he history of Sepultura is divided into two parts, the Max Cavalera years and the Derrick Green years. Cavalera was the band's original singer and rhythm guitarist. Together with his brother Igor, Cavalera formed Sepultura (which means "grave" or "burial" in Portuguese) in Belo Horizonte, Brazil in the early '80s. Early efforts fused British punk and American thrash; 1987's Schizophrenia led to a deal with Roadrunner Records. The resulting Beneath the Remains considerably increased the band's worldwide exposure. 1991's Arise was an undisputed thrash classic, but the band's sound significantly changed with 1993's Chaos A.D. Sepultura slowed its thrash attack, and began incorporating Brazilian tribal rhythms into its sound. The result was one of metal's all-time great albums, a diverse and memorable synthesis of the band's influences. 1996's Roots was sprawling and experimental, further exploring the tribal metal concept with live hand percussion and field recordings with Brazil's Xavantes tribe. With perhaps the world's gnarliest two-note riff, the song "Roots Bloody Roots" became a metal anthem. Sepultura was Roadrunner's flagship act, and seemed invincible.
However, in late '96, Sepultura sacked its manager. Unfortunately, that manager was Gloria Cavalera, Max's wife, and he left the band to form Soulfly. The rest of the band continued under the Sepultura name. After a long search, the band found a new singer, Derrick Green, of Cleveland, Ohio. Unlike Cavalera, Green did not play much guitar, and lead guitarist Andreas Kisser became the band's main riff writer. The first two albums with Green, Against and Nation, were fast, furious, and utterly unmemorable. The riffs and songs just weren't there. When Cavalera left, he took not only his spicy guitar interplay with Kisser, but also a natural sense of songwriting. Sepultura's sound became simplistic, full of faceless, sludgy riffs. Roadrunner cast its lot with Soulfly, not Sepultura, and the band parted ways with the label. The Derrick Green lineup didn't gel until 2003's Roorback, which found the band ditching nearly all its tribal elements for concise hardcore punk and thrash. The album was hard-hitting but inconsistent; tellingly, Sepultura's best output with Green came with Revolusongs, an EP of covers.
Sadly, not much has changed. On Dante XXI, the riffs are still unmemorable and the songs still lack tension and release. The performances are ferocious and tight, but intensity alone can't save mediocre material. "Ostia" lasts three minutes, but feels like an eternity with an incongruous cello and piano interlude sandwiched between lumbering riffs. "Buried Words" has an underwhelming chorus: "Your words / Are dead / I buried them / They’re dead." Kisser's solos are fluent but directionless; Green's screams are exhaustingly harsh. Still, there are a few highlights. "Repeating the Horror" is a tour de force for drummer Igor Cavalera. The song's verses are pedestrian, but Cavalera injects them with sharp, precise syncopations, and ends the song with a thrilling drum break that stops suddenly and cruelly. "Crown and Miter" is a savage two-minute throwdown that harkens back to the fiery punk covers on Sepultura B-sides back in the day. But small triumphs are hardly adequate for a concept album based on Dante's Divine Comedy. The deepest parts of this album are strings and horns scattered throughout. They feel pasted-on, and wouldn't be reproducible live without backing tapes or keyboards. In Max Cavalera-era Sepultura, two guitars alone could amply convey epic doom. The only thing hellish here is the band's treading water in a musical River Acheron.
It's not a good sign when each new album by a band is hyped as a return to form. After enough failures, the claim rings false. Yes, Dante XXI is Sepultura's best album after Max Cavalera, but that's not saying much. The first four albums with Green don't hold a candle to the last four with Cavalera. Dante XXI isn't enough of a step forward to inspire hope; after 10 studio albums, a band shouldn't be rebuilding. Of course, Max Cavalera could rejoin the band. But he's doing just fine with Soulfly. Interestingly, the first few Soulfly albums were confused messes of nu-metal and wildly disparate ethnic influences. This suggests that Cavalera-era Sepultura was more than the sum of its parts. But Cavalera has found a new foil in guitar shredder Marc Rizzo. Soulfly's last two albums, Prophecy and Dark Ages, are strong and colorful, and are more true to the spirit of classic Sepultura than the current Sepultura lineup. Perhaps most telling as to how far Sepultura has fallen is the artwork of Dante XXI. Gone is the strong tribal font that inspired so much fear and respect. In its place is a weak, mild-mannered font worthy of indie rock. Like Metallica, the Sepultura brand has taken a beating. At this point, it will take a miracle to resuscitate it.