The Raw And The Half-Baked: Sepultura’s Roots At 25

A quarter of a century on from Roots, Keith Kahn-Harris wonders whether Sepultura’s much-vaunted album has actually left much of a legacy

A few years ago, the Guardian’s ‘Notes and Queries’ section posed the question, "Who is the least influential band ever?" I remember only one of the suggested answers – Frankie Goes To Hollywood – but the question has resonated with me ever since. It provides a useful reminder that commercial and/or artistic success do not necessarily mean that anyone follows in your footsteps.

I am not going to claim that Sepultura’s Roots influenced no one, but in revisiting the album 25 years after its release, I found pinning down its impact much more challenging than I had expected.

In 2000, towards the end of my PhD, I published my first academic article ‘‘Roots’?: the relationship between the global and the local within the Extreme Metal scene’. The article was the culmination of over a decade’s obsession with Sepultura and examined the striking irony that, as Sepultura got more successful globally, the more they lyrically and musically focused on signifying Brazil.

My article was far from uncritical and raised questions about the politics of Sepultura’s collaboration with the Amazonian Xavante people. What I didn’t question, though, was the assumption that Sepultura, and Roots in particular, was ‘important’.

There’s no question that Roots had an impact. It has sold over two million copies worldwide, features regularly in metal ‘best of’ lists and saw Sepultura receive praise from the non-metal media. Indeed, Sepultura had, at least since 1991’s Arise, attracted sympathetic attention from outside the metal world. While today it is common for selected metal acts – usually on the avant-garde end of the spectrum – to receive critical acclaim, in the 1990s this process was just beginning.

Central to this impact was the ‘Brazilianness’ of the album. The collaborations with the Xavante and with the Afro-Brazilian percussionist Carlinhos Brown were unprecedented in metal at the time. If nothing else, Roots caused critics to rethink what they imagined metal to be and what they imagined were the limits to what it could do. Metal didn’t have to boil down to the West Midlands and Sunset Strip, it could embrace the world and its music.

Shortly after Roots came out, I mentioned it to a veteran of the death metal underground. He was pretty cynical; for him Sepultura’s ‘roots’ were in the global tape-trading underground in which their first releases, Bestial Devastation and Morbid Visions, circulated in 1985 and 1986. And he had a point. Roots are always what we construct them to be.

Listening to Roots for the first time in many years I was struck by its raggedness. This was perhaps the biggest departure from Sepultura’s musical roots. The band’s first three albums are – common to extreme metal of the era – bursts of frenetic, mostly disciplined riffing and clearly aspire to the virtuoso brutality of the underground death and early black metal. Arise saw them go full-Morrissound and shares the mid-range cleanness of death metal of that era. There isn’t a riff out of place.

While Chaos AD saw Sepultura start to develop an earthier sound, Roots took the process much further. There’s no sheen to it. Roots is loud, in a way that extreme metal at the time rarely was. The drums are high in the mix and the distortion is raw. Max Cavalera sounds like he is straining every fibre of his being to scream out the lyrics. The riffs are mostly simple – often just sequences of a couple of chords – and there are no tricksy time changes. Songs don’t finish neatly; they collapse or are abandoned.

At its best, Roots is thrilling, immediate and punchy. You get the sense that, for Sepultura in 1996, ‘roots’ was a signifier of authenticity as much as of sense of place. While authenticity is an eminently deconstructable concept, it can lead artists to let go of the insecurity that equates great art with elaborate complexity. On tracks like ‘Dictatorshit’ and ‘Straighthate’ you can witness the joy of letting go of extreme metal’s frequent confusion of ‘brutality’ with cleanly-executed rifferama.

Yet there’s a very thin line between raw spontaneity and sounding half-baked. Sepultura walk this line on Roots and on occasions they cross over onto the wrong side of it. And it’s often on the most ‘Brazilian’ tracks that they do this.

In recent years, the only song from Roots that I ever listened to was ‘Ratamahatta’. On revisiting the whole album, I still find it the stand-out track, but I’ve also began to find it infuriating.

