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Sepultura

From the mid-80s to the late-90s, bossa nova Brazil exported only one international thrash/death-metal combo, and that was Belo Horizonte’s finest: SEPULTURA, a band still running strong as of 2018, even if former leader Max Cavalera had uprooted to SOULFLY in ’97, leaving behind their mightiest LP achievement, “Roots”.
Formed in 1984 by brothers Max (vocals/guitar) and the younger Igor Cavalera (drums/percussion), alongside lead guitarist Jairo T (Guedz) and bassist Paulo Jr., the sludge-metal took their moniker from the MOTORHEAD song, “Dancing On Your Grave”; Sepultura meaning “grave” in Portuguese. Influenced largely by black metal bands such as VENOM, NWOBHM, as well as British punk, SEPULTURA were known to frequent the record shops of Sao Paulo, where they picked up platters by IRON MAIDEN, SLAYER, METALLICA and other emerging bands of the genre; their country now free from an oppressive, two-decade-long military dictatorship.
The quartet’s earliest release was a split mini-LP with fellow Brazilian death metallers, Overdose, entitled “Bestial Devastation” (1985). Recorded in a matter of a few days, it was duly joined a year later by another rudimentary but incendiary thrash effort by way of debut set proper, MORBID VISIONS (1986) {*5}, again released on the small Cogumelo independent. Bringing at least one gem to the fore through minor hit, `Troops Of Doom’, it went a long way to building a reputation outside the confines of big city Brazil.
With classically-trained Sao Paulo axeman Andreas Kisser filling the berth of Jairo T, SEPULTURA at last began to focus some of their unbridled sonic savagery; Max’s trademark growl assuming the bowel-quaking chill it had always threatened as the ubiquitous Scott Burns worked his magic at the mixing desk for SCHIZOPHRENIA (1987) {*7}. Riding the lightning to apocalyptica on the back of scary, staccato speedsters, Max and Andreas were almost breathtaking on `From The Past Comes The Storms’, `To The Wall’ and `Escape To The Void’, while there were uneasy quieter moments in `The Abyss’ and the Psycho-cloned opening `Intro’ “cut”. Subsequently released in Germany the following February, its passion and power was enough to see the band snapped up by Roadracer.
With Burns in a production capacity once again, the masterful BENEATH THE REMAINS (1989) {*9} finally signalled the arrival of a major force on the international metal scene. Breathtakingly dynamic, the album twisted and turned like a joyrider on speed, switching from breakneck thrash to pummelling sludge-riffing with untrammelled ferocity. Though one still couldn’t actually make out what MC was saying, the unearthly roar of his voice was a revelation, almost an instrument in itself with its own rhythmic thrust. And while many thrash acts gave the impression of playing aggressively purely because that’s what was expected of them, the likes of `Inner Self’ and `Stronger Than Hate’ (lyrics by Kelly Shaefer of Sarasota’s ATHEIST) reeked of the genuine frustration, despair and disillusionment of growing up in an impoverished third world country.
One of the last great thrash albums of the 80s, the record marked the end of the first stage in SEPULTURA’s development; their next album, ARISE (1991) {*8}, was released into the UK Top 40 as the scene was in its death throes, and on this showing it was clear they weren’t going to be left behind. On many tracks (including singles `Dead Embryonic Cells’ and `Under Siege (Regnum Irae)’), the pace was slowed to a seismic turbo-Sabbath grind, gut-wrenchingly heavy and immensely powerful; SEPULTURA were redefining the boundaries of metal with each successive release.
Already massive in Brazil (SEPULTURA had played the huge Rock In Rio festival in 1990), the group narrowly missed the UK Top 10 with CHAOS A.D. (1993) {*8}. Taking the more basic approach of its predecessor even further, the US Top 40 record (for Epic Records) adopted a markedly more political lyrical stance than anything they’d released to date, the anger ferociously focused into bitter diatribes like minor hits, `Slave New World’, `Refuse/Resist’ and `Territory’. Having previously injected a malignant power into MOTORHEAD’s `Orgasmatron’ (which even Lemmy couldn’t muster) a couple of years back as a B-side, here SEPULTURA steamrollered NEW MODEL ARMY’s `The Hunt’, proving that punk – however crusty – was as close as metal, if not more so, to the group’s charred heart.
But SEPULTURA really guaranteed their place in the rock hall of fame with ROOTS (1996) {*9}, voted at the time by Kerrang! magazine as one of the best metal albums ever released. Stunning in both its stylistic breadth and unrelenting intensity, this was the masterpiece Max and Co had been working towards from the beginning of their career. Leaving most of their peers banging their heads on the starting post, the record embraced the cultural heritage of their native Brazil (with the help of rainforest tribe, the Xavantes, plus percussionist/singer Carlinhos Brown) to concoct a haunting fusion of ethno-metal and hypnotic tribal spiritualism. Running in at double-LP proportions, stand-outs from the sprawling set were undoubtedly Top 20 screamer `Roots Bloody Roots’, `Attitude’ and the scatty `Ratamahatta’; lovers of the group’s fluffier touches would have a treat in Kisser’s acoustic and dreamy `Jasco’.
As the fearsome 4-piece spiralled in their aim to maintain their metal superiority, extended family tragedy blighted a proposed “Monsters of Rock” concert at Castle Donington, when Max had to take leave of absence due to his step-son, Dana Wells, dying in a car crash just hours before the band were due on stage; Kisser would duly take on his vocal role. Max and his wife (the group’s manager) Gloria Bujnowski were understandably distraught and when things were thought to have calmed down, the rest of the band – mainly Kisser – were unhappy with retaining the services of a manager they thought was siding too much with her talented hubby.
