Not selling out yet
I suppose quite a few reviewers must have had a bit of a scratch of the scalp whilst trying to describe Sepultura's latest album. No longer do they play the straight "speed" or "death" metal that they began with in the 1980s.
I would say that they have improved from their earlier days of thrashed speed riffs and fantasy/horror theme lyrics, fun though the earlier albums were. Arise marked a definite pinnacle of that 1980s-vintage style: high speed guitar licks and riffs pouring out, overlaid with vicious, lashing vocals and pitter-patter drums.
Come the '90s, they have changed sounds somewhat. Now that "alternative" music is all the rage, straight-out technical speed isn't so interesting. Texture, diversity and the unusual are more "in". Perhaps a bigger gain is the apparent increase in social awareness among these "alternative" musicians.
Sepultura have (wittingly or not) kept up with developments. The new album has changed markedly from even their previous Chaos AD (1993). Chaos AD featured less speed and more power-riffing; this album has almost given up riffs altogether in some parts, featuring far less melody, but more texture. There are some really wicked grind sounds in the guitars and voice (especially in the title track!), but most noticeable is the percussion section: traditional Indian drums from Sepultura's native Brazil are drafted in for a slightly weird (but pleasing) rhythmic thrash sludge sound.
The album has not lost any of the brutality and aggression of earlier albums. If anything, this (major) aspect of the music is more intense, even if the slower pace at first belies it. Roots is not generally as catchy, except for the more experimental tracks: "Ratamahatta" (sung in Portuguese; I don't know what it's about) and "Itsari". "Itsari" is an interesting groove, recorded in Brazil's Mato Grosso with the Xavante tribe performing a traditional healing chant and Sepultura playing percussion and acoustic guitar. It's very soothing, more so by contrast with the other songs.
If you get the limited edition first release of the CD, you also get some more interesting goodies -- a techno remix of "Chaos AD (Chaos BC)"; a cover of Black Sabbath's 1975 classic, "Symptom of the Universe"; and a live version of their earlier acoustic song, "Kaiowas".
The lyrics on Roots are not as hard-hitting as those on Chaos AD. They are less structured, with less obvious messages and more emotive statements. But still they are against injustice and exploitation ("Screaming for more justice/ Amazonia burns/ Can you hear them?").
The question will be asked, of course: have they "sold out"? Going by the music, I can't see many people replying in the affirmative, not even the most hardened "alternative" metal fans. On the other hand, a journalist from Q magazine seemed rather disappointed that they weren't the blood-drinking death metal stereotypes he wanted (in order to ridicule them more easily, no doubt), that vocalist Max Cavalera is "cuddly", that they have family lives and so on.
Max Cavalera says, "The mainstream is swallowing us little by little". Does he mean swallowing their music? It would be very easy for the corporate showbiz world to devour them, souls and all, I'm sure. Some would say that this has already begun.
The music business imposes some very solid restrictions on musicians, regardless of whether (or what) they "sell out". Albums are the standard unit of musical output for bands. Everything hangs around this or that album. "That album was OK, but on such-and-such an album the band sold out." Tours are taken and singles released with the purpose of marketing an album. Little is played live that has not been released in some purchasable form.
There is an upside to this. Each album is, generally, a very well-honed opus in and of itself, a milestone in the band's development (and at the prices the stores charge, you'd hope to get something good for your money!).
But it imposes a real straitjacket on bands -- an extremely linear development, which may evolve to become a different pigeonholed style, but only with much difficulty can go in different directions or encompass different styles. The pressure seems also to inhibit musicians' spontaneity, especially live. Sepultura do not seem to have breached these limits in any remarkable way.
All the same, Roots is Sepultura's well-honed opus, and it's worth a listen. Non-fans of punk and metal will probably appreciate it like a well-tuned electric drill in the earhole. Fair enough. But it makes my toes tap (all of them), my heart beat faster, and I feel like bellowing "Roots, bloody roots" along with the rest of the band.
Originally published in Green Left Weekly issue 238, 17 July 1996