Damn good albums need damn good album covers. Kerry King of Slayer once mentioned how the band’s music makes it sound as though the world is about to end, and artist Larry Carroll’s visual representations are not far off the mark. Carroll started collaborating with Slayer in 1986 and has painted four of their album covers so far. Some of those albums are among the best in metal, and so, I would argue, are the covers.
Carroll says he usually makes a collage out of drawings and photographs. This was before Photoshop was born, hence Carroll used a good ol’ Xerox machine to multiply, resize or otherwise manipulate the individual pieces. The coffins in Seasons in the Abyss are a good example.
At the time of painting the Reign in Blood cover, Carroll was doing political illustrations for various newspapers, and had not done album covers before. Producer Rick Rubin contacted Carroll, who was left with more or less free reins, building upon “a rough idea of something about a goat’s head”. Once finished, however, it turned out that his unique style was not an obvious choice for Slayer. But once the mother of one of the band members commented that the painting looked “disgusting”, any doubts seem to have melted away (in a living inferno).
And sure enough: there is something nauseating about Carroll’s Slayer covers, as though they were depicting the sickest aspects of society of the 1980s. Not only could modern life come back to us in dreams as collages of twisted, disproportionate human shapes with pope hats and erect penises (cf. RiB), but the netherworldly use of colour in Carroll’s paintings was one of a kind. Black and red are the classic colours of blood/fire/death – Carroll’s black strokes are high-contrast burns reminiscent of coal or oil – but to this Carroll added revolting tints of green, brown and yellow, a fitting backdrop to the fires of mental hell.
But rather than depress us, Carroll’s paintings are majestic. Carroll shows that he, like Slayer, is fascinated by death, and, like some fallen Lucifer, makes a stroll south of heaven an enticing exploration of potential.6 Comments
Arthur 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.13 Comments
And 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.18 Comments