And Justice for Derrick… Reassessing the Post-Max Legacy of Sepultura

Sepultura formed 36 years ago, and it’s now over 30 years since Beneath The Remains, their highest-rated album on Metal Archives, was released. These are both notable landmarks for the titanic Brazilian band – but they also feed into a narrative that is all too common with Sepultura, in the sense that they are backward-looking. Of those 36 years, more than half have been spent with Derrick Green as vocalist, who joined the band in 1998 after Max Cavalera left in less than amicable circumstances. Given Max’s stature not just as a vocalist or songwriter, but as a figurehead within metal, replacing him was always going to be a tough job – doubly so, given that his brother Iggor remained in the band behind the drum-kit. After all, this was the vocalist who fronted seminal albums including Arise and Chaos A.D., not to mention Roots – an album that, perhaps more than any other, lent credibility to the burgeoning nu-metal scene in the mid-’90s. Talk of how good the Max-era albums are dominate any discussion about the best Sepultura albums, to the extent that it can be forgotten that the band have released more albums, and spent longer, with Green fronting the band. So, what follows is a small attempt to re-examine the post-Max Sepultura albums, many of which have been written off by fans and critics alike simply for not featuring Max as the frontman.

The first album of this new era, Against, was a bellow of rage. Largely written during the years when the band had no vocalist, Green was tasked with the job of putting his own authority and identity on an album that had the unenviable task of following Roots, and he does a fine job. His background in hardcore is evident throughout, his shouts are possessed of an urgency that’s pure punk. Behind him, the band play with a fire that suggests they felt they had something to prove – packing in fifteen songs in a little over 45 minutes, there is less of the lumbering nu-metal of Roots, though the tribal rhythms and moods remain in songs like ‘Choke’. If the band felt any doubts or lack of confidence, none of that is apparent here. Against is a roar of defiance, the cry of a band determined to stand strong after suffering the kind of upheaval that would stop most in their tracks.

It was with follow-up Nation that Sepultura began to really explore the possibilities that having a new vocalist opened up. If Against showcased Green as an aggressive, punk-influenced vocalist who could match Max’s fury, Nation demonstrated a different side to him, and to the band. The fury of Against and weighty heft of Roots is largely gone, replaced instead by almost progressive songwriting, often dominated by Green’s clean vocals. It’s impossible to imagine Max singing a song like the experimental ‘The Ways Of Faith’, or ‘One Man Army’, but Green’s clean vocals can verge upon the soulful on songs such as these. They added a new weapon to Sepultura’s already well-stocked arsenal, but the album was perhaps not what fans expected. Even now, the album is held in poor regard, which is a shame. It is a hugely charismatic, characterful example of progressive metal melded with groove-heavy riffs and genuinely progressive lyrical themes.

This is something only emphasised by Roorback. Released in 2003, the album demonstrated that Green had truly grown into the role not just of frontman, but of Sepultura frontman, with the album completely moving away from the style of the Max era. Sadly, the album was let down by a production that rendered the guitars flat, robbing the compositions of much of their power, and some patchy songwriting. It’s hard not to feel this is the point at which Sepultura’s star started to fade, whether deserved or not. Compare the album to the none-more-zeitgeist nu-metal of Max’s post-Sepultura band, Soulfly, from around the time – and especially the guest-heavy Primitive, which featured the likes of Corey Taylor (Slipknot), Chino Moreno (Deftones), Tom Araya (Slayer), and even Sean Lennon (John Lennon’s second son) and it’s of little surprise that we see Soulfly dominating the post-Sepultura narrative in the media. That Roorback isn’t even on Spotify and has only had one Japan-only reissue since its original release, speaks volumes.

What would follow feels, in hindsight, like a period where Sepultura were struggling to re-establish their presence and identity, with mixed results. That 2006’s Dante XXI was based upon Dante’s The Divine Comedy demonstrates that the band were not afraid to carry on taking risks and challenging both themselves and listeners. Perhaps surprisingly, that challenge comes in the form of an attempt to re-capture the thrashing energy and danger of their music from around the early ‘90s. Thrash riffs containing plenty of groove abound on the album, not far removed from those found on Chaos A.D. There is none of the fat that weighs down Roorback, and even the more progressive moments – such as the opening to ‘City Of Dis’ – have a huge amount of energy behind them. The band were firing on all cylinders, and that the album was not a bigger success commercially, critically, or with fans, is hard to explain. As with Roorback, the album is not available on Spotify, and there has only been one reissue (a vinyl copy limited to 500) since release. A shame, as Dante XXI is an overlooked gem.

