A banner year for American thrash metal, 1988 gave us such classics as Metallica's …And Justice for All, Megadeth's So Far, So Good… So What, Anthrax's State of Euphoria, Testament's The New Order, Death Angel's Frolic Through the Park, Vio-Lence's Eternal Nightmare, Flotsam and Jetsam's No Place for Disgrace, and Nuclear Assault's Survive. But none of these mighty thrash offerings were as surprising — or as controversial — as Slayer's South of Heaven.
Released on July 5th, 1988, Slayer's fourth full-length came as something of a shock to those who were expecting the pioneering SoCal thrash quartet to pick up exactly where the rampaging assault of 1986's Reign in Blood had left off. Instead of brief bursts of full-on brutality, the Rick Rubin-produced South of Heaven took a left turn into slower, more dynamic territory. Sure, there were still plenty of rapid-fire riffs to be heard on the likes of "Silent Scream," "Ghosts of War" and "Cleanse the Soul," but the album-opening title track was practically Sabbathesque in its doomy plod, while cuts like "Behind the Crooked Cross," "Mandatory Suicide" and "Read Between the Lies" were all built upon swinging mid-tempo grooves. Bassist/vocalist Tom Araya was actually singing for the first time, and the closing "Spill the Blood" — another doomy groover — even featured clean guitar tones in its intro. What in Satan's name was going on here?
It was, of course, all by design. Rather than trying to duplicate Reign in Blood, the band wisely chose to demonstrate that they could be just as fearsome at a slower rate of speed. "It was just like, we're not going to be able to top that whole album," guitarist Jeff Hanneman told Revolver. "We're not going to be able to beat that. That's why we did South of Heaven and Seasons [In the Abyss]. We just kind of mellowed out a little bit — not mellow, but slowed down."
Though some Slayer fans were disappointed by the change in musical approach, South of Heaven turned out to be an artistic and commercial success. Rather than further painting themselves into a hard/fast corner, the record effectively served notice that Slayer were growing as musicians and songwriters, and when the record peaked at No. 57 on the Billboard 200 album chart, it gave the band their best chart showing to date. Decades on, South of Heaven is now rightly considered to be one of Slayer's finest albums, and its title track recently came in at No. 4 on Revolver's fan poll of the all-time greatest Slayer songs.
In honor of the record's enduring brilliance, here are nine things you might not know about South of Heaven.
1. It was the only Slayer album ever written with a specific game plan in mind
Throughout Slayer's lengthy career, the band has always taken a pretty straightforward approach to creating albums: Write songs individually, work them out as a band, and then record them. "It's all just whoever comes up with what," guitarist Jeff Hanneman told KNAC radio in 2004.
But with South of Heaven, the band actually gave some serious thought to how the album should sound before any of the songs had even been written. "We don't do concepts," King told Guitar World in 2006. "We don't have band meetings. The only time we made a collective decision to do something different was with South of Heaven. We had done Reign in Blood, and we said, 'Let's give them something they won't expect.' And it was also to make the live sets more interesting, because to go up there and just play fast, it's a barrage that people can't take. We wanted to mix it up and make our show more of a rollercoaster ride."
2. Kerry King went through a "dry spell" during the writing of the album
Though guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman co-wrote seven of the ten tracks on Reign in Blood — "Angel of Death" and "Post-Mortem" were the only songs written entirely by Hanneman, while "Piece by Piece" was all King's — King contributed music for only three songs on South of Heaven: "Silent Scream," "Mandatory Suicide" and "Ghosts of War".
"That album was my most lackluster performance," King admitted to Decibel in 2006. "I had just gotten married and moved to Phoenix, so I was probably the odd man out at that point, and I'm sure I didn't participate as much because of that." "We go through dry spells sometimes," Hanneman added, "but the good thing about having two guitar players that can write music is that you've never gonna go without. I guess at that time, Kerry was hitting a dry spell."
3. It was the first Slayer album to feature Tom Araya in a major creative role
The first three Slayer albums had demonstrated that bassist/vocalist Tom Araya was a more-than-capable frontman, but South of Heaven was where he stepped out for the first time as a songwriter, penning the entire lyrics for "South of Heaven," "Silent Scream" and "Mandatory Suicide," while also collaborating with King on the lyrics of "Live Undead," "Read Between the Lines" and "Cleanse the Soul."
"Jeff and Kerry already had plenty of material when we recorded [Reign in Blood], so I didn't have to worry about the lyrics," Araya told Metal Hammer in 1988. "I wrote some of the lyrics this time because we only had the music on its own. Kerry normally writes the lyrics, but he hadn't really got anything together recently, whereas I had quite a few ideas stored away. Kerry wasn't too keen at first, but Jeff liked my lyrics so we used them in the end."
4. "Mandatory Suicide" was inspired by films about the Vietnam War
One of South of Heaven's more popular and enduring tracks — Setlist.com ranks it as the band's fifth most-played live song, behind "Raining Blood," "Angel of Death," "South of Heaven" and "War Ensemble" — "Mandatory Suicide" features vivid lyrics about soldiers being sent to die in battle, lyrics which Araya said were inspired by some of the distinctly dark Vietnam War films that were released in the 1980s.
