So often in metal, veteran bands try so hard to live up to the high standard set by the albums from early in their career, that they completely lose focus. It might take a while, but bands eventually learn that the best thing to do is to just keep it simple, hammer out a tight, focused record, as if they’re starting over from scratch. Queensryche have done just that on their comeback album Operation: Mindcrime II, and have succeeded. Dave Mustaine recorded with a bunch of session musicians, and The System Has Failed turned out to be the best Megadeth album since 1992. In ditching producer Bob Rock in favor of the more straightforward Rick Rubin, Metallica just might have made the best career decision in ages. And even those geezers in Deep Purple scored an unexpected winner in late 2005 with the very enjoyable Rapture of the Deep.
Sepultura find themselves in the exact same situation. In the eight years since Max Cavalera left the band in one of the most acrimonious splits in metal history, Sepultura has struggled to regain the magic of such seminal albums as Arise and Roots, while Cavalera’s own project Soulfly, while inconsistent, displayed more passion than his old band has done over the same span. Cavalera’s replacement, Derrick Green, has done a very admirable job as frontman, as the band has managed to carry on nicely with a new vocalist (perhaps the most daunting challenge a metal band can ever face), but while the Brazilian quartet has shown signs of rebirth in recent years, most notably on 2003’s Roorback, they have yet to sustain any real power over the course of an entire full-length album.
Dante XXI boldly strives to set things straight, and indeed, all the signs of potential improvement are there. A concept album focusing on Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, the thematic focus appears to be there. The production is raw; abrasively so. The songs are short and concise, the album barely 40 minutes long. Musically, the onus is on pure aggression, and little else. And for the most part, the album does deliver. It might not be the home run many longtime fans have been wishing for, but it’s a solid, respectable stand-up double.
After a decidedly ominous intro of layered, backwards-tracked voices, the proverbial gauntlet is thrown down with the spectacular “Dark Wood of Error”. At 2:16, it’s a ridiculously short song, with half of it devoted to a pulse-pounding overture propelled by Igor Cavalera’s drum fills and Andreas Kisser’s taut, tense riffs, but the last 45 seconds is the kind of doubletime, album-opening assault that we haven’t heard since “Arise”, as Green howls away in his distinctive scream. “Convicted in Life” has the band settling down into a chugging groove; it’s here where Kisser truly begins to step up and dominate the proceedings, alternating between darkly melodic, elastic chords and sharp staccato thrash picking, and climaxing with the same kind of atonal, Slayer-style soloing he excelled at in the late ‘80s. Dissonant squalls add an unsettling element to the speed of “False” before shifting into a horn-driven, decidedly black metal-sounding coda, followed by the brutally slow, churning doom chords of “Fighting On”. “Nuclear Seven” is deceptively simple, Kisser’s seemingly rote central riff gradually achieving a Neurosis-esque grandeur, while he and his mates return to more straightforward thrash ferocity on “Crown and Miter”.
Admirable as the effort is, however, Dante XXI is not without its flaws. Several songs sound too stripped down, as “City of Dis”, “Buried Words”, and “Repeating the Horror” veer too far close to ordinary hardcore. Cavalera’s drum sound is rather odd, his toms sounding like pillows, his snare possessing a St. Anger-like tinniness. Green’s vocals, while definitely more evocative than most young metalcore screamers out there, still lacks resonance on the record (whatever became of that sinister growl we heard on the cover of U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky”?) and runs the risk of sounding tiresome.
Still, the good does outweigh the average, and the best thing Sepultura ends up showing us is that they still have not lost the ability to surprise. The appearance of horns and strings throughout the album add a much-needed theatrical effect, but the real coup de grace occurs on the closing number “Still Flame”, in which native Brazilian singers and percussion achieve a Roots-like mix, culminating in an orchestral flourish underscoring Green’s wracked screams, a first-rate conclusion to an impressive return to form by the venerable band.