Why “South of Heaven” may be the best metal album of all time

slayer-south_of_heavenArthur Schopenhauer once wrote that there were three kinds of authors: those who write without thinking, those who think as they write, and those who write only because they have thought something and wish to pass it along.

Similarly, it is not hard to produce a decent heavy metal album. You cannot do it without thinking, but if you think while you go, you can stitch those riffs together and make a plausible effort that will delight the squealing masses.

But to produce an excellent heavy metal album is a great challenge. It’s also difficult to discuss, since if you ask 100 hessians for their list of excellent metal albums, you may well get 101 different answers. Still, all of us acknowledge that some albums rise above the rest.

South of Heaven is to my mind such an album because it hits on all levels. Crushing riffs: check. Intense abstract structures: check. Overall feeling of darkness, power, evil, foreboding and all the things forbidden in daylight society: check. But also: a pure enigmatic sublime sense of purpose, of an order beneath the skin of things, resulting in a mind-blowing expansion of perspective? That, too.

Slayer knew they’d hit the ball out of the park with Reign in Blood. That album single-handedly defined what the next generations of metal would shoot for. It also defined for many of us the high-water mark for metal, aesthetically. Any album that wanted to be metal should shoot for the same intensity of “Angel of Death” or “Raining Blood.” It forever raised the bar in terms of technique and overall impact. Music could never back down from that peak.

However, the fertile minds in Slayer did not want to imitate themselves and repeat the past. Instead, they wanted to find out what came next. The answer was to add depth to the intensity: to add melody — the holy grail of metal has since been how to make something with the intensity of Reign in Blood but the melodic power of Don’t Break the Oath — and flesh out the sound, to use more variation in tempo, to add depth of subject matter and to make an album that was more mystical than mechanical.

Only two years later, South of Heaven did exactly that. Many fans thought they wanted Reign in Blood: The Sequel (Return to the Angel of Death) but found out that actually, they liked the change. Where Reign in Blood was an unrelenting assault by enraged demons, South of Heaven was the dark forces who infiltrated your neighborhood at night, and in the morning looked just like everyone else. It was an album that found horror lurking behind normalcy, twisted sadistic power games behind politics, and the sense of a society not off course just in politics, economics, etc. but having gone down a bad path. Having sold it soul to Satan, in other words.

The depth of despair and foreboding terror found in this album was probably more than most of us could handle at the time. 1988 was after all the peak of the Cold War, shortly before the other side collapsed, but Slayer wasn’t talking about the Cold War. For them, the problem was deeper; it was within, and it resulted from our acceptance of some kind of illusion as a force of good, when really it concealed the lurking face of evil. This gave the album a depth and terror that none have touched since. It is wholly unsettling.

Musically, advancements came aplenty. Slayer detached themselves from the rock formula entirely, using chromatic riffs to great effectiveness and relegating key changes to a mode of layering riffs. Although it was simpler and more repetitive, South of Heaven was also more hypnotic as it merged subliminal rhythms with melodies that sounded like fragments of the past. The result was more like atmospheric or ambient music, and it swallowed up the listener and brought them into an entirely different world.

South of Heaven was also the last “mythological” album from Slayer. Following the example of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” Slayer’s previous lyrics found metaphysical and occult reasons for humanity’s failures, but never let us off the hook. Bad decisions beget bad results in the Slayer worldview, and those who are happiest with it are the forces of evil who mislead us and enjoy our folly, as in “Satan laughing spreads his wings” or even “Satan laughs as you eternally rot.” The lyrics to “South of Heaven” could have come from the book of Revelations, with their portrayal of a culture and society given to lusts and wickedness, collapsing from within. (Three years later, Bathory made the Wagnerian counterpoint to this with “Twilight of the Gods.” Read the two lyrics together — it’s quite influential.)

Most of all, South of Heaven was a step forward as momentous as Reign in Blood for all future metal. We can create raw intensity, it said, but we need also to find heaviness in the implications of things. In the actions we take and their certain results. In the results of a lack of attention to even simple things, like where we throw our trash and how honest we are with each other. That is a message so profoundly subversive and all-encompassing that it is terrifying. Basically, you are never off the hook; you are always on watch, because your future depends on it.

