SLAYER, South of Heaven (1988, Def Jam)
This cover is so famous and so iconic that it’s easy to miss pretty much all the details. When was the last time you looked at this up close? The skull itself would have to be massive, a hundred feet tall or more, if the perspective is to be trusted and the scale of the gothic architecture in the background is commensurate with other structures in the style. The skull is impaled on an equally large crucifix, and the entire scene is awash in a literal sea of blood, with artist Larry Carroll’s Bruegelian beasties cavorting about the skull in a scene to make Bosch blanche, even if the guy in the skull’s right eyesocket looks a lot like those crazy-haired trolls that elementary school girls used to put on top of their pencils. The tininess of the (all-time great) logo accentuates the hugeness of the skull, and the weird artlessness of the title, set in a block of red that looks like it was literally cut and paste over the image, only serves to heighten the gravity and horror of the entire design. This is a near perfect cover, and an absolutely brilliant big dumb skull to boot.
While I can acknowledge that, objectively, this album is not quite on par with its predecessor, this was my first Slayer album, and probably forever my favorite. That said, while it is not as consistently awesome as Reign in Blood, there are elements to this album that honestly transcend the blitzkrieg of its precursor. Knowing they couldn’t out-pace the frantic Reign, the band wisely mixed up the tempos, with success at every speed, from the dirge-like slowness of the gutsy opening title track, to the almost oppressive monotony of “Mandatory Suicide,” to the moderated midpace of the underrated “Behind the Crooked Cross” to the all-out fury of “Silent Scream,” and that’s just side one! Sure, the Judas Priest cover feels like padding on an already short album, but they do a shockingly good job of making that song their own, and yeah, maybe Tom’s moaning on “Spill the Blood” isn’t quite as spooky as he intended, but even the lesser side two of this album is packed with brilliant riffs and killer songs. The absolutely parched production, almost impossible dry, accentuates the mastery of songcraft at which the band had arrived. It’s really no surprise that after Reign in Blood and South of Heaven, the band had nowhere to go but down. Seasons in the Abyss isn’t a terrible album, but it feels at all times like a pale imitation of this one. It’s an album that sounds like it was made by some hacky British knock-off, not the proper follow-up to the greatest one-two punch in the history of thrash. And of course, after that, the band only got worse and worse, to the point that Slayer these days is little more than a sad caricature of Slayer, even if they’re more popular than ever. But none of what has come since can diminish the monumental accomplishment of this album.
— Friar Johnsen