Max Cavalera’s last concert with SEPULTURA took place on December 16, 1996 at Brixton Academy in London, a venue with almost 5,000 as its capacity. As those audience numbers indicate, even before the final strains of the band’s cover of MOTORHEAD’s ‘Orgasmatron’ faded on that Monday night in England, Sepultura had become metal’s ultimate crossover success, bathed in the blood of Bestial Devastation’s underground credibility but also courted warmly by the two million-plus mainstream dwellers across the globe who, literally, bought into Roots’ tribal rhythms and jagged, cutting edges.
In retrospect, you can see the Max/Sepultura split miles away if you take even the most cursory of glances at the ‘Roots Bloody Roots’ video (go check it out on YouTube, it’ll bring back nostalgia, I guarantee): there’s Max proudly sporting that now very dated DEFTONES shirt while Sepultura guitarist Andres Kisser walks almost side by side in apparel featuring the cover of BLACK SABBATH’s Born Again (a record that had yet to achieve its current revisionist history classic status). What’s that they say about hindsight? 20/20 and all?
But, yes, Sepultura had arrived in 1996, and how, and then it ended, Sepultura literally split into two seismic forces that would continue unabated to the present day. 1996 to 2013 hasn’t been the kindest era to both Sepultura and Soulfly and, in those strange twists of fate that only the universe's half-grin can provide us with, both Andreas and Max now find themselves on Nuclear Blast, with new albums appearing weeks removed from each other, setting up the ultimate Sepultura/Soulfly grudge match.
The Sepultura/Soulfly animosity might still be active between Max and Andreas for all we laymen know (and we know nothing), but it’s not like anyone really cares about who hates who anymore. The fact is, most of those two million who bought Roots back in 1996 and 1997 are, in 2013, more likely concerned about whether their youngest kid hates their oldest and, if Roots is even spinning at all, it’s probably because shuffle on iTunes decided to bring back the dire spire of the mid-‘90s for one night only in that suburban household (‘Holy shit honey, remember this?’ dad says to mom as ‘Ratamahatta’ raises its hands epically to the sky; the two then reminisce, while tucking the kids in bed, of the dreadlocks both of them cut off a decade ago, and they then call it a night at 11 or so, after The Colbert Report).
But, wait, stick around, there’s more to the story than that depressing tale of metal-gone-suburban would have you believe. The rest of us - the metal lifers - are still around too and, despite our suburban condos, suit ‘n’ tie careers and even our awesome kids who are being raised listening to SLAYER from the youngest of ages, we’re the ones who still get all excited-like at the prospect of both a new Sepultura and Soulfly album in 2013. And, in those strange twists of fate that only the universe's half-grin can provide us with, both The Mediator Between Head And Hands Must Be The Heart (fantastic and insightful title, but too long) and Savages have arrived, ready to be compared and contrasted with all the implications that type of statement carries.
Let’s get this out of the way now: Max won the battle real early, back in 1998. The first Soulfly record went Gold in the US because Max was finely attuned to what was happening in nu-metal, and the cameos by Jonathan Davis (KORN), Chino Moreno (DEFTONES), DJ Lethal (LIMP BIZKIT, HOUSE OF PAIN) and Fred Durst (LIMP BIZKIT) ensured that Max had a new generation of kids on his side, ready to consume the musings of his band for at least another five to seven years. From a branding, marketing and longevity perspective, it was brilliant. Predictably, and for good reason, the rest of us back home in underground metal hated it. We felt betrayed by Max’s dalliances with the enemy.
In the other camp was Sepultura, sans Max. Instead of writing the type of listenable, groove-obsessed nu-metal that Max was fully immersed in, Sepultura took the high road and executed angular, difficult albums that struggled to be memorable or gain any traction. Want proof? Off the top of your head, name one post-Max Sepultura song that isn't the title track to an album. See? Not possible. It’s a tidal wave of irreversibility that Sepultura would ride for the next fifteen years, the band bleeding its bloody roots all over the goddamn place as the venues got smaller.
This scribe wants you to know that it pains me to say all this. Like you, I wanted Sepultura to win. But facts are facts. In 2008, Andreas told me that Sepultura had to win back the trust of the people. A-Lex was a unique, ambitious and interesting record, and I hoped for Sepultura’s sake it would happen. But it didn’t in ’08.