Slayer awoke in many of us a sense beyond the immediate. We were accustomed to songs that told us about personal struggles, desires and goals. But what about looking at life through the lens of history? Or even the qualitative implications of our acts? Like Romantic poetry, Slayer was a looking glass into the ancient ruins of Greece and Rome, onto the battlefields of Verdun and Stalingrad, and even more, into our own souls. Reign in Blood broke popular music free from its sense of being “protest music” or “individualistic” and showed us a wider world. South of Heaven showed us we are the decisionmakers of this world, and without our constant attention, it will burn like hell itself.

I remember from back in the day how many of my friends were afraid of South of Heaven. The first two Slayer albums could be fun; Reign in Blood was just pure intensity; South of Heaven was awake at 3 a.m. and existentially confused, fearing death and insignificance, Nietzschean “fear and trembling” style music. It unnerved me then and it does still today, but I believe every note of it is an accurate reflection of reality, and of the charge to us to make right decisions instead of convenient ones. And now with Slayer gone, we have to compel ourselves to walk this path — alone.

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Slayer

jeff_hanneman-slayerAnd so, after a long time of thinking he was immortal, we have to say goodbye to Jeff Hanneman and hope that all the doubters are wrong and there’s some metal Valhalla where he’s drinking Heineken and exploring all those solos that he did not have the energy on earth to discover.

In the traditions from which I come, the way we handle death — which we handle badly, if at all — is to describe the meaning of the life. This enables us to get away from the person, who is either nothingness or eternity per the rules of logic, and instead look at what they fought for.

In other words, what drove them to engage with life and reach out every day, which are things most people don’t do. Most of us just “attend” to things, like jobs and families, and hope for the best. The giants among us are driven onward by some belief in something larger than themselves or than the social group at large. They are animated by ideas.

For Jeff Hanneman, the idea was both musical and a vision of what that music should represent. He peered into the dystopia of modern times with one eye in the anarchistic zone of the punks, and the other in the swords ‘n’ sorcery vision of a metalhead. When he put the two together, he came up with something that makes Blade Runner and Neuromancer seem gentle.

Having seen this, he came back.

“I have seen the darkened depths of Hell,” the chorus begins. For Hanneman, his sin was too much sight. He saw the failings of his present time, like a punk; he saw how this fit into the broader concept of history, like a metalhead. Putting the two together, he saw darkness on the horizon encroaching and assimilating all it touched.

To fight back, he created music for people such as himself, youth adrift among the ruins of a dying empire. He created music that made people not only want to accept the darkness, but to get in there and fight. Not fight back necessarily, but fight to survive. He helped us peel away social pretense and reveal our inner animals which have no pretense about predation and self-defense, unlike civilized people. Hanneman prepared us for the time after society, politeness and rule of law fail.

This was, in addition to the shredding tunes, his gift to the world: a vision of ourselves continuing when all that we previously relied on has ended. Like all visionaries, he was before his time, and like many, did not live to see his vision realized. However, for millions of us, he gave us hope.

It is also worth noting that Slayer renovated heavy metal in such a way to set its highest standard. In any age, Reign in Blood, South of Heaven and Hell Awaits will be a high point for a genre. They fought back against the tendency of metal to become more like the rock ‘n’ roll on the radio, and to lose its unique and entirely different soul. Hanneman and his team pushed forward the frontier for metal, and pushed back the assimilation by rock music.

In the wake of Hanneman’s death, we are without a king, so to speak. The elder statesman role passes to a new generation, and they must find in their souls the bravery and fury to create much as Jeff Hanneman did, a standard and a culture based in a vision that surpasses what everyone else is slopping through. We are poorer for the loss of Jeff Hanneman, but our best response is to redouble his efforts, and push ourselves forward toward a goal he would respect.

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Cathedral – The Last Spire

cathedral-the_last_spireProduction: Digital compression presents a narrow range of murky distortion, rendering instruments detectable but unexciting.

Review: For their farewell album, Cathedral present a fusion of stoner rock and doom metal riffs, with the occasional synthesizer interlude to break up the monotony. Having chosen to forgo death metal growls, vocalist Lee Dorian belts out vocals in a style more in common with hard rock than with extreme metal.

Tracks are executed competently, as can be expected from a group of experienced musicians. However, what’s missing is any sense of purpose. Tracks drag on for an excessive length of time and while the notes and structures may change, the overall vapid and uninspired spirit does not take leave.

