Review Summary: A Frankensteins monster of noise that is an interesting case study of what happens when a band tries to experiment with its sound.
Experimentation. If you are a fan of any kind of Heavy Metal, the mere mention of this word has just made you recoil in horror and run screaming for your mother. And given the track record that most bands have when it comes to experimentation, I don’t ridicule you at all for ruining your new boxer shorts.
Experimentation is a word which does not have many good connotations. Experimentation is what bands do when they have run out of ideas and are desperate to keep their careers going. Experimentation is what a band does when they hear some new ‘scene’ band and their ‘cutting edge sound and instead of regarding it with a sneer and continuing to belt out superb rapid fire metal behemoths, think to themselves “Hey, THAT’S what the kids like now. Let’s copy that!”. Experimentation is also what Adolf Eichmann liked to do in what I’m lead to believe was a rather screamy Bakery. It’s also what Dr Frankenstein was into when he had a new shovel and ten minutes to spare.
Generally most bands who have experimented have not gotten away with it, and the list of casualties reads like the aftermath of a misplaced mortar strike.
To list some noticeable examples, System of a Down sacrificed their originally brutal and crushing sound from their eponymous debut album for the more palatable but less satisfying Mesmerise/Hypnotise. Rage Against The Machine decided to experiment by releasing an album of song covers, which actually caused the breakup of one of the greatest political musical acts ever seen (Renegades was not a bad album by any stretch, but this WASN’T what RATM stood for, and Zach was absolutely right to call it a day at that point). And Metallica committed seppuku with a rusty screwdriver in the mid 90’s with Load and Reload, and have continued to plough along releasing subpar albums in complete disregard for what their fans want like a mad dictator running over a peaceful protest march with a steamroller whilst grinning like a mountain of retarded pies.
So let’s get rolling and throw Sepultura into this list. When Thrash Metal lovers bring up the notion of a ‘big 4’, Sepultura seem to be left out of all consideration which strikes me as a little unfair. Their first studio album ‘Beneath the Remains’ was a formidable and energetic first offering despite its tendency to be a little ragged around the edges in terms of production values and sound quality, and ‘Arise’ pretty much did everything that ‘BTR’ did well and also corrected the mistakes to produce a Thrash metal album that stands toe to toe with Slayers ‘Reign In Blood’ and comes out its equal.
Then that lovable scamp Max Cavalera decided to start experimentation. Now please replace the words ‘lovable scamp’ with ‘complete bat*** raving lunatic’ because I don’t think many would disagree when I say that Max Cavalera is a few nails short of a Christian writhing in agony on a crucifix. While the man has a bounding energy that I can only compare to Billy Mays tap dancing inside the Hadron Collider, I can’t say that I would trust Max Cavalera with the Peace envoy job in Syria, or in the judging of a cake baking competition, or in guarding the big red button that’s stood next to the electro bastard death ray. He is simply too embittered and angry to do any of these things, and this comes across in his mission to alienate himself from everything and everyone.
It’s a good thing he is a musician then and not a kindergarten school teacher because Heavy Metal is the ideal medium to vent your spleen at millions of people who you can’t see but have no problem with telling to f**k themselves. And being the perfect fit for a mad scientist, Max had no problem in tinkering with the Sepultura sound once ‘Arise’ had finished curb stomping your head. ‘Chaos AD’ saw an introduction of a more Groove orientated sound with more simplistic but tighter song structures that made the album more accessible than the previous two but lost the technical flare that was so impressive. ‘Chaos AD’ was still a good album don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the little tribalistic flares that flickered amongst the deep groove sounds, but there were points where it sort of detracted from the musicianship itself.
Then Max decided that rather than simply milking the cow for a bit he was going to repeatedly kick it in the udders until it gave vast quantities of strawberry milk because the next album was a complete head first swan dive into ‘ let’s put a crows head onto a pigs body’ territory.
‘Roots’ is considered by some to be the seminal Sepultura work (I would contest that. ‘Arise wins that accolade for me, but ‘Roots’ is certainly the album that most people conjure up when they think of Sepultura) and much like their Thrash Metal peers, Sepultura released it during the awkward 90’s ‘Nu-Metal’ revolution which saw a sudden explosion in the population of seven string bass guitars and chronically down tuned stereo amps.
Now let’s get this straight. As much as it has its detractors, Nu-Metal itself is not a bad genre if you let bands who are SPECIFICALLY Nu-Metal bands strut their stuff, as bands like Coal Chamber and Korn show (like these bands or not, they do their thing very well in respect to the genre). However, when a band who has done something else for so long suddenly wants to be a Nu-Metal band, THIS is where the problem lies.
