Review Summary: Fierce thrashy riffs, focused and dynamic songwriting, top notch delivery and an extra layer of atmosphere all add up to Soulfly’s best album to date.
In many ways "Dark Ages" feels very much like the ultimate album that Brazilian metal mastermind Max Cavalera has been trying to write ever since he departed from Sepultura in the late 90’s. The early albums of his new band Soulfly, were very much a continuation of the musical path he entered with “Chaos A.D.” and “Roots” with a combination of simplistic, energetic mid-paced riffs and traditional world music specifically from his home country. A bit too simplistic for my taste, as the first three records are often feel booged down by their derivate songwriting and nu-metal approach.
The positive turn for Soulfly came with the arrival of Marc Rizzo whose next level fretwork helped push Max and the band into a new musical direction. 2004’s “Prophecy” already saw a major step-up in songwriting with more creative riffs, soaring guitar solos and a bigger and riskier inclusion of the Brazilian influences with tribal drumming, chanting and instruments. The album enjoyed a warm reception but nobody would have guessed that 18 months later, the band would release a hard-hitting beast that is “Dark Ages”.
The first thing that immediately hits the listener about this album is just how visceral and dark its sound is. While Soulfly always worked with detuned guitars, but here they pack an especially big punch. The mid-paced groovy riffs have serious gravity and weight, the rhythm section, the effects and the all the other instruments are well balanced. This is especially evidenced in the way many of the songs transition from an aggressive, grinding sections to a softer, acoustic/flamenco part, but even in those quitter moments you can still feel the shades of darkness and despair. “Dark Ages” is probably the best and dynamic sounding album in Soulfly’s discography and it was accomplished by Cavalera who handled the production along with the help of Terry Date.
The ominous sounds of the first track virtually explode into “Babylon” one of the most anthem-like songs of the record, and a perfect starter. Its unbridled aggressive groove metal riff pummels along relentless pace, with Marc Rizzo’s leads shriek in the upper register and Max’s trademark barbaric shouting about death, violence and war mixes into the cacophony. The ferocious, animalistic energy the opening track displays, continues throughout the whole album, yet amazingly it never gets exhausting or boring.
This is due to the songwriting, which manages to be intense, creative and dynamic within Soulfly’s own range of influences and style. The groovy hooks are often interlaced with fluid tempo changes with raspy, Bay Area-esque thrash metal riffs and surprisingly effective melodic harmonies. “I and I” serves as a good example where the classic, chugging accords suddenly drift into an airy, clean section that doesn’t feel out of place at all. Or “Innerspirit” where the smashing guitars and Max’s snarls are countered with the spiritual cleans of Serbian Reggae vocalist Nemaja “Coyote” Kojic.
With 15 tracks and clocking in 66 minutes “Dark Ages” seems like a daunting listen, but Soulfly always manages to keep things both intense and intriguing here. “Carved Inside” and “Arise Again” a throwback to Sepultura’s past. Both of them in fact, because the hardcore/groovy riffs of the 90’s are mixed up with the more galloping, complex attacks that characterized “Arise”. But no matter which side Soulfly summons, one thing is sure: It’s always catchy, infectious and well-delivered.
We have punkish chaos tracks like the two minute long “Molotov”, all out assaults like “Fuel the Hate” where Max spits out his words with the speed and velocity of an AK47. Menacing, marching songs like “Corrosion Creeps”, death/thrash leaning behemoths like “Staystrong” or “Riotstarter” which brings us back to the experimental days of “Roots” with its tribal drumming, dance-like rythms before turning into a pure headbanger. My favorite is “Frontlines” which is anchored by one of the fastest, craziest riffs in the band’s career serving a perfect backdrop for Max’s roars. But three minutes of sheer brutality is suddenly followed by a haunting flamenco guitar part that feels very much like the mourning and grief after the onslaught of warfare.
The overly simplistic musicianship was one of the banes of the early Soulfly material, so it’s no surprise that the material on “Dark Ages” show major improvements. Even the straightforward riffs have more power than before, but the braver push towards more dense and complicated ones is what elevates the songs. It’s like a natural evolution from the “Chaos A.D.” days where the stripped down hooks are still there but with more variety and old-school thrash many fans were missing. Also, I can’t talk about the album without mentioning Marc Rizzo’s amazing shredding guitar solos that sparkle with fire and fury in almost every track.
Soulfly’s legacy will surely up for debate, as they do have their share of hits and misses. But one album translates Max Cavalera’s inner rage into a well-oiled and consistently excellent machine of musical destruction and that’s “Dark Ages”. They might never make anything as good as this one, let alone topping it, but I’m fine with that. There are few times when the groove metal genre shines this well, and one has to appreciate it.