Historically, there was no precedent in metal for Sepultura’s collaboration with Carlinhos Brown and even now ‘Ratamahatta’ is startling in its novelty. To collaborate with an Afro-Brazilian musician, to infuse metal with percussion, to eschew formal complexity in favour of improvised spontaneity – all this was new. And its combination of sludgy down-tuned guitars, batteries of drums and an almost-ecstatic vocal line remains infectiously enjoyable. But…

…What I am starting to find grating is the wilful raggedness. ‘Ratamahatta’ begins with a false-start and ends with laughter and messing about in the studio. In the middle you can almost hear the musicians looking at each other uncertainly.

In and of itself, this isn’t a problem. Sometimes snippets of studio messing-about can be an effective way of reminding listeners that an album involves human beings, rather than disembodied layers of recordings. But ‘Ratamahatta’ isn’t the only example of what appears to be a reluctance or inability to integrate the musical signifiers of authenticity/ roots/ Brazilianness into the band’s sound. On ‘Attitude’, Max Cavalera’s berimbau part is left as an introduction to the track; both parts exist independently of the other. The percussion sections in the middle of ‘Ambush’ and ‘Endangered Species’ are great to listen to but it’s hard to see how they relate to the songs themselves.

I couldn’t work out how to relate to ‘Itsari’ – the track recorded with the Xavante – when the album came out and I’m not sure I can now. Politically, it walks that fine line between respect and well-meaning patronisation. The band certainly had the best of intentions and the novelty of a metal band going into the Amazon to work with an indigenous tribe is not to be underestimated.

Musically though, it’s unclear whether you can call it a ‘collaboration’. The chanting of the tribesmen is powerful to listen to as it builds and recedes. The acoustic guitar and percussion doesn’t overwhelm the tribes voices and seems to follow their dynamic. But is this an urban Brazilian metal band trying their hardest to find a sensitive musical backing for something that was sung to them, or were both parties listening and playing towards each other?

In short, when it comes to the Brazil-signifying music on Roots, you can always hear the joins in the superstructure. Whether this was down to a respectful desire not to drown the ‘sound of Brazil’ in a sea of guitar riffs, or to an inability to truly integrate these elements, is still unclear. Certainly Max Cavalera’s subsequent work with Soulfly has often been let down by a tendency to dissipate his undoubted talents in endless collaborations and jam sessions.

I still wonder whether, for all of Sepultura’s embrace of their ‘roots’, the band felt more distant from the musical roots of some of their fellow Brazilians than they articulated at the time. Perhaps this was, in fact, a subconscious recognition that as Brazilians with European origins, they did not have the right to turn metal, Afro-Brazilian and Amerinidian music into a seamless whole. It’s interesting to note that drummer Igor Cavalera was much more successful in incorporating samba influences in his drumming. He had played in samba bands when he was younger; this was ‘his’ music.

Roots isn’t appropriation in the sense of taking something that is not yours to take. But even Sepultura’s musical wanderings didn’t produce a true fusion – in the sense of incorporating a style so the cracks don’t show – it arguably falls into a different set of traps. By displaying the gaps between metal and Afro-Brazilian and Amerindian music, the resulting rawness may also convey a message that these musics are essentially raw, that they are a way of undisciplining and ‘loosening up’ metal.

I attended a talk by a scholar of Didgeridoo music some years ago. He showed how, in the west, its sound is seen as an undifferentiated drone, whereas indigenous Australians distinguish subtle variations and nuances. The artists with whom Sepultura collaborated on Roots may have learned disciplines as exacting as the band themselves had to do when they learned death metal. If ‘roots’ is meant to imply spontaneous slackness, then this is something of a calumny disguised as a complement.

25 years after Roots, metal is a much more diverse genre than it was. Think of an instrument or a style of music and the chances are that some metal artist somewhere will have experimented with it.

Sepultura were not the only and not the first contributors to this permissive environment. Skyclad’s British folk metal and the metal-rap collaborations on the Judgement Night soundtrack preceded Roots by some years. And during the same period in which Sepultura embraced Brazil, the burgeoning black metal scene was embracing its own vision of ethnic/national identity.

