It’s weird to think of any Slayer album as “transitional,” as they all share the same basic sonic sensibilities (namely, the sound of your skin being flayed from your quaking bones), but if there’s any record that marks a clear turning point in their career, it’s 1988’s South of Heaven. Coming hot on the heels of one of the fastest, angriest thrash albums of all time (that would be Reign in Blood), it would have been easy for Tom Araya, Kerry King, Jeff Hanneman (RIP) and Dave Lombardo to keep the party going by pumping out another 28-minute rager that was all but indistinguishable from its predecessor. Instead, they opted to balance their velocity with a heaping dose of groove—a prudent approach that allowed their sweet, sweet riffs to settle into the listener’s psyche instead of violently jackhammering their way inside.
Slayer’s last ’80s album (inducted into our Hall of Fame in March 2013; you can purchase the issue here) holds up damn well almost three decades after the fact. From Larry Carroll’s badass cover art to classic anthems that’ll remain on setlists until the band’s ultimate demise, South of Heaven is emblematic of everything we love about the devil’s music. Each song has a special place in my blackened heart, but for the sake of argument (and I’m sure there will be plenty), let’s rank ’em anyway.
10. Read Between the Lies
If a supercomputer took every Slayer song, broke it down to its component parts and used the data to engineer a brand-new composition, it would sound like “Read Between the Lies.” Sometimes I forget this song is even on the album because its riffs are so goddamn Slayer. That might be considered a bad thing if we were talking about any other band. Also, props to Araya the Philosopher for reminding us that there is no heaven without a hell.
9. Behind the Crooked Cross
The verse vocals on this song are kind of lame, but Lombardo is going absolutely nuts and the title sounds like a lost Deicide album, so fuck it. March on through the rivers of red!
8. Ghosts of War
Compositionally, this song always gives me serious “Angel of Death” vibes, which is never a bad thing. King and Hanneman throw down some great riffs throughout, but the shining star has to be Lombardo and his ludicrous fills, especially when he comes out of the breakdown at 3:12. Air drumming to this one is liable to cause an irreparable shoulder injury.
7. Cleanse the Soul
One of the faster songs on the album, “Cleanse the Soul” features some great spidery riffing that’s supplemented by a few of the album’s tastiest solos (maybe skip that first one, though). Trace amounts of “Die By the Sword” and “Piece by Piece” give it that classic Slayer aura without feeling like too much of a rehash, and Lombardo, as he so often does throughout these 37 minutes, sounds like he’s about to fly out of his fucking skin.
6. Dissident Aggressor
Is it blasphemy to put a cover song ahead of four originals that could easily be played at a Slayer concert today and incite a venue-destroying circle pit? Not if it’s the boys’ crushing version of Judas Priest’s 1977 classic! The best part about “Dissident Aggressor” is it never feels incongruous to South of Heaven’s flow, like a bonus track that got shoehorned onto the disc by some greedy corporate suit. Hanneman and King do a great job with the dual guitar harmonies, and Araya’s cutting vocal performance channels the commanding power of the Metal God himself.
5. Spill the Blood
Looking back on it, “Spill the Blood” and the title track are basically Slayer testing the waters of using the slower tempos and softer dynamics that would come to define later classics like “Dead Skin Mask” and “Seasons in the Abyss.” This song pulverizes without ever pushing down too hard on the gas pedal, thus proving the crushing power of groove when it’s in the right hands. Also, I could probably listen to the verse riff on a 20-minute loop and not get bored.
4. Silent Scream
I’ve said it a bunch of times already, but fucking Dave Lombardo, man. The dude sounds positively inhuman throughout “Silent Scream,” from his frenetic fills to double bass rolls that sound like Gennady Golovkin going to town on the speed bag. There are some classic Slayer riffs packed in here, too, but I can barely hear them over the whoosh of my air drumming. In the night!
3. Live Undead
For a band that has dozens of “opening riffs” that immediately signal their presence to the listener, you can make a pretty good argument that “Live Undead” belongs in the discussion for Slayer’s Mount Rushmore. The walk-down, that hammer-on/pull-off accent, Lombardo going full octopus on his kit…the first 30 seconds of this song are a veritable heavy metal blueprint. If you go to a Slayer concert and they don’t play this, I’m pretty sure you automatically get your money back.
2. South of Heaven
One of Slayer’s most identifiable songs, “South of Heaven” is the perfect introduction for the post-Reign in Blood era of the band, where groove and melody had just as much managerial power as speed and ferocity. Simply put, it’s a flawlessly crafted heavy metal song, with blasphemous lyrics, a massive chorus that was born to be screamed by drunk concertgoers and an earworm riff that would become a right of passage for guitar shredders throughout the land. On and on, south of heaven!
1. Mandatory Suicide
I mean, come on. The title track may be the more obvious choice, but for my money, nothing can fuck with “Mandatory Suicide.” It has all the classic elements of “South of Heaven,” but its faster tempo and atmospheric touches give it enough of an edge to wind up at the top of this list. And goddamn, the riffs. If you play metal guitar and don’t know at least three of them, you better get your life.