It's been a big year for Max Cavalera. Busy? Absolutely. Consistent? That's another story.
Every year the metal world gets its share of high profile reunions. 2008 has been no exception, as the highly touted return of death metal legends Carcass and At the Gates have dominated the summer. Yet with every new tour featuring a much-loved band from the past, there's one band metal fans want to see reunited more than any other: Sepultura. Ever since the venerable Brazilian band parted ways with vocalist/guitarist Max Cavalera in a highly acrimonious split in 1996, the two factions went their separate ways, Sepultura soldiering on, and Cavalera launching his band Soulfly. Over the last decade, while neither band has exactly embarrassed themselves, they haven't been breaking new ground either, as Sepultura has safely stayed the course after a decade of innovation, while Soulfly has come close to wearing out its welcome, each album a continuation of Sepultura's seminal mid-90s opus Roots, with few new ideas presented.
When Max Cavalera finally buried the hatchet with his brother, drummer Iggor Cavalera, who himself had split from Sepultura in 2006, it clearly re-lit that dwindling creative spark, as Max has gone on to enjoy a mighty busy 2008 with the release of a pair of heavily-hyped new albums a mere five months apart: Cavalera Conspiracy's debut album and Soulfly's sixth opus.
Sure, it's not a Sepultura reunion, but having Max and Iggor performing on record for the first time in a dozen years is as close as we'll ever get, and not only does Cavalera Conspiracy's Inflikted revisit the post-thrash sounds of 1993's Chaos A.D., but it manages to outshine anything Sepultura has put out in the last dozen years. Rounded out by Soulfly lead guitarist Marc Rizzo and, most impressively, Gojira frontman Joe Duplantier on bass and rhythm guitar, the band is as solid a metal supergroup as you'll ever come across, and the album's eleven tracks benefit hugely from the chemistry between the four musicians. Built around a discordant, mechanical guitar effect that practically screams Gojira, the title track's primal riffing provides an apt backdrop for Max's distinctive roar. Never one for subtlety, Max loves to pepper his lyrics with prodigious f-bombs, but as predictable as he is, the chorus of, "Inflikted / Show no mercy / Mothafuckin' wicked," is, well, just that: fuckin' wicked.
Elsewhere, the ferocious "Sanctuary" is carried entirely by Iggor's throttling beats and highlighted by an expressive solo by Rizzo, while "Terrorize" alternates between the monstrous groove of mid-'90s Sepultura and the blinding speed of the band's 1980s thrash beginnings. Rizzo, meanwhile, dominates "Hearts of Darkness", his clever lead fills punctuating Max's vocals. Top marks, though, go to the murky, impassioned "Bloodbrawl", which starts off as a punishing mosh pit-pleaser, but after two minutes segues into a mournful extended breakdown led by Rizzo (who is easily this album's unsung hero), eventually coming to a close with a shockingly tender outro of acoustic guitars. It's a perfect microcosm of the entire albu. It might be simple and straightforward in its approach, but it suits Max Cavalera to a tee, and he hasn't sounded this inspired in years.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Soulfly's Conquer. Though not as groundbreaking as Sepultura's monumental 1995 album Roots, Cavalera continued to blend world music and extreme metal quite well on Soulfly's first three albums. But as time has gone on, the band's eclectic nature, which was so fun early on, has given way to unimaginative songwriting. You can't listen to "Blood Fire War Hate" and Cavalera Conspiracy's "Inflikted" without noticing a startling difference in the songs' levels of energy. When a cameo by Morbid Angel's David Vincent can't save a song, you know you're in trouble. Soulfly simply sounds lethargic and on auto-pilot, mired in the boring, repetitive, down-tuned riffs of late-'90s nu-metal, as "Unleash" and the hardcore-tinged "Doom" are completely devoid of imagination. And when Cavalera tries to bring in that world elements back, like adding sitars to the otherwise powerful "Enemy Ghost", it all sounds hopelessly tacked on.
Mercifully, Cavalera rights the ship late in the album with a pair of epic tracks, as "For Those About to Rot", and the lumbering "Touching the Void" mark a return to what made Soulfly a brilliant band in the past, folk music meshing with metal, French dub artist Fedayi Pacha turning in a memorable cameo on the former track. As the predictably mellow coffee house instrumental "Soulfly VI" closes out the album, we can't help but wish Conquer had followed the lead of its two standout tracks instead of playing close to the vest. Thankfully, though, there's the massive Inflikted to fall back on, which is enough proof that Max Cavalera can still be a relevant metal artist when he wants to be.