search for your shattered sanity, souls of damnation in their own reality” vividly illustrates a literal hell on earth.

War—it drowns the innocent in a cascade of bloodshed and carnage. From an artistic standpoint, it also provides a plethora of subject material for any writer to work with. South of Heaven is no exception to this as it contains a trifecta that deals with the horror and agony that comes from armed conflict. “Behind the Crooked Cross” (another term used the swastika) recounts the blind obedience of the German army during the second world war—with the lyric “March on through the rivers of red” most likely referring to the ill-fated invasion of the Soviet Union. This theatre of operations, better known as the eastern front, has been used before to explore the ways in which the common soldier becomes a commodity in a hopeless situation. Films such as Cross of Iron (1977) and Stalingrad (1993) depict the German solider as a lost soul being forced to take part in a hopeless endeavor while becoming disillusioned with their own leaders. “Blind obedience carries me through it all” sums up the indoctrination of those sent off to the battlefield.

The final moments of a soldier’s life are found in “Mandatory Suicide.” A song title that contains no pretense in regards to its lyrical content, “Mandatory Suicide” vividly describes the carnage of the battlefield. As far as the trilogy of war related songs is concerned, it’s easily the weakest link. While Araya certainly has some creative highlights throughout the release—”Mandatory Suicide” is somewhat bland. The song itself contains an obvious reference to Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), with the lyric “A child’s toy, sudden death. Sniper blazes you through the knees. Falling down can you feel the heat?” A spoken word passage bookends the song, and it rambles on to the point of almost becoming tedious.

The trilogy concludes with “Ghosts of War.” One of the best tracks from the album, it begins with the ending of “Chemical Warfare” from Haunting the Chapel (1984). “Ghosts of War” is a follow up worthy of its predecessor. In many regards, “Chemical Warfare” picked up where “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath left off. Describing Satan reveling at the carnage of the battlefield in utter delight. “Ghosts of War” is another example of a song having more depth than its title suggests. The ghosts that the song refers to aren’t ghastly specters, but the perpetual state of warfare that’s existed for centuries. The songs closing passages, written from a first-person perspective, seem to hint at a transcendental being controlling the fate of millions as they march to the grave.  

Coinciding with the topic of war is the cover of “Dissident Aggressor”, originally written by Judas Priest. One of Slayer’s major influences, Hanneman and King do justice to the composition. There’s no denying that Slayer’s twin guitar attack was built on the foundations established by Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing. The lyrical themes of the song, which touch upon indoctrination (IE–hooks to my brain) and futility are both reflected in “Mandatory Suicide” and “Behind the Crooked Cross.”

Exploding, reloading, this quest never ending

Until I give out my last breath

I’m stabbing and bawling, I’m punching and crawling

Hooks to my brain are well in

I’m stabbing and bawling, I’m punching and crawling

I know what I am, I’m Berlin

War and pessimism aside, Slayer also showed they were capable of branching out into more topical issues. “Read Between the Lies”, a composition penned by Jeff Hanneman, explores the hypocrisy and greed that were associated with the televangelist craze of the decade. While “Jesus Saves” from Reign in Blood had certainly contained a heavy message about the ineptitude of Christianity, Hanneman’s lyrics are far more articulate than one might expect. “Read Between the Lies” is more evidence that Slayer were a band capable of progression in their songwriting abilities and not the one trick pony that they were sometimes accused of being.

Evangelist you claim God speaks through you,

Your restless mouth full of lies gains popularity.

You care not for the old that suffer,

When empty pockets cry from hunger.”

South of Heaven might have caught many by surprise. Taking a look at Slayer’s discography as a linear timeline, it can be seen as a transitory album. By breaking away from the trappings that defined their previous material they proved they could branch out in new directions. This would be evident on their next album, Seasons in the Abyss (1990). Embracing a more polished production and exploring new themes such as gang violence and serial murder, they would also enter the world of the music video. Between the unrelenting speed of Reign in Blood and the more commercial-friendly Seasons in the Abyss, South of Heaven is the compromise between two very different styles of music. In an age of excess and decadence, Slayer proved that hell didn’t exist in a new world—but the one that we already live in.