Sunday, October 17, 2010

Beneath the Remains (or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Death Metal)

If I could do it all again I would.

It started with a minute of acoustic guitar, but I wasn't fooled: like every other teenager who owned the first 4 Metallica albums, I knew what was to come. Or thought I did, anyways. The next 40 minutes that followed would redefine everything I believed was heavy and foreboding. By comparison, Megadeth might as well have been playing pop music.

It was 1995, and the most important band in the world to me was Sepultura, 4 guys from Brazil who were known for being one of the heaviest bands on the planet. Hell, even Slayer felt threatened by them. My friend Ian made a tape for me: side A was Sepultura's Chaos A.D. and side B was Slayer's Seasons in the Abyss. That was all I needed: I spent the next few months trying to find Sepultura's previous two albums, Arise and Beneath the Remains.

It has become common in recent years to classify Sepultura as a thrash band, but make no mistake: Produced by Scott Burns, and featuring appearances by John Tardy (Obituary) and Kelly Schaefer (Athiest), Beneath the Remains is a death metal album. With its effortless technicality, blasting speed, and Max Cavalera's gruff roar, Sepultura belonged with the rising tide of death metal bands coming out of Florida, Birmingham, and Stockholm, rather than with thrash metal's increasingly more commercial sound and mainstream level of success.

All the same, Sepultura owed a lot of their sound to thrash's glory days: Celtic Frost, Slayer, and especially Kreator figure prominently in Beneath the Remains bludgeoning attack. Like Kreator, Sepultura found the perfect mix of melodic hook and ferocious speed; and like Kreator's Mille Petrozza, Max Cavalera was an endearing and charismatic frontman with an ear for a catchy chorus.

Much of Sepultura's success can be laid at Cavalera's feet, but it would be amiss to ignore the contributions of guitarist Andreas Kisser, who expanded Sepultura's sound past the rough and tumbling blast of their earlier output with unconventional song structures as well as nuanced instrumentation. Beneath the Remains in particular is a testament to Kisser's role within the band: with the exception of "Primitive Future," the songs run between 4 and 6 minutes, and yet they're packed to the rim with quality riffs, some of which are heard once and never return. Whereas Sepultura's later years would sometimes feature songs built around a single riff, Beneath the Remains has an "everything but the kitchen sink" feeling that really gives it a lasting appeal; 16 years after my first stunned listen, I'm still amazed by elements that I missed out the first time.

If I were to find fault with this album, then it would be the fact that there's only one quite like it. Sepultura would go on to streamline their songwriting and incorporate influences ranging from Neurosis to reggae, and imbued their forward thinking approach to metal with the percussive samba rhythms of their ethnic heritage. They achieved one of the few truly unique voices in metal; all the more tragic, then, when that voice was drowned out by the raging egos of the various band members.