The rock world was stunned when SEPULTURA disbanded early in ‘97, one of the few metal acts to quit while they were on top; Max subsequently formed SOULFLY, taking up where “Roots” more rhythmic sound left off. However, that was certainly not the end, as SEPULTURA re-grouped the following year complete with Cleveland-born frontman, Derrick Green.
A hard-hitting comeback set, AGAINST (1998) {*6}, astonished their more hardcore fans; Green’s earthy vocal chords giving the group another dimension. Showcasing percussive outfit, Kodo, “outsider” instruments such as flute, violin and the er… the kitchen sink, tracks such as `Kamaitachi’ and `T3rcermillennium’, stretched the group, but not sales-wise; it was the group’s final entry into the higher echelons of the charts – on both sides of the Atlantic.
While its lack of commercial success might’ve suggested otherwise, NATION (2001) {*6} – the band’s first album recorded in Brazil for over a decade – was the sound of a band finally rediscovering itself after the upheavals of the late 90s. A quasi-concept set with cold war-style cover art, the record found Derrick, Igor and Co wielding a focused anger that many modern metal acts either couldn’t muster or fail to articulate; the presence of JELLO BIAFRA on `Politricks’ heightening their sense of seething injustice.
The brutal, electrifying charge of SEPULTURA Mk.I in full flight (as in the exploitative but glorious “Under A Pale Grey Sky” retro set, with Max) was always a tall order to follow, even for the band the SOULFLY giant left behind. Yet with ROORBACK (2003) {*7}, they again proved themselves committed to giving it their best shot. Ugly, hostile and uncompromising are some of the best compliments anyone can give in relation to the kind of metal SEPULTURA continued to deal in, and their latest set merited all three. Best of all though, was a murderous makeover of U2’s `Bullet The Blue Sky’, Green extracting the lyrics’ true horror like a demented dentist.
LIVE IN SAO PAULO (2005) {*6} offered a concert double-CD document of the Green era, adding PUBLIC ENEMY’s `Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos’ to their litany of inspired renditions. A good time then to give the B-side covers a mention: `Drug Me’ (DEAD KENNEDYS), `Symptom Of The Universe’ (BLACK SABBATH), `Clenched Fist’ (Ratos De Porao), `Into The Crypt Of Rays’ + `Procreation (Of The Wicked)’ (CELTIC FROST), `Gene Machine – Don’t Bother Me’ (BAD BRAINS), `Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ (BAUHUAS), `Annihilation’ (Crucifix), `Rise Above’ (BLACK FLAG), `Messiah’ (HELLHAMMER), `Angel’ (MASSIVE ATTACK), `Mongoloid’ (DEVO), `Mountain Song’ (JANE’S ADDICTION) and `Piranha’ (EXODUS).
DANTE XXI (2006) {*6} looked to the famous Italian visionary of its title and lyrical inspiration, specifically “The Divine Comedy” (a work that also gave its name to Neil Hannon’s arch-pop combo). SEPULTURA’s inspiration was naturally less tongue-in-cheek, more concerned with the man’s traversal of purgatory and bleak assessment of humanity, even bringing in baroque strings for that authentic medieval vibe; recommended tracks were `City Of Dis’, `Ostia’ and `Dark Wood Of Error’.
When Igor broke free from the band, leaving only Paulo as sole survivor, A-LEX (2009) {*7} once again took on a conceptual approach. The drummer’s berth now filled by Jean Dolabella (who’d replaced SOULFLY’s Roy Mayorga in ’07), SEPULTURA opened a can of worms with their homage to Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Green and Kisser combined to re-energise nasty, nihilistic nu-metal on the likes of `Filthy Rot’, `The Treatment’, `Forceful Behavior’ and the carnival-istic `Ludwig Van’.
Switching from the long-standing Roadrunner Records to Nuclear Blast, 2011’s KAIROS {*5} didn’t quite match up to its adventurous predecessor. `Born Strong’, the MINISTRY cover `Just One Fix’ and `Seethe’ bashed and battered at the brain, but their in-road into industrial crossover came in for some flak, even among their loyal fanbase. Time then for another personnel change (young Eloy Casagrande for Dolabella), while studio album number thirteen, THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN HEAD AND HANDS MUST BE THE HEART (2013) {*7}, could yet be the band’s saviour. Without the brothers Cavalera, the meat ’n’ bones were still in the growl of Green and the ominous chugging of Kisser; metal fans should click on `Trauma Of War’, `Tsunami’, `Impending Doom’ and the brutal `The Bliss Of Ignorants’.
SEPULTURA had long-since been the concern for any chart watchers outwith Germany; and that wasn’t about to change anytime soon for the Jens Borgen-produced album, MACHINE MESSIAH (2017) {*7}; their 14th in all. A thrash-prog concept exploring the perennial mind battles between man, machine and God (re-born as a Cyborg), the record’s magic lay within the anguished apocalyptic blasts of volcanic vox, gut-wrenching guitar, demonic drums and brooding bass lines; not forgetting the group’s characteristic slip into a kaleidoscopic calypso of chaos. To cherry-pick one track over another would be disingenuous, but a starting point for metal-heads should be via `Alethea’, `Iceberg Dances’, `Cyber God’ and the opening title track.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/BG-MCS // rev-up MCS Dec2013-Jan2017

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