1996 / 2005
A- / B-
epultura's Roots was one of those rare concept albums that actually worked. One night, singer/guitarist Max Cavalera watched the movie At Play in the Fields of the Lord, in which missionaries travel to the Brazilian rainforest and live with the natives there. In a drunken haze, Cavalera decided that Sepultura should explore their native Brazilian music. Cavalera was also enamored of Korn's debut album, and wanted to incorporate downtuned nu-metal into Sepultura's sound. The result? Roots.
"Sepultura" means "grave" in Portuguese, and Sepultura began as just another underground death/thrash metal band. Early releases found them combining Slayer-esque thrash with the punk energy of Discharge and fellow Brazilians Ratos de Porão. But South American percussion and Peruvian flutes introduced "Altered States" on 1991's Arise, and 1993's Chaos A.D. found Sepultura experimenting with Brazilian rhythms. The most notable example was "Kaiowas," an instrumental inspired by Brazil's Kaiowas tribe, who committed mass suicide to protest a government trying to take away their land and silence their beliefs.
However, "Kaiowas" was recorded in an English castle, not the Brazilian rainforest. To get closer to their source, the band traveled to the Mato Grosso region of Brazil to record with the Xavantes tribe. For three days, the band jammed with the tribe, using recording equipment powered by car generators. "Itsari" (the Xavantes word for "root") was the result, a seamless blend of acoustic guitars with tribal percussion and chants. Field recordings from these sessions, as well as live drumming from percussionist Carlinhos Brown, added a strong Brazilian flavor to Roots.
Sepultura fans were shocked upon first hearing Roots. Huge riffs and hulking rhythms had replaced the speedy thrash that established Sepultura's reputation, as well as the impeccable songwriting that made Chaos A.D. a masterpiece three years earlier. "Roots Bloody Roots" sported a two-note riff; "Dictatorsh*t" was straight-up hardcore punk, complete with noisy, hissy intro. The emphasis was now on the sound, rather than the song. Producer Ross Robinson recorded the band on old analog equipment to get a raw, dirty sound; pick scrapes, feedback, and background noise were not only left unedited, but also seemingly encouraged. This was the sound that Metallica's St. Anger tried, but failed, to emulate.
Experimentation and collaboration abounded. In the studio, Robinson would verbally and physically provoke the band to intensify performances. Tribal percussion drove "Ratamahatta" and "Breed Apart" to manic heights, while "Lookaway" featured throat-shredding vocals from Mike Patton (Faith No More) and Jonathan Davis (Korn), as well as scratches from DJ Lethal (House of Pain, Limp Bizkit). Robinson even put microphones around a canyon, recording the band jamming on tribal drums, rocks, sticks—whatever was lying around. The result was a 13-minute headphone monster that captured crickets chirping and gunshot echoes in you-are-there fidelity.
Mixer Andy Wallace tied the whole mess together with one of the most visceral mixes ever committed to tape. The mammoth low end, sharp snares, and in-the-red levels of the mix combined with an incredibly hot mastering job to yield one loud album. Except for Iggy Pop's remix of Raw Power, few albums have sounded this vicious.
Amazingly, Sepultura's record label, Roadrunner, has reissued the album with an even louder mastering job. Thankfully, the volume difference isn't much (0.3 dB). The new remaster smooths out the sound a little, so that the percussion is tucked in with everything else instead of popping out of the mix. The result will likely be imperceptible to most, though, and preference should be a matter of taste.
But the unnecessary remastering job and the included bonus disc beg the question of why this reissue was ever put out. The bonus disc collects all the leftover tracks recorded during the Roots sessions. Covers of Celtic Frost's "Procreation (of the Wicked)" and Bob Marley's "War" look good on paper, but are both uninspired, sludgy messes. There are mixes by two different engineers of "Mine," yet another uninspired, sludgy mess. One engineer faded out the tune early, while one didn’t—so what? Worst of all, most of the demos and remixes here appeared on Blood-Rooted, a 1997 compilation of Sepultura odds and ends. In fact, only a handful of the tracks here are previously unreleased. Thus, the reissue's increased price is worthwhile only for diehard completists.
Fortunately, Roots is a strong enough album to resist attempts to cash in on its legacy. After Roots, internal conflict drove Max Cavalera to leave Sepultura and form Soulfly, continuing the "tribal metal" of Roots; Sepultura carried on with new singer Derrick Green. But neither band has regained the success of Max Cavalera-era Sepultura. While both bands play "Roots Bloody Roots" now in their live sets, listeners can get with the real thing by picking up the original Roots.