It’s never easy for a band to replace a lead vocalist, let alone a much-loved metal band considered by many to be one of the greatest to come out of the late ’80s and early ’90s. That’s just the conundrum Brazilian metal pioneers Sepultura found themselves in when vocalist/guitarist/visionary Max Cavalera quit the band in late 1996. Up until then, Sepultura had emerged as one of the world’s greatest metal acts, a band whose continuing evolution always kept them one step ahead of the pack. After perfecting the more progressive side of thrash metal on the albums Beneath the Remains and Arise, they took a more stripped-down, aggro approach on 1993’s politically-charged Chaos A.D., and in 1996, released Roots, which not only combined metal with native Brazilian instrumentation (something that Cavalera would continue to do in subsequent years with Soulfly), but proceeded to become a pivotal recording in the burgeoning nu-metal genre. So when your singer takes off after releasing six pivotal albums, what the heck do you do?
Sepultura bravely decided to soldier on, replacing Cavalera with American vocalist Derrick Green, but much like when Blaze Bayley took over as singer for Iron Maiden in the mid-’90s, the resulting albums, while not awful by any stretch, were still nowhere near as great as their predecessors. Sepultura’s decline was noticeable, as their album sales paled in comparison to those of Cavalera’s Soulfly, and the nadir of their illustrious history had to have been when the band found themselves without an American record label after their 2001 album Nation. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to many that the band has returned in 2003 with their strongest effort in years.
Roorback may be their most consistent and energized album since Roots, but as nice as it is to see a band so revitalized, the new album is still a far cry from the Cavalera-era albums, as the band still finds themselves stuck in the same, grinding, nu-metal rut of tuned-down guitars and the usual, guttural, cookie cutter vocals that they’ve been in for years. However, Sepultura is a band who still knows how to transcend the limitations of that sludgy sound better than anyone, and on Roorback, they prove they’re more than capable of providing some thrilling moments on an album.
“Come Back Alive” is a superbly-crafted track, an explosive combination of those churning chords by guitarist Andreas Kisser and a breakneck beat provided by drummer Igor Cavalera. Both “Apes of God” and “Mind War” continue the relentless pace, while “Urge” and “As it Is” showcase the vocal range of Green, whose sinister growl proves that he can be a damn good vocalist when he wants to be. “Corruption” hints slightly at the band’s earlier work such as Arise, with its Slayer-esque intro, and “Leech” revisits the pure speed of the album’s opening track, as Green shows some real power in the chorus. As on all their albums in the past decade, there’s no shortage of political topics on Roorback, something best exemplified on “Activist”, as Kisser’s lyrics touch on society’s reluctance to fully embrace the left wing: “Our way of seeing progress/Making us walk towards repression.”
Sepultura’s most potent political statement, however, doesn’t come until the final bonus track, an audacious cover of U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky”. Originally released earlier this year on the all-covers Revolusongs EP (a Japanese-Brazilian release), one’s first thought of someone like Sepultura covering U2 would be to chuckle in amazement, but any doubt is immediately shoved aside by an absolutely searing performance. The song has always been U2’s most heavy-handed moment, and although it still to this day feels like an awkward fit on The Joshua Tree album, it’s actually better suited for the all-out bombast of metal. Igor Cavalera anchors the song with his thunderous drumming, Kisser puts his own stamp on The Edge’s original riffs, and Green is simply on fire, howling with more power than Bono could ever manage. I never thought I’d find myself saying this, but “Bullet the Blue Sky” is the best song Sepultura has recorded in a good seven years.
It’s doubtful that Sepultura will ever top their earlier albums, but with Roorback, they’ve now settled into a comfortable groove. The music’s nothing really new, but the fire is still there, even though it only flares up sporadically these days. Their best days may be behind them, but it’s clear that the passion is still there.