"I was influenced by all of the anti-war films around at the moment like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket," Araya told Metal Hammer. "I can really imagine what the poor sods had to put up with in Vietnam — sacrificed for a load of filth and lies… I think that Vietnam was a black spot in American history, and that should be made clear — sending kids to Vietnam was just pure murder. If you go to war on your own accord, that's fine, but if you're forced to, then it is a crime. So 'Mandatory Suicide' is basically an anti-war song."
5. The band had become "bored" with Satanic lyrics by the time they wrote South of Heaven
Reign in Hell was the first Slayer album to begin moving away from the Satanic themes that populated their first two records, and South of Heaven continued that trend. In addition to the Vietnam War, Araya tackled such social issues as abortion ("Silent Scream"), phony evangelists ("Read Between the Lies") and the collapse of society ("South of Heaven"), while Hanneman skewered the "blind obedience" of Hitler's followers in "Behind the Crooked Cross". "We were a black metal band three years ago," Hanneman told Metal Hammer. "Satanic lyrics bore us these days."
6. Judas Priest's "Dissident Aggressor" was the first cover song to appear on a Slayer album
While Slayer had previously recorded a cover of Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" for the soundtrack of the 1987 film Less Than Zero, their cover of Judas Priest's "Dissident Aggressor" on South of Heaven marked the first time that the band had specifically recorded a cover song for inclusion on one of their albums. And unlike the Iron Butterfly song, which had been recorded at Rick Rubin's behest (and which the band almost immediately disowned), "Dissident Aggressor" — a deep cut from Priest's 1977 LP, Sin After Sin — was meant as a sincere salute to one of Slayer's biggest influences. "It was one of those odd songs that a lot of people don't know," Hanneman told KNAC radio, "but it was a favorite of Kerry and I, so we just picked that one."
7. Kerry King didn't like the record all that much
Never one to mince words, Kerry King has long been vocal about his distaste for the album. "When South of Heaven came out, I didn't like it as much as Reign in Blood," he told Decibel in 2006, "because I think Tom backed off too much with his singing — or should I say, added too much singing. Honestly, it's one of my least favorite Slayer albums."
King elaborated further that same year in an interview with Metal Maniacs, citing the presence of "Cleanse the Soul" as one of his chief reasons for despising the album. "I hate 'Cleanse the Soul,'" he said. "That's one of the black marks in our history, in my book. I just fucking think it's horrible. I hate the opening riff. It's what we call a 'happy riff.' It's just like 'la-lala-la-la-la.' I can't see myself playing it, but after that, where it gets heavier, I like that section. If we ever did a medley, I'd put part of that in there."
8. Dave Lombardo didn't really care for it, either
Original Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo left the band shortly after the release of Reign in Blood, complaining about his cut of the band's profits. "I wasn't making any money," he told Decibel in 2006. "I had just gotten married, and I figured if we were gonna be doing this professionally — on a major label — I wanted my rent and utilities paid." Lombardo returned to the band several months later (Tony Scaglione of Whiplash filled in during his absence), once Rick Rubin promised to put him on salary, but he was never completely on board with the band's new direction on South of Heaven.
"There was fire on all the records, but it started dimming when South of Heaven came into the picture," he explained to the website G.A.S.P.etc. in 2006. "And that's me, personally ... I was probably wanting something else. It was like, Reign in Blood was on 78, and South of Heaven was on 33 1/3. It was like, 'Woah!' It was really weird."
9. The South of Heaven tour resulted in Slayer being banned from venues in Los Angeles and New York City
As anyone who attended one can attest, shit almost always got out of hand during the band's live performances of the mid-to-late 1980s. (This writer vividly remembers a battle breaking out during Slayer's November 2nd, 1988 show at Poughkeepsie's Mid-Hudson Civic Center, during which two rival audience factions hurled lit firecrackers at each other across the arena floor.)
But even by their usual unhinged standards, things got particularly heated at two Slayer shows in August 1988. The band's August 12th show at the Hollywood Palladium was oversold, causing a substantial number of pissed-off ticket-holders (estimates range from 200 to 1,000) to seek retribution by destroying anything they could get their hands on; riot police and helicopters had to be called in to quell the disturbance. "That riot at the Palladium cost us a gig in Los Angeles county for years," King told LouderSound in 2015. "We couldn't go back for a long time. They over-sold that show and so there were a lot of kids who had tickets who couldn't get in. I'd have been pissed, too. Our fans are the last ones you wanna mess with. They'll band together, and someone will be appointed the general of the group, and shit will happen."
Indeed, shit also happened two and a half weeks later, when Slayer's performance at New York City's Felt Forum resulted in thousands of dollars in damages to the venue. Hundreds of fans ripped cushions from their seats and hurled them at the stage, while others seated near the back tore up the venue's low-hanging ceiling. Araya begged the crowd to cool it, warning that he and his bandmates might be forced to cut the set short because of all the mayhem — which, eventually, is what happened. "Thanks a lot, assholes," he growled before leaving the stage at the behest of the Forum's management. "You fucked this up for yourselves." They also fucked it up for Slayer, who would be banned from playing the venue for another 25 years.