Defying the odds, Brazil’s famous metal export survives 30 years due to drive and evolution
Words by Scott Morrow
Between global success, stylistic transitions, native influences, and the departure of its founding members, Brazil’s Sepultura has experienced an anomalous career in a multitude of ways.
The band’s story is one of challenges, drive, and—most importantly—evolution. Originally influenced by Venom, Slayer, Kreator, and other forefathers of death and thrash metal, the band founded by brothers Max and Igor Cavalera matured musically as well as lyrically, moving away from a derivative style and Satan-based lyrics to come into its own as a giant of groove-, industrial-, and tribal-infused thrash with sociopolitical themes.
But Sepultura—formed nearly 30 years ago in Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s sixth-largest city—also faced long odds simply to hear and acquire the music that it loved.
“In Brazil, back in the ’80s when we started, we didn’t have the chance to see [many] bands live,” says guitarist/songwriter Andreas Kisser. “It was impossible for bands to come down to Brazil—just big names like Queen or Kiss. We used to pool together money from friends to buy one album and then make tapes for everybody. We formed this kind of underground scene that always looked for the releases and imported albums.”
The un-ideal circumstances also extended to equipment and production. Bassist Paulo Xisto, a member since 1984, did as much to help the band with his bass and practice space as he did with his playing, and Sepultura’s first real education in concert production came during its first international tour in 1989. Ultimately, it all made the band stronger. “We learned how to play in any circumstances,” Kisser says, “with shitty equipment, shitty lights, shitty production.”
With that late-’80s tour for Beneath the Remains, four hard-working guys from Brazil began to make a name for a regional scene that included Ratos de Porão, Sarcófago, and Korzus. In 1991, Arise continued the international accolades—including earning a gold cassette in Indonesia the following year—but it was 1993’s Chaos AD that truly changed the band’s trajectory. The riffs were slower, the tunings were lower, and the lyrics took an overtly political twist, reflected in songs such as “Refuse/Resist,” “Territory,” “Slave New World,” and “Biotech Is Godzilla” (whose words were penned by the infamous Jello Biafra). In a bit of foreshadowing, Chaos AD also featured the acoustic track “Kaiowas,” a tribal jam that became a live favorite with guest percussionists.
“Percussion is very heavy, naturally heavy,” Kisser says. “For example, here in Brazil, we have the samba schools, samba parades, and carnivals—it’s so heavy; it’s so intense; it’s powerful. It’s very easy to mix them both. It almost seems like they’re made for each other. We did the Rock in Rio festival last month and played with a percussive group from France, Les Tambours du Bronx, which is more of a metallic sound, a different kind of percussion. It fits perfectly. We also worked with the Japanese group Kodo, the percussive group that plays taiko drums. It was insane; it was great. It fits right around not only Brazilian percussion but percussion in general. With heavy music, they’re made for each other.”
Roots, Max Cavalera’s last album with Sepultura, was a natural extension of that philosophy. Including guest appearances by tropicália musician Carlinhos Brown and members of the indigenous Xavante tribe, it imbued groove metal, thrash, and hardcore punk with Brazilian spirit.
“Roots was one of the best works that we ever did,” Kisser says. “Of course, it’s a big influence on everything that we’ve done since. That’s going to be forever with us.”
Beyond the music, the events that followed Roots would further redefine the band. While on tour to support the album, Max Cavalera learned that his stepson, Dana Wells, had been murdered. He later claimed that attempted funeral arrangements by Kisser’s wife caused ill will—but regardless, the soon-to-follow firing of Max’s wife, who had been serving as Sepultura’s manager, resulted in Max’s acrimonious departure. The bad blood also extended to the relationship between Max and younger brother Igor, who remained in Sepultura until 2006, when he buried the hatchet and co-founded Cavalera Conspiracy with his sibling.
Through it all, Kisser has been the band’s lone creative constant. He and Max were the band’s songwriting force through Roots, after which Igor took more creative involvement with Kisser. But Kisser seldom receives the recognition that he deserves. Particularly since Roots, the lead guitarist has written the bulk of the band’s catalog and lyrical themes, including concept albums about Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange.
“For Sepultura fans, there are many Sepulturas in their head,” Kisser says. “It’s not only because Max and Igor [left]. If you [compare] the albums that we did together, from Schizophrenia to Roots, they are totally different bands—but the same lineup. We all change; we all grow up. The choice to leave the band was their choice. We never fired any musician in the group. We only fired our manager after the Roots tour, and Max chose to leave and stay with her and start a solo career. He didn’t care about the name during those days. He didn’t fight for the name. He just turned his back and said, ‘Fuck you guys; I’m better off myself.’ And Igor left 10 years later; he didn’t care either to fight.
“It’s like many fathers who have children and leave them,” Kisser continues. “For [the Cavaleras], Sepultura is like an abandoned child. They really turned their back on us and left. But it feels great to be here and keep the Sepultura name strong, bringing new stuff to the albums. The Sepultura spirit never changed, and that’s why we’re still here as Sepultura.”
Now, for the band’s 13th studio album, Kisser and company have been inspired by the classic 1927 film Metropolis, an expressionist sci-fi epic out of which the band draws modern parallels. Musically, it takes more chances—from a dramatic choir-and-bell intro on “The Vatican” to atmospheric breakdowns to spoken-word passages. And, as many fans will appreciate, the tribal percussion is back on most tracks, whether as an added accent or a blazing solo.
Titled The Mediator Between Head and Hands Must Be the Heart, the new album marks three more milestones: adding high-powered 22-year-old drummer Eloy Casagrande, the band having recorded more albums with vocalist Derrick Green than Max Cavalera, and Sepultura reuniting with producer Ross Robinson, who helped turn Roots into one of metal’s all-time classics. For The Mediator…, Robinson wanted to capture the same energy as Roots while showing what the band can do some 17 years later.
“[The idea] is just to be a better [band] all the time—try to top our best work,” Kisser says. “That’s a very motivational and energetic feeling to have. [Ross] really works the spirit of the music; he’s not really too concerned about technical things but more about the performance and the concept of the songs, to really be in the DNA of everything that we do.”
Nearly 30 years after its birth, Sepultura continues to show that drive, that passion for pushing itself and always staying active. (No more than three years have passed between any two given LPs.) And, considering how connected its members are to the world around us, the band from Belo Horizonte is as socially relevant as ever, using Metropolis as an inspiration to address “the robotization of society and slavery through money and power.”
“[The title] means that it’s very important not to lose our heart, not to lose our human element,” Kisser says, referencing Google glasses, embedded microchips, and a constantly plugged-in mindset. “Because if you receive information through your head and act through your hands without your heart, you’re nothing more than a robot with no questioning, no arguments, no protest. So I think that it’s very important for us, especially today and for the next generation, not to lose our human factor and be completely robotized.”
Scott Morrow is a freelance writer and editor who has worked for or contributed to Alarm Magazine and Punk Planet, among many others. His loves include heavy-metal genre collisions, anything with Mike Patton, and bubble tea.