Whilst many Heavy metal bands who tried this fell by the wayside in spectacular fashion, Sepultura actually make a semi-decent transition into Nu-Metal with ‘Roots’. Why would I say this?. Well if you consider that unlike other bands who suddenly tried to make a right turn in the middle of a very busy high speed expressway and ended up with their arses in the place where their noses should be after the inevitable collision with an 18 wheeler, Sepultura were already preparing for the switch with ‘Chaos AD’. Subsequently, the change isn’t as jarring as it was when Metallica suddenly went all ‘Plain Rock’, or when Slayer suddenly (and inexplicably) went what I can only describe as ‘Nu-Punk’ on ‘Diabolus in Musica’.
The first thing that really becomes apparent on ‘Roots’ is the level of production in the songs, i.e.: it is absolutely gorgeous. Every song on the album comes across as though a lot of love and energy have been poured into the sound values and the way each individual instrument, tribal chant and echo, and vocal quirk has been layered. This richness is further enhanced by the meaty substance that the ‘native’ instrumentation brings to the already chunky drumming and bass work (Ratamahatta,Breed Apart) .
The usage of Native tribes on some of the albums songs combined with the driving rumble of the basic set of instrumentation makes this album almost unique, and at times is a real pleasure to listen to.
Well that’s all of the good stuff out of the way, now allow me to drive the automated *** spreader out and point the hosepipe directly at ‘Roots’.
While Sepultura are able to adapt to Nu-Metal reasonably well, they also fall slap bang into the traps of Nu-Metal like Bear Grylls falling into a Punji stick pit.
Firstly I seriously have to take issue with the lyrics. Nu-Metal is always known for lyrics that sound as though they were written by The Incredible Hulk having a sudden spasm of Tourrets Syndrome, and ‘Roots is no exception. Max Cavalera covers three very important and life changing issues in this album:
1. Pain. Pain. Oh, and more pain
2. Hate. Hatred, Loathing, and Despising
3. Mother F**king. This is actually a very serious and embarrassing condition that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
4. Oh, and he also really wants to be left alone. I mean seriously, Max mentions how he really wants to be left alone on pretty much every song on this album. I can imagine he would be happiest performing in front of a mirror in his dressing room and he would still probably tell the reflection to go and f**k its own mother.
They are the only lyrics I could really decipher, as half of the time Max sounds like he is either being given an enema by a swarm of locust or is really angry about the fact that somebody just stole the last cream bun from the tuck shop. Maybe that’s where his anger stems from, so please send him as many chocolate éclairs as you can until he starts writing songs about butterflies and Hello Kitty, or anything that won’t completely consume him.
Another thing that comes across in this albums sound is how downright dark it sounds in places. Maybe it’s just the way in which all of the instruments mesh together. Maybe it’s just an audio transcript of six months’ worth of Max Cavalera’s sessions with psychotherapists. Whatever it is, as good as the production values are the album has this brooding malevolence that can become a bit oppressive, like being sat on by a particularly angry elephant. There are some songs (Straighthate, Attitude, Lookaway) on here that you could imagine a bullied seventeen year old listening to while he polishes the muzzle of his carbine in preparation for a school shooting.
At times this sound is ok to listen to, but more often than not it felt like a bit of an effort to really sit through it.
And there are points where the whole Tribal music influence become a bit too intrusive and really remove you from the overall album itself. Ok some of the melodies are nice on ‘Jasco’ and the hypnotic chants on ‘Istari’ are a nice little lull, but they really just feel out of place on an album which spends roughly an hour skull f**king you with any sharp or splintery object it can find because it felt like it.
So really, ‘Roots’ is an album which is good on a level of production and as a lesson on how to mesh together two styles that really shouldn’t go together, but is too dark and maniacal to really ‘enjoy’ as a casual listen, and that is really saying something given that Metal music is a genre which thrives on nihilism. Think of this album as the prototype for ‘Soulfly’, who have gotten progressively better at mixing first Nu-Metal then Groove/Thrash with native tribal music since their frankly dreadful first two albums.
Of course as we all now know, Max proved he really did want to be left alone by taking his ball and going home, leaving Sepultura in a trough of knee high excrement that they are really having difficulty getting out of. As if they have really forgotten WHAT made them so good in the first place. This is also a common malady of bands who have strayed into experimentation and, seeing that it didn’t work, have tried to stumble back to their parent genre, only to find their parents have redecorated their bedroom and rented it out to a 47 year old gardener who seems nice on the surface but actually grows cannabis and brings home hookers when no one’s looking. A sad state of affairs indeed.