With the exception of a tiny handful of bands, the entire genre dubiously titled “nu-metal” has grown as tired as grunge circa 1994, and glam metal five years before that. The metal scene has been besieged by an endless parade of bands following the same formula of tuned-down, crunchy, hip-hop-inspired guitars mixed with phlegm-throated vocalists spewing indecipherable lyrics so unintentionally hilarious that they sound like Chicken Soup for a Headbanger’s Soul. The metal genre has never been in worse shape, and we can thank both Ross Robinson, whose producer work with Korn, Limp Biscuit, and Slipknot created the blueprint for maudlin angst-metal, and Ozzfest, for force-feeding such dreck to kids at its annual mosh pit day camp.
But we can thank the heavens above for such bands as System of a Down, Rob Zombie, and Soulfly. With System of a Down providing politically charged (but not preachy) lyrics and some actual off-kilter, original songwriting, and Rob Zombie giving us nothing but pure, loud, cornball fun, Soulfly give us the spiritual side of today’s metal (hey, how many metal albums include a prayer to Saint Michael?). Fronted by former Sepultura frontman Max Cavalera, Soulfly strive to be the metal version of Bob Marley, combining positive, thoughtful lyrics with some seriously fierce metal mixed with traditional instrumentation from Cavalera’s native Brazil. The band’s excellent 2000 album Primitive showed how great they could be, and while 3 has some moments of redundancy, we’re still hearing Soulfly’s sound progress steadily towards something really good.
3 gets off to a great start with “Downstroy”, and perfectly encapsulates Soulfly’s trademark sound, as it blasts off with a superb, albeit generic, metal riff and growled lyrics, before breaking down three minutes in, into a melange of South American percussion and samples of news stories. “One” utilizes both Cavalera’s growling voice and a gripping mellow section sung by Ill Nino’s Christian Machado, as both sing of common themes found in all world religions (“One soul / One heart / One man / One truth / One tribe / One life / One God”), one of the recurring themes in all of Soulfly’s music.
Soulfly is simply at its most thrilling when the go full-bore into the Brazilian metal territory, and “Brasil” is a phenomenal example. Yeah, there are the grinding guitars and ferocious drums, but Cavalera also uses layers of wonderful percussion, and a native Brazilian, one-stringed instrument called a berimbau to create a sound entirely original in metal today. In his native Portuguese, Cavalera sings (or, more accurately, screams) about the current state of Rio de Janeiro’s slums, the sins of Brazil’s government in the 1960s, urging his homeland to overcome its current hardships and exorcise the past, calling his country, “Brasil, Pais Porrada (Brazil, Hardcore Country).” The cover of Brazilian band Chico Science’s “Sangue de Barrio” continues the theme of Brazilian nationalistic pride, in a story about a rebel Robin Hood-like gang from the 1930s who were eventually captured and beheaded. The instrumentals “Soulfly III” and “Zumbi” take Cavalera’s musical experimentation to new heights, proving that metal music can expand effectively into other genres, in this case, world music.
Cavalera addresses the September 11 terrorist attacks on the trio of songs “One Nation”, “9-11-01”, and “Call to Arms”. “One Nation”, originally by Eighties band Sacred Reich, fits in well, with its call for racial unity (“A state that’s free and thrives on peace, no greed, no threat to life”), and its plea for some sympathy for those innocents abroad who are caught in the firing line (“They’re flesh and blood like us—why don’t you understand?”), sounding relevant for post-9-11 America. It’s naively utopian thinking, but it’s much better than jingoistic, reactionary songs by country artists like Toby Keith. “Call to Arms” addresses the terrorists (“All your beliefs filled up with lies / Blinded from what you call prophets”) in rather ordinary fashion, but the track that grabs you isn’t a “song” at all. In a flash of simple brilliance, Soulfly’s one tribute to “9-11-01” is nothing more than a full minute of complete silence, which, coming from such a loud album, is a real shock, and is most fitting (though Cavalera had better hope that John Cage doesn’t sue).
The album is about four songs too long, and three of those four songs on 3, predictably, are the ones lacking originality. The Zapata tribute “Seek “N” Strike”, the Native American themed “L.O.T.M.”, and the rant against spoiled rock stars called “Four Elements” are all metal-by-numbers, and really have no business being on the CD. The eight-minute centerpiece song “Tree of Pain”, yet another tribute to Cavalera’s murdered stepson Dana (the better “Song Song” appears on Primitive) features good vocal work by singer Asha Rabouin, but an appearance by Cavalera’s son Ritchie, while heartfelt, distracts from the song, thanks to some uncomfortably bad vocalizing. “Tree of Pain’s intentions are good, but in the end it comes off, I’m sad to say, as nothing more than a family’s public therapy session.
3 has its missteps, but its finer moments win out in the end. Soulfly’s journey through both world and metal music is getting closer and closer to the great album they’re capable of; when Max Cavalera completely embraces that exciting combination of musical styles, and stretches it out for an entire album, the result could really break new ground in the nu-metal genre. And although Soulfly needs to shorten their albums a touch, and work on more original lyrics, I still look forward to their new CD’s every time they come out. Cavalera might be getting a bit too close to repeating himself too much, but when that message is one that stresses positive thinking, in a musical genre that seems to be all about anger and misery, personally, I’ll never tire of it.