By Rich Hobson
Considering they helped redefine the sound and aesthetic of metal into what we know it as today, Sepultura are criminally overlooked in the annals of metal history. By taking thrash metal and giving it a death metal retooling, with added spice of pure unbridled aggression, Sepultura helped to drag metal into the next stage of its evolution, far removed from the genre’s sillier associations. Now though, it has been nearly three decades since Sepultura first shook the metal landscape, two decades since their landmark album Roots. And what do you do once you start haemorrhaging supposed “key” members? How do you solve a problem like Cavalera (times two, no less)?
If you’re Sepultura, you do what you’ve always done – you evolve.
Machine Messiah is Sepultura 5.0, an amalgamation of every style and genre the band has plied in albums past. For better or worse, the band have spent the last decade or so experimenting on an album-to-album basis. Sometimes it worked. Others, it didn’t. Machine Messiah is the resultant offspring of the band’s experimentation, a Frankenstein’s Monster stitched together from all of their greatest moments (nu-metal thankfully aside). Unlike big-name metal bands who ‘experiment’ on their new records (read: appropriate the latest style that seems like it might bring a few younger kids to the shows and propel them up to stadium status), Sepultura manage to make it work.
Taking the same direction Gojira’s Magma and Code Orange’s Forever, two of the most critically acclaimed and highly-anticipated albums of the past twelve months, Machine Messiah dispenses with modern metal’s obsession with categorisation. Instead, the album shifts on a track-by-track basis, drawing in elements as disparate as black metal and prog to keep it a fresh and exciting listen at all times.
The album’s eponymous opener is a total palette cleanser, both for the fans who have loyally stuck with them over the years and the ones who didn’t. Which is just as well – not least because I fell into that “left behind” camp around 2008’s disappointing A-Lex, myself – because Machine Messiah isn’t an album which kowtows to expectation or heritage. It takes nearly three full minutes of foreboding clean vocals to give way to Derrick Green’s venomous snarl, but even then the track doesn’t just amalgamate itself into the classic Seps sound. It lingers in its own nastiness, huge and ominous with slow howling guitars, not a samba beat in sight.
‘I Am The Enemy’ takes all the weighted groove of the band’s past material and affixes it to the hardcore energy of latter-day Sepultura. The end result is devastating. Brazilian percussion beats flavour ‘Phantom Self’ as vintage Sepultura, whilst the incorporation of near symphonic elements creates a marriage of extremes between the band’s standard, earthy roots and the track’s more ethereal, airy notes.
The fury amongst the experimentation of Sepultura’s recent material is all brought to the fore on Machine Messiah, then injected with steroids. It doesn’t matter if the band are going for a straight-ahead metal bruiser like ‘Phantom Self’ or jumping right out of the box with the prog-ish ‘Iceberg Dances’ – a four-minute-plus smorgasbord of beats and riffs – the band approach each track with absolute resolution to tear the thing to shreds. It’s an approach that works. Not once do the band sound as though they are going through the motions, or trying to appeal to expectations.
The progressive elements and genre-fluidity that Sepultura adopt for Machine Messiah are cropping up more and more in the modern metal lexicon. For a band like Sepultura, whose career was already defined by cross-genre experimentation and mass appeal, this shift is the affirmation that they were on the right track all along, finally able to inhabit their whole musical identity. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t listened to a new Sepultura album for ten years, twenty or since the start of the 90s. Machine Messiah is an invitation to rejoin the fold, a Sepultura for all metal fans.
Sepultura’s achievements live in the distant past, but they as a unit are very much a vital, living band with renewed passion and energy that should serve as an inspiration to any band looking to achieve longevity. For some time now, the zeitgeist for up-and-coming bands has been an even-split between bands pursuing the in-vogue style (currently: death metal vocals, arena rock choruses and high-kicks that turn your local venue into a twatty Hong Kong Phooey convention), or otherwise toiling away in one of the many metal subgenres (available in every flavour from viking metal to fucking goblin metal). Machine Messiah offers a viable alternative, a chance to explore every subgenre and style that a band can hope to, but still tie it all together in one cohesive package.
Sepultura have long been something of a metal barometer, measuring the shifts in the metal world. In the 80s, they put death metal on the thrash menu. In the 90s, they took nu metal’s commercial heaviness and fixed it to their own sound in a way that predicted the likes of Slipknot, System Of A Down et al. In 2017 they are once again indicating a change in the wind, a place where subgenres are a secondary concern to making something which kicks ten-tonnes of ass. So enjoy the breeze; it’s fucking cool.