Nobody listens to a thrash record because they want to sit back and appreciate the fine textures of the instrumentation, to contemplate the measured and carefully constructed lyrics or appreciate the nuanced emotional dimensions evoked by a complex range of registers, of key changes so subtle but effective they seem both inevitably and impossible and of skillfully deployed and unpredictably chosen progressions. Most groups don’t mind playing fast and loose (emphasis on fast) with changes to rhythm and tempo and there’s always room for some sure-footed guitar work, but at the end of the day most thrash is guilty of the crime of sameness. When the emphasis is so much on speed and agile playing, the nuances tend to blur into a kind of sonic collage which, while not always great for listening, is perfect for dancing. If there’s no command to get up and move, to go crashing through the streets to your nearest punk-parlor-thrift-store or into the wear-house-haven your local contingent of metalheads call home then, well, it probably fails the test as thrash.
By that logic, then, does , Século Sinistro, the latest release from Brazilian stalwarts Ratos de Porão, hold up? One might hope so, given that they are, at 30 years old, quite possibly the most venerable Brazilian thrash group, but the truth is somewhere closer to “no.” Dangerously close to it, in fact. Make no mistake, Século Sinistro is thrash and thrash that bears the mark of experience and an understanding of just what makes the genre work, but it’s also, ironically, safe. And safe thrash might as well be no thrash at all. Take the vocals, for instance: at no point does it sound like Joao Gordo is as furious as might be hoped. He sounds irate, certainly, but it’s a restrained anger, his bark disapproving rather than condemnatory; even when he resorts to a squeal, as is the case in “Sangue & Bunda”, the cry isn’t that of a man so robbed of the capacity for self-expression that he can only resort to feral noise but a kind of empty short-hand for the same, a sign that tells the listener, “insert impotent fury here.”
The guitar may shred, as it does towards the end of “Neocanibalismo”, but it does so out of what feels like obligation, like it has a job to do so it had better get it over with. Other perfunctory guitar work abounds, as in “Grande Bosta” and “Jornada para o Inferno”, while the drums hammer away with distressing monotony. Sometimes the bass peaks out in all of this for a second, but it’s imminently forgettable, almost as if by design (can’t have things getting too funky?). All the trademarks of a classic thrash album are here, including but certainly not limited to the babbled-wall-of-words that open the titular track, the staccato drum-fills found throughout and moments where the tempo drops to a stomp and brings the whole frantic mess crashing together like a train stopped too quickly.
It’s not corporate-calculated thrash, by any stretch; whatever this album is it’s not cynical. But it is bored and who could possibly dance along to music that’s got no energy? There are attempts at it, certainly, but nothing seems to summarize this album better than the opening of the first song, “Conflito Violent”, A sound clip of what might be a gunfight, the sound quality on the opener is distant and muted and lacking any and all urgency. What’s supposed to sound like a shoot-out of such violence that it spills through the neighborhood and brings down the law ends up sounding like a bunch of children setting off fireworks and so scaring their elderly neighbors into calling the police. Good thrash should send you into a whirlwind flurry that ends with broken windows and bones; it shouldn’t settle to merely invite you with a halfhearted request.