2009’s A-Lex attempted a similar trick. With the band shaken by the departure of drummer Iggor Cavalera, leaving bassist Paulo Jr. as the only original member left, the band again looked to literature for inspiration, this time basing an album upon A Clockwork Orange. With a huge 18 songs in its 55-minute runtime, the album isn’t short of ambition, but it is short of consistency. Too many ideas compete for dominance, and whilst the almost crust punk feel of the record suits Green’s vocals well, it doesn’t allow the band to show what they’re really capable of. Short song lengths end up feeling like an unwanted constraint upon creativity, whilst the inclusion of longer, slower songs, such as ‘Sadistic Values’, is just as big an issue, robbing the album of any momentum it builds up. And the less said about ‘Ludwig Van’, the better. You can’t fault Sepultura’s ambition, but you can their execution.

Perhaps sensing this, 2011’s Kairos is very much a return to roots (but not Roots). Named after a concept of critical moments of decision-making and opportunity, the band would double down on the groove-heavy metal sound they had been establishing for the past twenty years; it felt upon release very much as if the band were intending to evoke memories of seminal albums such as Arise and Chaos A.D., and that feeling has only grown as time has gone by. If it ever feels generic, it’s only because half of the line-up of the album (bassist Paulo Jr. and guitarist Andrea Kisser) had been instrumental in establishing this style of metal in the first place. 

Kairos also marked the point at which new drummer Jean Dolabella proved that he was a more than capable replacement for Iggor; longer songs than could be found on A-Lex give him opportunities to showcase his fills, accents and subtle flourishes that were missing from the previous album. The only real misstep on Kairos comes in the form of the wholly unnecessary cover of Ministry‘s ‘Just One Fix’. The original is a great song, full of desperation and depravity – but a large part of that is down to knowing that Ministry vocalist Al Jourgensen was genuinely strung-out and high as a kite when the song was written. Sepultura’s take is too clean and clinical to work, but it’s a small stumble on an otherwise solid album – and that it was released on metal heavyweight Nuclear Blast Records no doubt helped re-establish the presence of the band. Kairos indeed!

Following album The Mediator Between Head And Hands Must Be The Heart, despite its overly-long title, largely followed the mantra of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” – though it does feature another new drummer, Eloy Casagrande. Opener ‘Trauma of War’ suggests another album of Sepul-thrash/groove, which is largely what is delivered, even if it throws a few curve-balls (such as the odd opening section of second track ‘The Vatican’, which threatens to sabotage the album’s energy before it’s properly started). Nothing too ground-breaking, perhaps – but it established that Sepultura were truly back as a metal heavyweight again, embracing the power of the thrash metal style they had helped define in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

As such, it’s something of a surprise that the latest albums, 2017’s Machine Messiah and 2020’s Quadra, are the ones where the identity of post-Max Sepultura has become most clear and distinct. The progressive tendencies of Nation and Roorback return but this time, they are backed up by a strong embrace of groove-heavy thrash riffs, stronger songwriting and an audience perhaps more willing to accept such songs. Machine Messiah’s opening title-track is one of the best songs Sepultura have written in a long, long time, and the spacious moments on the album give Green plenty of time to demonstrate his wonderful clean vocals (largely lacking on Kairos and The Mediator…). And oddly for an album so steeped in progressive songwriting, it feels free of bloat; even on Kairos and The Mediator…, there was a feeling that the band were desperate to pack in every riff they possibly could, whereas Machine Messiah and Quadra demonstrate a band confident enough to leave more space for the songs to breathe, making them the best Sepultura releases since Chaos A.D.

It’s odd that it would take almost 20 years for Sepultura to firmly establish a new sound and release an album living up to its (and their) potential. That classic songs such as ‘Refuse/Resist’ and ‘Territory’ form a mainstay of Sepultura’s live shows is to be expected. After all, everyone still wants to hear those songs, and it’s understandable that some may find the band too different now from their earlier form – Derrick and Max are very different vocalists, and the former’s mixture of clean vocals and hardcore bark is in stark contrast to Max’s gravelled delivery. But there are plenty of strong songs to be found within Sepultura’s body of work with Green on vocals, and recent releases in fact suggest that the best work of the band’s second incarnation may yet be to come.

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Words: Stuart Wain