In an attempt to shake the listener awake, the band inserts a few abrupt changes of instrumentation that presumably are supposed to provide energy and new focus to the track, but instead have more in common with the modern metal technique of carnival show composition, whereby vastly different themes are placed in succession and the relationship between them is left ambiguous, while leaving the problem of missing spirit unresolved.

As a concluding release, this is undoubtedly a disappointing way to end the band’s career, as it has more in common with the band’s later work than with their first release, Forest of Equilibrium. Far into the future, that will be what is remembered as the band’s high mark and if it’s remembered at all, The Last Spire will be but a brief and unfortunate footnote.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXb22VAIU6E

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Chris Reifert of Autopsy reveals details of “The Headless Ritual”

autopsy-the_headless_ritualAutopsy returns to death metal on July 2, 2013, with a new full-length album entitled The Headless Ritual.

Famed for their contributions to late-1980s death metal and its continued guidance through the 1990s, Autopsy arose as a band playing a chaotic, filthy, organic sounding form of death metal, which was in contrast to the more rigidly technical “Morbid Angel” inspired bands of the day. In many ways, Autopsy was a bridge between the more structured death metal and the more chaotic but more melodic bands from the grindcore world like Carcass and Bolt Thrower.

Fresh from the studio, Chris Reifert (drums) was able to give us a few words on the nature of the new album, its style and the future for Autopsy.

You’re in the process of recording The Headless Ritual. How do you see this album as continuing and differing from your previous works?

Actually it’s complete and we’re just waiting for it to come out at this point. Musically and lyrically it’s pretty much Autopsy. No major changes, but no rehashing of old ideas either. It’s a big nasty chunk of death metal, simply put.

Will you be using the same production as previous albums for The Headless Ritual? Can you tell us how it sounds so far? Will it be more punk-influenced, or more metal-influenced, than Macabre Eternal?

We went with the same method of recording as we always have, but this one sounds a bit bigger than Macabre Eternal, I dare say. And again, it sounds like Autopsy. There’s fast stuff, slow stuff and all the weird stuff in between.

Thanks, Chris!

At deathmetal.org, we’re naturally looking forward to the new Autopsy. Not only is it another of metal’s legends come back to life in the post-2009 old school metal revival, but it’s also a personal favorite that we believe has potential to revive the intensity of death metal.

Furthermore, this album also promises to bring back the thoughtful and the odd that defined the genre so much during its early days. It was a frontier then and the frontier may be re-opening now. As Chris says, “There’s fast stuff, slow stuff and all the weird stuff in between.” This is a welcome break from the all-ahead-go clones that have made death metal seem one dimensional.

The Headless Ritual will show us Autopsy at the peak of their ability and returning in fine form and fine spirits, as these answers show us. Thanks to Brian Rocha at Fresno Media for his help with this mini-interview!

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Morpheus Descends to return at Martyrdoom Festival

return_of_morpheus_descendsOne of the original death metal bands, Morpheus Descends made heavy old school death metal during the hazy transition between 1980s and 1990s styles, preferring a slower and resonantly crushing approach to their percussive music just as most bands were opting for faster and more technical work.

With 1992’s Ritual of Infinity, the band showed the culmination of their early demos and live appearances in an album that came to define not only old school death metal, but become the example of the New York Death Metal sound: industrial textures, crushing rhythm changes, primitive riffs in complex combinations.

Many of us who uncovered Suffocation’s Effigy of the Forgotten remember seeing Terrance Hobbes wearing a Morpheus t-shirt. As it turns out, there was another Morpheus who wanted the name; history doesn’t mention them much. Morpheus Descends kept going and influenced all of American and European death metal.

After Ritual of Infinity, Morpheus Descends went on to release two more EPs of a technical nature before disbanding. Now at the Martyrdoom II Festival, where Morpheus Descends will perform at a club called Paper Box on 17 Meadow Street in Brooklyn on June 29th, we will see what this band has been up to in the intervening years.

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Impiety to unleash mini-album “The Impious Crusade”

impiety--the_impious_crusadeOn August 6, 2013, Impiety will release its latest assault upon the world of mortal beings. Titled The Impious Crusade, this mini-album (that’s an EP for you 80s fanatics) will include five new songs of what we can only assume is the characteristic ripping fullback-rushing-at-Satan rhythmic metal that has made Impiety famous.

