Within metal (and perhaps, within all music) there is something special that happens with, “the album in between.”
I’m sure you’re probably reading that, and thinking to yourself, “But what does that mean? The album in between what?”
Early in their career, it’s not uncommon for some bands to have two seismic pieces of work come out in fairly quick succession. Each brings with it, a particular kind of breakthrough.
For example in 2004, Mastodon released, “Leviathan” (a metal album that is, yes— a musical exploration of Herman Melville’s, “Moby Dick”) to underground (and some mainstream) acclaim. It did well enough that the song, “Blood and Thunder” made its way onto the soundtrack of some NASCAR XBOX game around the same time and their got their video played a bunch on MTV2 (back when that was a thing). Two albums later, they would release, “Crack The Skye”, in 2009. Some might deem this their magnum opus, or, at the very least, the thing that brought them fully into the eyes of the public— their, “Black Album”, for lack of a better term.
In between that though, they released, “Blood Mountain”, in 2006. For my money, it’s better than both of the previously mentioned albums. It’s the best of both worlds, containing both the aggression of and “dear-lord-Brann-Dailor’s-drumming-is-only-fills” delight of the band’s first two albums, with the opulence and commercialism found in their later releases. It’s a balanced affair— something I admire.
For those who don’t know, Slayer is one of the pillars of the “Big Four of Thrash”, alongside Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax.
For better or worse, they were an extremely consistent unit who’s M.O. was speed, brutality, and shock.
Many would argue they peaked with 1986’s landmark album, “Reign in Blood”, an album released on Def Jam (no jokes), and produced by Rick Rubin. Yes, before working with Jay-Z, late-career Eminem, and whoever else Mr. Rubin dubiously works with these days, he produced a hard-as-motherfucking-nails metal band for three studio albums in a row, creating one of the greatest trilogies in modern music.
For those who have listened to, “Reign in Blood”, you know what it is: loud, outwardly aggressive, speedy, and generally outrageous.
I actually have an ex who refused to listen to it while we were together, because one of her exes used to like cranking the volume on it while he was getting blown out on coke.
Emphasis on that, “speedy”, up there.
Anyway, in following, “Reign in Blood”, with, “South of Heaven”, Slayer made perhaps the most interesting detour of their musical career.
While I can’t say for sure, in recording the album, the band most likely realized that they probably weren’t going to make an album that was faster than, “Reign in Blood”. So instead, they made some songs that were *gasp* slow(ish), and included some BLASPHEMOUS acoustic guitar.
It was a mature decision. An admirable decision.
Speaking strictly for myself, it’s very difficult for me to stay engaged with a band if they don’t make an effort to evolve. Evolution is hard, evolution isn’t safe, and it may lead to a dog shit album or two, but it’s better than stagnation.
Artists embrace evolution, or they don’t. More money in the bank if they don’t, probably— and certainly more notoriety, because it makes it easier for someone to pigeonhole you.
Especially nowadays, in a society that seems to reward the brain-dead, you gotta stick to your brand, man! This is the reason that wizard and virtuoso Jeff Beck isn’t spoken of in the same breath as his far inferior Yardbird axemen alumni Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton.
In any case, Slayer made a choice here, and also made some damn good songs.
The album opens with, “South of Heaven”, essentially, the band’s version of, “Black Sabbath”, the self-titled opener from that band’s self-titled album. It includes a terrifying, foreboding main riff, and some fancy footwork from ye olde double-bass godfather Dave Lombardo.
Upon beginning to listen to Slayer’s music, this song actually gave me anxiety, because guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman played, “the wrong notes”, during their solos.
A year or so from appreciating the beauty of speedy chromatic and/or half-diminished runs wedded to perennial whammy bar abuse, I didn’t understand what I was hearing. I’d think to myself, “These riffs are great! But why aren’t they playing those lyrical Kirk Hammett or https://www.youtube.com/embed/Mr9q9d8-NhM?start=185“>Marty Friedman guitar solos?!”
I think I’ll have to credit both Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman as most likely being my introduction to playing the guitar in a way that was textural. Listening to the music as an adult, I actually think their soloing is brilliant. The chaos and unpredictable freneticism of their leads make a wonderful counterpoint to the highly particular and almost militaristic riffing found throughout the rest of the music.
While the album is not a straight run of 5-star songs, like, “Reign in Blood”, it still features some of the band’s best tunes. “Live Undead” boasts one of Dave Lombardo’s most delightful drum fills and, “Mandatory Suicide”, features a spoken-word outro complimented by some King and Hanneman’s most out-there sonic pyrotechnics.
“Ghost of War”, “Read Between the Lies”, and “Cleanse The Soul”, are as great a one-two-three punch as you’ll find on a metal album, and also serve as the perfect build-up to perhaps the album’s crowning achievement, “Dissident Aggressor.”
Now, I know it might sound kind of lousy calling a cover the highlight of the album, but the song is some MEAN shit.
For the record, I’ve never listened to the Judas Priest original (found below), and I probably won’t, because I know full-well it can’t beat what these dudes put on tape here.
Much ado is made of Dave Lombardo’s double-bass drumming throughout his time in the band, and this may well be my favorite instance of it. Long before Cam Newton spoke of, “the swag, the drip, the sauce”, there was Dave Lombardo’s footwork during the song’s verses and guitar solos. Slow, steady, and flat-out menacing, his double-bass contributions make the song sound MOTHERFUCKING MEAN, and that’s just that.
Following the release of this album (and some fan pushback) the band went back to what they were doing on, “Reign in Blood” and made a very, very, excellent record called, “Seasons in the Abyss.” It was well-received, “Seasons of Abyss” got a lot of rotation on MTV, and in the eyes of their most devoted fans, Slayer was back.
Honestly, it might be a better album than this as well, even if it’s really just “Reign in Blood II”— the first of several attempts the band would make at replicating the magic of ’86 throughout their career to varying degrees of success.
Where “South of Heaven” ranks amongst the pantheon of great Slayer albums is ultimately, irrelevant, because it’s a damn good album, any way you slice it.
I admire it, because it’s different, and because it takes some chances.
It’s “the album in between”: a bold step in a very different direction following distinct and tremendous success, and there’s always a place for that within the world of art.