Sepultura’s ‘Brazil’ was not the same as black metal’s ‘Norway’. It’s not just that ‘Brazil’ was constructed as multicultural and ‘Norway’ as racially homogeneous; the key difference is that ‘Norway’ did not involve real Norwegians. The Vikings are long gone, as is their music. That gives enormous scope for musical reinventions that do not require wrestling with dilemmas of how to integrate musicians and musics from very different backgrounds.

Where Sepultura and their Nordic peers did share is a reaction against what death metal had become. Just as Darkthrone deliberately turned their backs on the death metal sound of Soulside Journey and created a deliberately rough-hewn black metal, so Sepultura curbed their hard-won death metal technicality. For ‘roots’ read ‘true’.

Today, the black metal method of integrating the local in a global scene that won out. In folk metal today you find a much more seamless melding of metal and its musical others. Korpiklaani and Finntroll are not jam bands, they are effortlessly slick and do not question their entitlement to evoke their mythic ancestors. Orphaned Land and Melechesh are not incorporating Middle Eastern influences into their music, it is their music. Even bands that owe a lot musically to Sepultura, such as Alien Weaponry, sound much more comfortable in their own skin.

On top of metal’s greater musical diversity, it has also becoming a much more politically contested space. If a white Brazilian band were to collaborate with an Amerinidian tribe today, the politics of doing so would be extensively discussed within the scene. And I don’t think that Sepultura themselves would today entitle a European tour ‘Death From The Jungle’ as they did in the late 1980s.

Today, metal’s global diversity is such that its non-white others can speak for themselves. Listen to Zeal and Ardour, Divide and Dissolve, or Duma and you hear a collision between, metal, noise and ‘other’ musics that is as entitled as Nordic black and folk metal. What you don’t hear is the self-conscious rawness of Roots and while that also means you don’t hear the thrill that Sepultura clearly felt in making the album, the trade-off is surely worth it.

We come back to the knotty question of ‘influence’ then. Roots may have inspired bands across the world to expand their sense of what was possible in metal, but it did not lead to more albums sounding like Roots (unless you count Soulfly and Sepultura’s subsequent albums).

The picture is the same when you consider the other burgeoning metal scene that Roots contributed to, nu metal. The album also featured guest appearances from Jonathan Davis and David Silveira of Korn, together with DJ Lethal of House Of Pain and Limp Bizkit. You can certainly hear on Roots the heavily downtuned guitars that helped define the sound of 1990s nu metal and some of its riffs (particularly the main one on ‘Roots Bloody Roots’) share the distinctive ‘groove’.

Again though, to situate Roots in this scene requires ignoring some of the essential components of the album. On listening to it again, one thing that struck me was how much the sound owes to early 80s anarcho punk. You can hear Discharge and Amebix in the two-note riffs and the way Max Cavalera spits out the lyrics in furious, barely-coherent bursts.

What are we left with then? Roots was Sepultura’s apogee. After the split in 1996 none of the band members quite topped it. In Soulfly, Max Cavalera had none of the restraints that he had in the former band and he could not stop himself from compulsive less-than-the-sum-of-their-parts collaborations. The Andreas Kisser-led Derrick Green-fronted Sepultura may be underrated but they also lack the special sauce Max Cavalera provided. In recent years Cavalera Conspiracy offer reminders of past glories, but little more.

Perhaps Roots could never bear the weight of significance that was placed upon it. It doesn’t really map out as much new musical territory as was claimed at the time. So it’s probably time to release it from that burden and ask simply whether it is enjoyable. And the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. For all its half-baked spontaneity ‘Ratamahatta’ is great fun, ‘Roots Bloody Roots’ is crushingly heavy and ‘Attitude’ is just great metal. Above all, this is Igor Cavalera’s album, his finest moment. He provides the glue that sticks everything together; where other band members get lost in noodling, Igor cuts through the crap.

Roots was ultimately a blind alley then, but it still deserves its place on the best-of lists even if was left to others to provide a much more convincing approach to the expansion of metal’s musical roots.

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