Unfortunately, assume is all that we can do. Other than describing the music as “innovative, brilliant and totally unforgiving,” the band has given us no clues. However, Impiety rose to fame for — in a time when bands were “experimenting” by including known influences from other genres — being cuts-to-the-bone pure rhythmic high speed chaotic death metal. Unlike war metal, they kept in the complexity of old school death metal and worked in even a bit of melody without turning into the over-tuned saccharine that afflicts many metal bands today.

In short, people have loyalty to Impiety because Impiety had loyalty to metal at a time when it was unfashionable and definitely not trendy to do so. Over the years, their output has been consistently within this theme, although it has improved, and has attracted numerous tributes. With this release, however, more may be afoot because the band are suspiciously mute on the topic of style.

The Impious Crusade will be released on Hell’s Headbanger’s Records, who promise more information today on this developing story.

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Deathchain video premiere

Deathchain, a Finnish band that shares members with Demilich, Winterwolf and Jess and The Ancient Ones, recently released a video for their song “Seven Asakku Shadows” taken from their latest album, Ritual Death Metal.

The video is a slow motion celebration of flowing metal haircuts, complete with a guy pouring milk on his head and Antti Boman providing backing vocals in a robe and Cthulhu mask.

Ritual Death Metal is out now on Svart Records.

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RocKonference analyzes similarity between metal and video games

dung_beetles-video-gameThe University of Montreal in Quebec presented a conference on the cultural, aesthetic and historical hybridizations between video games on heavy metal. The presentations, occurring on March 15th, are available via video at the bottom of this post.

Although the conference was presented in French, the video is fully captioned in English. Professors Dominic Arsenault and Louis-Martin Guay presented their research as the cornerstone of the conference, covering the origins of their interest in the topic and some of its history.

That history moves us through the arcade era from pinball machines to stand-alone video games, then takes us through the home gaming revolution with 8-bit machines, and finally to 16-bit gaming and now modern game as technology evolved and became cheaper. It compares the music, imagery and traditions of both metal and video game cultures.

At the peak of this is Professor Arsenault’s attempt to meld metal and classic gaming, covering “experimentations in transfictionality, sound design and concept for 8-bit metal that’s not just metal covers, 8-bit covers, game-themed metal or chiptunes.” Arsenault, who believes metal and video games are a natural fit, has presented related research at other conferences to great success.

Our two cents here is that metal and video games arose almost in parallel and both emphasized the solitary youth whose parents, fractured by divorce and social chaos, withdrew in an age of nuclear terror. As a result, both genres tend to focus on conceptual settings that emphasize both escapism, and a tackling in this new escapist context of ideas that threaten the solitary adventurer in real life. By placing those threatening ideas in an otherworldly context, they can be addressed as removed from their painful (and boring) day-to-day reality.

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Former Fates Warning guitarist launches new band Freedom’s Reign

freedoms-reign-freedoms-reignOn the 29th anniversary of Fates Warning’s classic debut album, Night on Bröcken, original guitarist and founding member Victor Arduini releases the debut of his new band, Freedoms Reign.

Known for intricate arrangements and the type of speed metal, progressive metal, American heavy metal and power metal mixture that has delighted audiences around the globe and continues to be the mainstay of most bands that make it big, regardless of surface genre or marketing names. This style provides maximum musicality with enough speed thrills to keep people engaged, but without allowing songwriting to be absorbed in technique or intensity.

Freedoms Reign retains Arduini’s “original, charismatic and unmistakable” style of playing guitar and injects into American style high-energy heavy metal a classic Ozzy/Black Sabbath flavor. If it is consistent with his work in Fates Warning, expect an underlying melodic basis to the music much as in Mercyful Fate, but this will be understyled and emerge in either vocals or guitar but not aim for the harmonic effects of European bands as frequently.

Besides Arduini (guitar/vocals) , FREEDOM’S REIGN also consists of Tommy Vumback (Guitars), Michael Jones (Bass) and Chris Judge (Drums). Freedoms Reign was recorded in Dexters Lab Recording in Milford, Connecticut with Nick Belmore (TOXIC HOLOCAUST) and will be released on iconic heavy metal label Cruz Del Sur Records.

The label is taking pre-orders now at this location.

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