But it might in 2013. Alpha and omega, and in the throes of full circles, here we are in 2013 like we were in 1998, both bands on the same label, except this time everything is different. Everything.
Max long ago made amends with extreme metal and the approximate consensus is that we’ve forgiven him for the first three Soulfly records. Even Max has seemingly admitted his mea culpa in the most effective way he knows how and, through that process, we’ve been graced with albums as audacious and listenable as Dark Ages, Conquer, Omen and the genuinely extreme Enslaved. There are those who are quick to turn their backs to Max, branding him the turncoat that has returned to extreme metal only because the temporarily hot mistress that was nu-metal long ago went the way of all trends. But, anecdotally, the older I get, the less harshly I judge the metal guys who left and then come back. You get to be in your 30s and, suddenly, you've got this new perspective on life and some of your priorities change. So you do your 30s thing and then return to the fold in your 40s, maybe out of nostalgia or maybe because it's who you were all along. It's just a weird trajectory we might all be on, and I think these metal guys aren't exempt from it. Which explains those first few Soulfly records. And Load. And Diabolus In Musica. It doesn’t mean you have to like those records, but at least you understand the motivations behind them.
Sepultura has been with us in extreme metal all along, but have we noticed? Against, Nation, Roorback, Dante XXI, A-Lex, Kairos... sure, they’ve been released and listened to and reviewed, but where’s the traction? Where’s the legacy? What path has Sepultura forged? What questions have they answered? It’s already been said here, but we desperately wanted Andreas, Paulo and Derrick (and the legion of drummers that followed Igor) to win the battle. Sepultura was the counterpart to Max’s indulgence with the enemy but, like patron saints fighting the good fight, sometimes undeserved things happen. And brand dilution was the element that Sepultura didn’t deserve, but experienced anyway.
But if you’re going to judge Sepultura and Soulfly by their 2013 output only, Sepultura emerges as the unlikely winner. The Mediator is a record that is inspired, highly aware of Arise and is an LP that goes for the throat and proclaims "We are Sepultura!" while emanating the levels of confidence and self-assuredness that only a revered and respected back catalogue affords. 2011’s Kairos hinted at it, but The Mediator is the true reflection of Sepultura’s newfound sense that the band doesn’t care that you might be comparing The Mediator to Soulfly, or Roots, or Chaos A.D., or Arise. This is Sepultura, with all its faults and all the baggage of its past. And Sepultura has finally delivered the record that, if there’s any justice, will re-establish the brand.
As mentioned, Max has done good work re-integrating himself into extreme metal since ’05 or so. Enslaved led us to believe that he wanted to write purely death metal from now on, and while Savages does tone down the caustic acerbity of Enslaved it’s still a far, far cry from the inanity of Soulfly’s initial forays. Sure, the song-writing on Savages could have been sharper (and, hey, nine albums in 15 years is an absurd pace, let’s be honest), but highlights ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, ‘Ayatollah of Rock ‘N’ Rolla’ (that’s a terrible title), ‘K.C.S.’ and especially the fire-on-fire that is ‘Soulfliktion’ are indication that Max won’t be calling up any members of FIVE FINGER DEATH PUNCH, KILLSWITCH ENGAGE or LACUNA COIL for cameos. Max is an extreme metal lifer like the rest of us, he just took a detour to get to where he’s at.
So, it says in the here and now that The Mediator is a better record than Savages, but let’s not get all caught up in that. Art isn't about competition in the end, and in 2013 there’s a sense of gratitude that both Sepultura and Soulfly are still toiling at this game and flying that extreme metal flag we all wave on a daily basis, even if we don’t look the part or don the uniform anymore. So take in The Mediator and Savages in the present moment, understanding that one day, like Roots, this will all just be memory. And that the present that we’re all embroiled in will become a revelatory gem of a moment in the fogs of nostalgia. Nothing lasts for any of us forever: listen to Sepultura and Soulfly and reflect on how the richness of life allows us to experience all this in its totality, every day, one breath at a time, so beautifully and so gratefully. Long live life.